A Champagne Primer for the Holidays

champagneWe’ll soon be kicking off the holiday season, and what better way to celebrate than with something bubbly. To help you prepare for festive gatherings with family and friends, I share with you this champagne primer from the Whole Foods Market® blog (wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/whole-story):

Champagne or Sparkling Wine? Just as some wines and cheeses are only produced in a specific geographic area, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be officially labeled “Champagne.” Other European countries use other names for the sparkling wine they produce: Cava in Spain, Prosecco, Asti or Spumante in Italy and Sekt in Germany. Bubblies from California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the several wine-producing countries of South America are generally referred to as sparkling wine or sparklers.

For What Price? Yes, champagne can be expensive. Is it worth the extra money over sparkling wines from other countries? Some say “yes” and others “no.” Yet, there’s really no right or wrong answer here—it’s truly a personal choice. Many of these sparkling wines rival true champagne in taste and complexity and may be a better value.

What Makes Champagne Bubbly? Unless there is specific terminology on the bottle, all champagne and most domestic sparklers are comprised of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the less often used varietal Pinot Meunier. The bubbles are created through a process called “secondary fermentation,” which means they make regular wine first and then re-ferment it with yeast left in the bottle (which is filtered out later). This is why you’ll often get a fresh baked bread aroma from bubbly. Most bubblies are non-vintage or “NV,” meaning they are created from a blend of wine vintages.

How Do I Choose? Here are a few basic terms that are used on both champagnes and sparkling wines. These should help narrow your search to match your taste preferences.

  • Brut: The driest one, but not to be confused with “Extra Dry,” which, ironically, is not as dry as Brut. Brut is the most food-friendly of champagnes. The smoky, salty nature of caviar makes for a classic match. For everyday occasions, try potato latkes and sour cream or any number of salty tidbits.
  • Extra Dry: A touch of fruity sweetness but finishes on a dry note. These are quite versatile and can be served as an apéritif or after dinner. They’re more or less in the middle of the spectrum.
  • Sec: Next in line for dryness, but you don’t see it very often.
  • Demi-sec: The most residual sugar of the bunch (outside of Doux, which is rare). This is the ultimate dessert wine and, perhaps, the most romantic of the bunch. Never sweet in a cloying way, these have a caramelized quality that is absolutely delicious. Avoid pairing these with fare that is sweeter than the wine, as the bubbly will come off harsh and dry. Fresh fruit works best.
  • Blanc de Blanc: This bubbly is made from 100% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape lends sparkling wine its toasty, nutty and rich quality.
  • Blanc de Noir: This bubbly is made from mostly Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir grape gives it the refreshing, fruit driven, citrus quality.

Bubbly Add-Ins. Once you’ve chosen your bottle, here are a few suggested add-ins for customized cocktails. Consider offering the entire selection at your party so guests can choose their favorite flavors.

  • Candied ginger
  • Pomegranate juice and seeds
  • Berries, muddled with mint
  • Orange or grapefruit juice with a twist
  • Sugared cranberries with a sugar- and black-pepper rimmed glass

Whatever you’re toasting with, cheers to the holidays!

Wines That Entertain for the Holidays

turkey-dinner-with-wineReady or not, the holidays will soon be upon us again—bringing with them all the joy and anxiety that the season is known for. When it comes to entertaining, however, you needn’t stress over what wines to serve. From my years of research on the topic, I share with you the following suggestions that I hope will make your holiday gatherings fun and hassle-free.

Informal entertaining: There was a time when Chardonnay seemed to be the universal white wine, but since I’m not much of a Chardonnay fan, some other pleasing alternatives are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Two of my favorite budget-friendly options are Rex Goliath Pinot Grigio—bright citrus and lemon-lime aromas with layers of fresh stone fruit, sprinkled with intense floral and lavender notes—and Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with flavors of Meyer lemons and Key limes with hints of grapefruit, gooseberry and citrus. Both are under $10 and versatile enough to serve with a variety of hors d’oeuvres and entrées.

I have found Castle Rock’s Pinot Noir, offering aromas of cherry, tea and herbal spice, to be consistently good no matter what the vintage. It ranges in price from $9 – $11. The folks at Triangle Wine Company have also introduced me to some superb Spanish reds. One such pick is Borsao Tres Picos, about $12 on sale. It’s 100% Grenache with concentrated flavors of blackberries, strawberries and nuances of leather, vanilla and plums.

Kicking off the festivities: Nothing exudes merriment like a bottle of bubbly. Champagnes and sparkling wines are a fine companion to salty appetizers (think caviar or oysters). Of course I love Champagne –my splurge is Perrier-Jouët Fleur De Champagne— but I have a few other effervescent choices that are gentler on my wallet: Mionetto Prosecco Brut DOC-Treviso, with aromas of golden apples and a hint of white peach, costs about $11; and under-$10-a-bottle Freixenet Cordon Negro, a medium-bodied Spanish Cava, has a palate of apple, pear and bright citrus flavors with a crisp touch of ginger.

Main course whites: If you’re drinking white wine with your main course at this time of the year, chances are you’re eating turkey. I typically pair my holiday bird with Gewürztraminer, but to shake things up a bit why not try a spicy/peppery Grüner Veltliner from Austria? One that I’m looking forward to trying is Loimer’s Kamptal DAC Grüner Veltliner. Flavors of wood smoke and white pepper, with touches of apple and citrus, make this full-bodied and satisfying. Sells for about $17.

Main course reds: Beaujolais Nouveau arrives from France each year just in time for Thanksgiving but personally, I’d opt instead for a bottle of 2009 Beaujolais. This is the vintage that 77-year-old Georges Duboeuf called “the vintage of a lifetime.” Deboeuf’s 2009 Morgon Descombes displays layers of black cherry, raspberry ganache and tea rose flavors, with a spicy thread running through the wine. At $20 a bottle, it’s an excellent value.

Luscious dessert wines: One of the most harmonious wine and food pairings I ever had was an orange muscat with pumpkin pie. Sobon’s Orange Muscat Rezerve ($15) is an exquisite dessert wine with flavors of lush, tropical orange-vanilla and rich cream. Another of my preferred sweet whites is St. Supery’s Moscato ($16 – $20), with flavors of kiwi and mango, a hint of honey dew, stone fruit and a zippy orange rind finish. For red wine drinkers, Banfi’s Rosa Regale ($17) is a classic sparkling red wine whose bright fresh berry flavors complement chocolate-based desserts, fresh fruit and pecan pie. Any of these would make a splendid finale to your holiday celebration.

Wine’s winter wonderland

http://www.virtualme.bizEating and drinking in season is nothing new when talking about making the most of the plentiful produce in the peak of summer, but the concept can — and should — carry over to cooler months as well.

Wouldn’t you rather have a warm bowl of butternut squash soup than a BLT with pathetically green, under-ripe tomatoes? When the city is frozen over, doesn’t a hearty serving of deeply flavorful braised beef short ribs sound more appealing than a light, citrusy ceviche? Of course it does.

On a cold day, choosing just the right wine can be every bit as pleasing as warming yourself up with soul-satisfying comfort food. In the Winter 2011 issue of Wake Living Magazine, Jeff Bramwell, co-owner of The Raleigh Wine Shop, offers a few of his favorite bottles to uncork while cool weather prevails.

Perfect pairings

The wines of Burgundy, both red and white, seem to be at their best throughout the holiday season. Whether it’s the archetype of Chardonnay paired with Thanksgiving dinner or roast chicken and root vegetables, or the pinnacle of elegant Pinot Noir matched with a slow-roasted bone-in ham, these wines have a unique ability to enhance an already special time of year.

Other popular mid-winter classics like pot roast, meatloaf and pork tenderloin are great excuses to reach for the bold, spicy Grenache- and Syrah-based wines from the Rhone Valley in France, or big, structured reds from California.

Malbec from Argentina — one of the most popular wines over the past few years — would be equally at home with any of these dishes, but there’s another South American specialty that deserves your attention: Carmenere. This almost-forgotten Bordeaux varietal made its way to Chile more than 100 years ago, though until the mid-1990s it was thought to be an especially flavorful expression of Merlot.

Carmenere is a difficult grape to get right because it can be plagued with under-ripe green bell pepper aromas, but at its best it has tons of character and offers great value, much like its more well-known Argentine counterpart. Bramwell says he’s a particularly big fan of the Terra Noble Gran Reserva, which is akin to some of the far more expensive wines from this grape’s original home.

Solo sipping

Not every wine needs to be enjoyed with food, however. Sometimes there’s nothing cozier than curling up with a glass of wine by the fireplace. The ideal wine for such an occasion is Amarone from the Valpolicella growing area in northeastern Italy. This unique wine typically is made from a trio of red grapes that are allowed to partially dry out on straw mats prior to fermentation. By decreasing the water content of the grape, the resulting wine has an incredible richness, fairly viscous texture and flavors of plums, figs, dried cherries, and cloves.

For a more wallet-friendly version of this luxurious wine, try a Valpolicella Ripasso, which is made in the same region using the same grapes. In crafting Ripasso, winemakers take the used grape skins from the production of Amarone and combine them with their basic Valpolicella, introducing some of its richness to the blend in the process. With their silky textures and hearty, warming flavors, Bramwell says he can’t think of a better way to drink during cold winter nights. Come to think of it, neither can I!

What are your favorite winter wines?  I look forward to hearing your recommendations.


Vivacious vino


Italian wines, like those produced at vineyards near Soave, are a delight for fall.

With fall in full gear and winter just around the corner, now is a great time to enjoy some medium- to full-flavored whites before transitioning into heavy wintertime cuisine and the hearty reds that match it.

With so many wine drinkers moving away from heavy-handed, buttery Chardonnay these days, it’s prime time to dig in and enjoy some of the world’s most overlooked yet delicious wines: whites from Italy.

The country is well-documented as one of the world’s great suppliers of reds, from simple and fruity Montepulciano and Chianti to complex and age-worthy Barbaresco, Barolo, and Brunello. But when it comes to Italy’s whites, most wine drinkers’ experiences begin and end with Pinot Grigio. There’s nothing wrong with this workhorse wine, but it’s also far from the most compelling white grape that Italy has to offer. Thousands of grape varieties are grown here, with a handful that stand out from the pack.

Great Garganega

From the Veneto in the northeast — the same region that yields a vast majority of Pinot Grigio — a grape called Garganega is the main component of the wines of Soave. Long known as a wine of poor quality and questionable provenance, Soave typically was found gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the grocery store’s Italian section. But real-deal, high-quality Soave has experienced a resurgence lately and can be found at a reasonable price.

This type of wine comes in a variety of styles, from light and fresh to a riper, more sturdy style that can stand up to a bit of oak aging. While there’s no risk that it’ll ever replace Chardonnay in the wine hierarchy, this bigger side of Soave is a good starting point for fans of full-bodied whites.

Read the full article here.

Summer sipping


There are several excellent wines made at Tablas Creek Vineyard, located in Paso Robles, California.

Summertime wine drinking provides plenty of opportunities for a diverse range of selections. The heat of North Carolina’s summers almost demands light, crisp, refreshing whites, but the indispensible grilling favorites of burgers, ribs, and steak offers a chance to crack open some big, robust reds as well.

Here, Jeff Bramwell, co-owner of The Raleigh Wine Shop, shares a few of his favorite sources for wines of each style.

The garden of France
France’s Loire Valley, known for its beautiful scenery and a magnificent range of top-notch produce, yields a tremendous amount of summer-friendly wines. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the quality leaders for the area’s Sauvignon Blanc-based wines, with chalky and smoky aromas lending unique qualities to each wine. But the grape also does well in several of Loire’s more wallet-friendly sub-appellations, almost always exhibiting fresh acidity, lemony flavors and a subtle herbaceousness that adds a nice complexity. These wines form a natural pairing with fresh young cheeses, vegetarian dishes, shellfish and other light fare.

Chenin Blanc-based wines from Vouvray dial back the brightness, with a tinge of honeyed richness combined with a hint of sweetness. While not nearly as sweet, these are good as a grown-up alternative to sweet tea and work well with fried chicken and spicy shrimp tacos. Drier styles of Vouvray — and its more obscure neighbor, Montlouis — are more ideally suited to flaky white fish.

Fresh and minerally Muscadet, grown near the Atlantic Ocean and made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, remains a popular choice to pair with oysters, as the briny flavors of the oyster are echoed slightly in the wine.

Loire produces some of the lightest, freshest rosés available, which are ideal for casual sipping or pairing with salads and light appetizers. Those looking for a red that won’t weigh down the palate should try the region’s herbal and subtly meaty Cabernet Franc-based wines with grilled sausage and peppers for a change of pace.

Surprisingly diverse
Last October, Bramwell spent a week exploring the wine regions of California’s Central Coast. This is a large area that produces a range of wines, from some of the state’s most elegant, understated Chardonnay and cherry-scented Pinot Noir to full-throttle, no-holds-barred Cabernet, Syrah, and Zinfandel.

The region’s crown jewel is Paso Robles, an area that he freely admits to pigeonholing as producing almost exclusively dense, saturated reds along with a handful of underrated whites. After a visit, though, Bramwell says it was clear that it wouldn’t be that easily generalized. Rolling hills on the western part of town allow for the creation of character-filled Cabernet, Grenache, Syrah and Zinfandel, while the flatter land on the east side of town yields a large amount of fruit that’s destined for more affordable, mass-market wines.

Climate plays a major role in shaping the way a wine will taste, and there’s no denying that Paso Robles is warm. But this doesn’t mean that the fruit there is overripe and roasted. In fact, Bramwell tasted several excellent wines at Tablas Creek Vineyard — a joint venture involving Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape — that were surprisingly restrained and balanced, even elegant. These go well with grilled chicken or pork chops.

While Paso Robles wines aren’t as heavily represented as those from Napa and Sonoma — their more famous neighbors to the north —  they nonetheless can offer some great drinking, and they often present better value. Be sure to check these out the next time you fire up the grill.

Jeff Bramwell is co-owner of The Raleigh Wine Shop, located at 126 Glenwood Ave. in downtown Raleigh. To learn more, call (919) 803-5473 or e-mail jeff@theraleighwineshop.com.