Monday, July 29, 2013

Stop Once a Year Champagne Buying!

 Picture yourself on New Year’s eve at three in the afternoon, I know it’s early for such thinking, but bear with me. You will be heading to a party in about four hours and are obliged to pick up a bottle of Champagne and you know your host/hostess loves the Champagne with the yellow label, or perhaps the one with ornate flowers on the bottle. You may be doing this alongside a dozen other people looking for a Champagne with a yellow label, or perhaps they are looking for the one with the ornate flowers on the bottle.

Now go forward and ask one of the clerks where the Champagne is, suffer through while they wearily inquire as to if you want true Champagne from France or sparkling wine. They will be wearily asking this because they have spent the previous six hours providing "Sutter House / Barefeet California Moscato" to people asking for Champagne. Now if you specify true French Champagne, your eager salesperson’s eyes will light up, and then you may watch this brief moment of elation fade from said clerk’s face as you say, “I think it has a yellow label.” They will point you to the wine you seek, try and suggest a few other things you’ve never heard of on the way, and then slink back to the warehouse dejectedly when you depart with the same Champagne the last six customers that hour have left with. You’ll be out $50 and there’s a very good chance you’ll see at least one or two other bottles of the same wine at your party. But when midnight rolls around you get your 5oz of a fifty dollar bottle wine, you can continue to wonder what the fuss is about Champagne.

Don’t let this happen to you, for the love of god, don’t let it happen.

So why bring up this scenario in the dead heat of summer right around the beginning of August? Because this will give you plenty of time to try a handful of sparkling wines before December 31st, save some money in the long run, and enjoy a whole host of new wines.

The most interesting sparkling wine I’ve had recently is the one pictured above, Les Granges Paquenesses. It was a Brut Chardonnay cremant du Jura retailing for $20 and, in my opinion, vastly more delicious and interesting than the last Moet I had. This is not to say the Moet I had was bad, however, economically speaking, I would have been much happier with two bottles of Les Granges rather than one bottle of Moet. Like other main stream wine producers, big Champagne houses consistently make generally good quality wine from year to year and that is fine, although it also creates a problem. Consistency and the luxury image of each brand become more important than creating an interesting product at a reasonable price... hey, Aunt Jemima always tastes the same too.

Now since it is only the beginning of August, here’s your chance to find a really good sparkling wine that may not be immediately recognized at your New Year’s party. However, if you are more concerned with how you look walking in the door with a recognizable label, you needn't read further.

Step 1: Don’t think of sparkling wines as only a celebratory beverage, treat them like you would any other wine. Instead of waiting for a special occasion or meal, open your bottle of bubbly with a few friends on a weekend afternoon over grilled cheese. Try it with anything battered and fried, seriously, fried chicken and Cava for example; bubbles are a great way to lighten up fat in food. Open a bottle of drier style Lambrusco with grill pizza after mowing the lawn, it’s damn refreshing. (Although she enjoys Lambrusco, Beth says she is happy not to have to mow the lawn now that we live in an apartment.)

Step 2: Try a few different price points, places, and styles. When sparkling wine comes from parts of France that aren’t Champagne you will often see them labeled as Cremant du Jura, Cremant d’Alsace, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de... you get the idea. There are lightly sparkling wines from Italy labeled frizzante that don’t have the full carbonation of regular bubblies; one example is Garofoli’s Guelfo Verde which is topped with a beer bottle top and blends local verdicchio with better-known chardonnay. Or stick with Champagne, but ask whoever you trust locally for wine selection about “Grower Champagnes.”

Step 3: Keep an open mind. Try sparkling wines from places you’ve never heard of, perhaps grapes you’ve never heard of as well. Try them in colors you’ve never tasted before, they come in white, red, and rose with each of these colors having both dry and sweet versions. And don’t write off all the dry ones or all the sweet ones because you think you don’t like dry or sweet wine.

In this world of craft beer, farm to table restaurants, and local farmer’s markets maybe it couldn't hurt to approach bubbly with a similar approach. After all, Francois Chidaine’s Sparkling wine from Montlouis is produced in quantities of fewer than 8000 cases a year and many of Theirry Theise’s Grower Champagnes don’t make more than 5,000 - 6,000 per year. With the big Champagne houses making quantities of wine in the range of 500,000 - 2,000,000 cases of wine a year, they won’t go hungry if you try some smaller producers or lesser known sparkling wines.

Now go forth and explore!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Taste What's in the Glass

Perception is a curiously influencing factor in the wide world of fermented beverage. Last weekend I was pouring wine for a few hours in a not unbiased way, that is to say, as a sales representative for LVDH Vignobles at Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits, hoping to make a few sales. Though I was there in a sales capacity (man’s gotta eat) I wanted to make sure that those people who were tasting enjoyed these new wines or were, at the very least, able to glean a little knowledge. It was fun conversing with people about what I was pouring and other wines they enjoyed - although hearing one customer talk about his experience with southern French reds and 8 hour lamb was sufficient to cause great hunger. The wine was an everyday, easy drinking sort of fare for those looking for a casual Saturday afternoon tasting.  Stylistically each bottle was straightforward and relatively mainstream; Chateau du Barail Bordeaux Blanc, Piqnique sauvignon blanc from California, Estacion cabernet sauvignon of Chile, and Lionel Osmin’s Cahors malbec were the culprits there to lubricate conversation and relax the afternoon.

What gave me second thoughts before even pulling any of the corks was the malbec. Malbec is most popularly from Argentina and at best falls into one of two categories: cheap, fruity, and easy or full bodied and well structured. Although frequently the focus is lost between the two and the wine is done in a heavy handed, over-oaked and rather coarse sort of way; the most egregious southern hemisphere example of the wine that I have found was improved by the addition of Pabst Blue Ribbon in roughly equal proportions to ameliorate the quality of the wine. Now, that is not to say Argentina lacks the ability to produce great wine, it is only to suggest that the ever ambiguous notion of ‘terroir’ seems to have yet be realized.

Though I think it would be a wise idea to return to my original thought.

The malbec I was pouring was from the town of Cahors in the Lot department of France, a town where malbec has played a role for most likely hundreds of years, but has served as a verifiable base grape for the region from at least the early 1970’s. So in trying to inform, I mentioned to the customers that Cahors, and more specifically France, was home to the malbec that was now so famously from Argentina. In doing so I began to wonder if I was enhancing their wine drinking experience or detracting from it.

By saying the wine is malbec I am drawing on their experience with malbec, both positive and negative, and creating a bias. By then telling them it is French it creates another bias. Does this person already have a firmly formed opinion about the wines of France? Do they already think they hate all malbec? Do they hate malbec, but love French wine thus creating a confusing prejudice? Even as a professional I am not above bias. If there are two chardonnays placed in front of me and I find that one is Californian and one is Burgundian I already have an inclination away from the Californian bottle based on the inexhaustible number of experiences I’ve had with terrible chardonnay from California, but I will do my best to keep an open mind. This also means I will be a little more lenient with the Burgundian bottle as far as quality to price goes.

Is this preconception fair? No. But acknowledging it is a step in the right direction to allowing myself potentially more enjoyment of the wine before me. Retailers, sommeliers, and serious wine fans everywhere hear all too frequently preconceptions (and misconceptions) like, “All riesling (or rose) is sweet,” or “All French wine is expensive,” or “They don’t have any laws in ::insert any foreign country here:: and they can put anything into their wine.”

So I return to the best advice I have ever heard, “Taste what’s in the glass, not in your head.” Step back for a moment and don’t think about what you already think you know, think about what you are trying right then and there. I’ll try to do the same.

Credit might be owed to Paul Grieco on that quote, I can’t quite remember, either way it is good advice.