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!

Page-turners for wine lovers in your life

curious_world_of_wineIt’s a good vintage for wine books this year, with something for every wine lover on your list. Here are a few sure winners, as recommended by one of my favorite wine columnists, Catherine Rabb:

How to Love Wine: A Memoir and a Manifesto, by Eric Asimov (William Morrow, $24.99).

A big Asimov fan, I bought this before its release date and was glad I did. It’s terrific. Asimov writes about wine thoughtfully and clearly, and his comments just make sense to me. I read Asimov when I need grounding after getting caught up in the wine whirlwind.

This is the book I would give without hesitation to anyone who loves wine. It delivers what the title says, inspiring both the new wine drinker and the seasoned wine pro.

The Curious World of Wine, by Richard Vine (Perigee, $20).

This is perfect for lovers of fun facts and trivia. Brimming with great snippets, stories and quotes, it’s an easy and very entertaining read. A copy of this and a wine trivia game would be perfect for the cork dork in your life.

The New York Times Book of Wine: More Than 30 years of Vintage Writing, edited by Howard G. Goldberg (Sterling Epicure, $24.95).

This is a collection of essays and articles from the wonderful writers at the Times. I laughed out loud, cried a little, learned a great deal. Reading it is a bit like re-living the last 30 years of the explosive growth in the world of wine.

Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (Ecco, $175).

This is a big book, in every sense of the word – with 1,280 pages, it weighs about 7 pounds according to my bathroom scale and it is pricey. And yet, it’s a must-own for the serious wine lover, a meticulously researched book that will likely be the definitive work in this field for decades. Your wine lover might also enjoy a year’s subscription to Robinson’s Purple Pages, which also includes online access to her classic book, “The Oxford Companion to Wine.” Get details at www.jancisrobinson.com.

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.


Red wines worth a try

This is a follow-up to my July 23 post, where I blogged about Catherine Rabb’s white wine suggestions for readers who wanted to try something new. Now it’s time to give less-familiar red wines a turn.

We’re all familiar with cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot and shiraz, but there are hundreds of other grape varieties begging for attention.

Nero d’ Avola: This indigenous Italian variety has experienced a renaissance in Sicily. With dark berry flavors, the wine will appeal to malbec drinkers. Nero d’Avola is terrific partner for just about any pizza crust and topping combination.

Carmenere: One of the traditional red grapes of France, it has flourished in Chile. Confused with merlot originally, it has an interesting edge of spiciness that many merlots don’t, and it is becoming quite popular.

Mourvedre/Monastrell: Traditionally grown in both France (Mourvedre) and Spain (Monastrell), this sun-loving variety produces tannic, spicy and complex wines.

Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/09/18/1493731/red-wines-worth-a-try.html#ixzz1Yt8rf5IP

For summer, pretty — and flavorful — in pink

http://www.virtualme.bizIt’s time to celebrate summer. What better way than with a glass of pink wine?

Head to your local wine shop and gather an armload of pretty rosés. Revel in the colors, ranging from palest salmon to petal pink to almost vibrant fuchsia. A refreshing glass of one of these crisp, delicate wines is like summer in a bottle.

Rosé can be made from almost any type of red grape, which makes for lots of styles and colors. It’s fun to experiment with rosés from pinot noir, malbec, grenache and even cabernet sauvignon.

When making wine, all the color comes from the skin. Often, a rosé wine is made by letting the skins stay in contact with the grape juice just a short time. In other cases, juice is removed from a red-wine fermentation. The juice makes a pretty pink rosé and leaves the red wine with more concentration and power — kind of a win-wine situation.

During the cooler months, rosés are all but forgotten, but summer is another story. In lots of countries, drinking rosé is a warm-weather ritual, particularly in the vacation-friendly areas in the South of France and coastal Spain. Cool, dry and refreshing with delicate flavors of tart red fruit and citrus, they are adored for their food-friendliness and easy drinking qualities. Like a white, they are thirst-quenching, but like their red parents, they have interesting aromas and flavors.

Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/06/19/1282057/for-summer-pretty-and-flavorful.html#ixzz1RuCjnUZj

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.