Bright Wines for the Season

May Your Holidays Be Sparkling and Bright

As you know, wine journalists constantly receive sample bottles from wineries and their public relations firms, hoping for a favorable writeup.  And every year, just as the holiday season starts, we are deluged with extra-heavy boxes containing extra-heavy bottles of sparkling wine.  That’s because, aside from their traditional role in all our celebrations, they’re excellent choices to accompany holiday cuisine.  The wide range of flavors and textures in Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts pose quite a food pairing challenge, and sparklers can usually solve the puzzle in the most delightful way.  I truly believe that sparkling whites and rosés can complement just about any kind of dish.

The range of choices in sparkling wine can be a bit bewildering.  First, of course, is Champagne, which must come from the legally-designated Champagne region of France.  It’s made by blending up to three varietals (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meuniere) from dozens of vineyards and vintages, adding sugar and yeast to induce secondary fermentation in the bottle so the released carbon dioxide goes into the liquid and makes the bubbles, , disgorging the dead yeast cells, cellaring for years sometimes…it just goes on and on.

Other sparkling wines can be made this way, but must be called something else.  And sparklers can also be made with the charmat method, where the grapes are fermented in airtight tanks.  The CO2 can’t escape, so it goes into the liquid and bubbles happen.  There are several other methods, as well.

Then we have to deal with the levels of sweetness that the labels indicate…and also the composition of the blend.  For example, “brut” is a dry wine made from blending the three grapes mentioned above.  “Blanc de blancs” is made from 100% Chardonnay, “Blanc de noirs” from all Pinot Noir, and rosé from a blend of the white and red wines.

If it says “brut” on the label, it is the driest wine, with the least sugar.  Then in order of increasing sugar content, comes “extra sec,” “sec,” “demi-sec,” and “doux,” which is the sweetest.  I’d recommend the brut to accompany most holiday meals.

Next, consider where the wines are made.  “Cava” is a sparkling wine from Spain.  Prosecco, mainly made in northern Italy, is enjoying tremendous popularity these days.  And if the label says “crémant,” you’re looking at a French wine that’s made only in certain regions of that country.  A bit less effervescent than Champagne, they are an excellent (more budget-priced) alternative.

But don’t overlook American sparklers.  Fine examples are made in California, some by wineries under French ownership.  Wineries in Oregon and even Vermont and New Mexico are producing first-rate versions that will enhance your holiday repasts.

So get ready to pop your cork with some of our favorite selections.  Here’s to you!

Moet & Chandon Champagne Grand Vintage 2012 ($75) – My go-to wine for Thanksgiving has always been Champagne.  It goes with every type of food, including the amazing mix of flavors on your holiday dinner plate.  White flowers on the nose, with walnut, peach and pear.  The palate treats you to tangy acidity, bright citrus and grapefruit.  WW 95

Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace NV ($16) –This attractive sparkling rosé, made in the traditional Champagne method, is 100% Pinot Noir and delivers rich strawberry and cherry flavors with a vein of snappy acidity and a moderately creamy texture.  WW 88

Adami “Garbel” Prosecco Brut Treviso NV  ($16) – A good entry-level introduction to this increasingly popular type of wine made in Northern Italy from the Glera grape.  Very crisp in texture, brimming with flavors of yellow apple, melon, and a bit of pear.  Nicely balanced.  WW 87

Bruno Paillard Champagne Premiere CuveéFrance ($50) – Made from the three traditional Champagne grapes, this cuveéis blended from 25 past vintages and aged on the lees for three years.  This results in a nose of heady citrus from the Chardonnay, and a palate of red fruits like currant and raspberry from the 45% Pinot Noir, plus characteristic notes of toast and almonds.  Very lively.  WW 92

Ask the Wine Whisperer
About those sparklers.  I’ve heard a lot about “’pet-nat” wines lately.  What does that mean? – Rory R., Charlottesville VA

“Pétillant naturel” wines finish in the bottle, just like traditional Champagnes, but without the addition of sugar and yeast for the secondary fermentation.  It’s much more cost-efficient, and produces some excellent wines at more sensible prices.

Light and Bright for Warm Weather Sipping


Well, it’s that time of year again…when delightfully cool mornings give way to toasty warm and wet weather all the way through October.  That means we have to shift our habits of wine enjoyment a bit, because in general, big heavy reds and mouthfilling whites aren’t all that refreshing when it’s 95 degrees out around the pool.

So this is when we start searching for lighter refreshment and lighter-bodied wines…but still with the complex flavors and aromas that make it all so much fun.  Once in a while, we can head for the bold varietals when we’re cooking up that big dinner…and we definitely grab those bottles of Zinfandel for our Saturday barbecue out on the patio.  But casual times call for bright, exhilarating flavors and textures — wines that tickle our teeth and please our palates without being weighty or cloying.

Fortunately, we have a lot of choices.  First, of course, are the zippy whites, like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, dry Rieslings, and others.  Rosés are becoming more popular by the hour, especially since they can be made in an enormous range of styles from just about any red grape.  And then there are the sparklers, especially Prosecco.  Sales of this bracing white from northern Italy grew over 21% last year, and there’s no end in sight.  Industry professionals believe that the increased popularity is because Prosecco is lighter and sweeter than Champagne, which attracts many consumers.  There are so many sparklers and rosés that offer a pure, satisfying experience.  They have the complexity on the nose and palate that earn them a place on our summer sipper list.

Masottina Prosecco Treviso Brut NV ($12)
Delicate light yellow color, with very fine sparkle, there are layers of lemon, pear, mandarin oranges, and green apple flavors.  This one goes on the summer sipper list, too.  Quite refreshing.  WW 85

Torresella Prosecco Extra Dry Veneto NV ($17)
Pronounced sleek minerality arises from the glass with a palate of sleek peach and a delightful creamy mouthfeel.  Quite fine, and a good value.  WW 87

Inman Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir Sonoma 2018 ($29)
Pale blush color is a clue to a lighter-bodied rosé which is expected, since it’s made from Pinot Noir.  The nose evokes sensations of bright pink flowers, with flavors of tiny wild strawberries.  Very fresh on the palate and nicely balanced.  WW 88

Alois Lageder Haberle Pinot Bianco Alto Adige 2017 ($20)
Another wine to add to your summer sipper list.  Bright juicy flavors of pear, apple, and peach on a lively frame of acidity.  WW 86

Beckmen Vineyards Grenache Rosé Purisima Mountain Vineyard 2018 ($25)
Pleasing salmon pink in the glass with refined aromas of white strawberry and pink flowers.  A bit sweet, with bright juicy hints of strawberry, watermelon, and tropical fruit.  WW 88

District 7 Chardonnay Monterey 2017 ($18)
Lively pear, oak, and vanilla aromas are up front, followed by harmonious flavors of peach and apricot.  Excellent summer sipper.  WW 89

Dutton Goldfield Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Redwood Ridge 2015 ($62) – This Pinot is deep and opaque in the glass, unlike most others.  A symphony of Old World aromas rises from the glass:  earth, tobacco, licorice, and leather.  The fruit flavors chime in with cherry, raspberry, and maybe even some black tea.  Not your everyday Pinot Noir.  Give it time to open.  WW 91

Ask the Wine Whisperer
What is the difference between wines aged in French oak or American oak? – Jena W., Tallahassee

The differences can be quite pronounced, depending on how long the winemaker leaves the liquid in contact with the wood, whether the barrels are new or have been used once or twice, and the barrels’ sizes.  But in general, American oak has a looser grain and imparts richer, more intense flavors.  French oak, being tighter-grained, imparts flavors that are more subtle.  Also, winemakers often age wines in a combination of new and old, French and American oak.  It’s not unusual to see a tasting note that says, “Aged 30% in new American oak.”  The other 60% might be French or American barrels that have been used once or twice.

A new look at an old favorite

What’s Your Favorite Wine?

I’ve written in the past that people who become passionate about wine (maybe not to the point where they become wine writers and educators, but…) have had an epiphany somewhere along the way.  Someone pours you a glass of something, you taste it, and say, “Holy moley, I never knew anything could taste like that.”  For wife Debi and me, it was a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.  I did write an article about this (favorite) varietal about two years ago, but something just happened that gave me a new perspective, and drove me (and you, I hope) back to this delicious wine.

I was introduced to Laura Díaz Muñoz, who just completed her first vintage as winemaker at Ehlers Estate in Napa.  She developed her unique perspective on this varietal during her experience over the last decade, and since just about every winemaker has their own personal signature wine, this one is hers.

Laura’s winemaking philosophy is very much Old World, since she was born in Spain and earned a master’s degree in enology and viticulture.  She has experience working in wineries in Spain, New Zealand and eventually the Napa Valley, and brings that sensibility to the way she crafts her Sauvignon Blanc.  “After earning my degree,” she told me, “I worked with Sauvignon Blanc in Spain, then worked several harvests in New Zealand.  But I was very interested in the varietal right from the start of my career.”

She says, “Sauvignon Blanc is the most difficult fine wine to make. When I first started as a winemaker it gave me nightmares, because there is no room for error.  It requires perfect farming and is very sensitive to heat and lack of water.”

Another critical factor:  the nose.  Laura maintains “I want to get all the aromatics I can from the varietal.  We pick the grapes early to preserve the acidity, then we look for the notes of herbs and yellow flowers.”  She goes on to explain, “In the winery, it can quickly lose its aromatics or develop off flavors.  When made with care, with respect for the varietal and where it’s from, it can be beautifully expressive.”

So…here are some thoughts on her unique version, plus several new favorites.

Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($32)
This is a super-dry version of a very popular varietal, with teeth-tickling acidity and rich floral aromas and flavors.  You’ll sense orange and lemon, along with the pineapple notes that are characteristic of this varietal.  The grapefruit and citrus sensations persist on the long finish.  WW 93

Saldo Zinfandel Oakville 2016 ($28)
An explosion of concentrated fruit aromas, mostly cherry and some cigar.  Deep mixed red fruit on the palate with a creamy mouthfeel and long finish.  Mostly Zinfandel, with 15% Petite Sirah and Syrah.  Definitely a solo sipping wine.  WW 88-89

The Kinker Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2016 ($20)
Hedonistic aromas of smoke and cedar from the 14 months in oak.  Flavors of black cherry and blackberry are nicely balanced by the medium tannin levels.  A touch of Petite Sirah and Grenache makes this a lot of wine for the money.  WW 92

Domaine Lafage Centenaire Grenache Blanc Côtes du Roussillon 2015 ($13)Luscious ripe pear and almond aromas waft from the glass and pay off on the palate with notes of white peach.  Smooth and round mouthfeel.  Terrific value.  WW 91

Ryder Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast 2016 ($15)
A lot of dimension here, with complex aromas of leather, dark cherry, and smoke.  Medium light tannins support mixed cherry and berry flavors.  Ideal for everyday enjoyment.  WW 86

Let’s go, Teroldego

It’s no secret that Americans love Italian wines.  Since we spend so much time in Italian restaurants, and since we love the cuisine, it’s only natural that we usually reach for a bottle of Chianti or something similar to complement our meals.

And it’s also no secret that Chianti and the surrounding regions are the wine regions best known to most of us.  There, and perhaps the Piedmont area where those tasty Barolos and Barberas come from.

Okay, and maybe we’ll be surprised by a bottle of some yummy red like Corvina from the Veneto, the area west and north of Venice.  Well, it’s time to expand our Italian horizons…just a little bit.

First, as I may have mentioned in the past, Italy is the only country in the world where wine is made in every single region.  There are between 17 and 18 regions (depending how you count them) which means that places like Sicily, Apulia, and even Sardinia deserve some attention.  There are discoveries to be made.

A recent revelation is a red wine called Teroldego, which is mainly grown in the Dolomites, the mountains due north of Venice by about 150 miles.  In fact, the region is closer to Austria than to Italy.

Anyway, this is a charming medium-bodied red with soft tannins and flavors of dark berry fruits, like wild cherry, cassis, and blueberry.  In a way it’s a bit like a Shiraz that doesn’t smack you in the face.  It’s softer, rounder, and much more subtle.  One of the new standouts among Teroldego winemakers is Elisabetta Foradori, so look for that name on the label.  It’s a new favorite at our house.

Like most forms of life, grapes can become extinct.  People stop cultivating them and they just sort of go away.  One of those is a red called Piculit Neri, but it’s making a comeback thanks to one single dedicated (obsessed?) winemaker named Emilio Bulfon.  He rediscovered this ancient varietal, and I’m glad he did.  He has also revived other varietals and is actively promoting them.  The wine has flavors of wild berries, with hints of smoke and vanilla.  You might also sense some herbaceous notes.  It’s a bit tannic, which makes it an excellent match for meat dishes and some poultry.

Back to the Teroldego.  Here’s our recommendation, along with some other favorites.

Foradori Teroldego Vignetti Delle Dolomite 2014 ($24)
The deep garnet color in the glass promises richness on the palate with an unmistakably Italian nose of sweet black fruit, red flowers, and hints of earth.  The wine is very round and soft on the palate, with no clinging tannins.  There is warm dark cherry, and a persistent finish that goes on and on.  We bought a case of it.  WW 94

Chateau Montelena Zinfandel Calistoga 2015 ($39) – While this winery is best known for its Chardonnay, the Zin is definitely worth a try.  Very true to type, with smoke, bramble, chocolate and wood notes nicely balanced by bold black fruit flavors.  WW 90

Bruno Paillard Champagne NV $50 – A premiere example of what Champagne is supposed to be.  Drinks above its price point. Fine mousse, with tangy notes of minerals and lemon  We finished the whole bottle.  WW 94

Lucas & Lewellen Hidden Asset Red Blend Santa Barbara 2016 ($29) — An interesting mélange of Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and a few other varietals, the 16 months of oak aging imparts complex flavors of red and black raspberry, spice, and currant.  Tannins are lush and rounded, for a lingering finish.  WW 92

Exciting new food and wine pairings

How About Some Champagne – and Pasta?

Every year, as the holidays approach, I’m always asked what kind of wines to pair with festive dinners. Thanksgiving is a special puzzle, because the traditional dishes are all over the place in terms of flavors, textures, and sweetness. The green bean casserole has cream and mushrooms, the cranberry sauce is tart, the sweet potatoes are…well, you know. So my answer is generally Champagne or other sparkling wines because they seem to go with just about every type of food and flavor.

Recently, I received a suggestion about pairing Champagne with…pasta. While I have a bit of a fevered imagination, this is a combination I never would have thought of. When we eat pasta, we’re generally reaching for a big Italian red. But the best thing about the world of wine is that it’s full of discoveries. This is one.

Rachael Lowe, the Beverage Director of the famous Spaggia restaurant in Chicago, is apparently a big proponent of the pasta-and-Champagne combination.  She says, “When pairing Champagne and pasta, the texture and flavor profile of the dish’s sauce is your indicator. It’s the sauce that you’re matching not the pasta shape, so consider that first when looking for the perfect pair.”

This makes sense, though the shape of the pasta is important to Italian chefs because different shapes hold the sauce in different ways.  Anyway, she points out that different ingredients pair with various Champagne styles, which makes perfect sense.

Suggestion Number One:  Cacio e Pepe, which is like a minimalist mac and cheese.  The dish consists of spaghetti adorned with butter and black pepper, then sprinkled liberally with Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses.  This is best paired with a minerally, fresh sparkler (see our suggestions below).

A favorite around our house is a seafood-based pasta, like Tortellini with clams.  Since there’s shellfish on the plate, and several different textures, a lighter wine with citrus notes will go very well together.

Then we get to the really hearty dishes, like pasta carbonara.  This type of preparation has bold spice notes and herbs like rosemary and parsley, plus salty Pecorino cheese and either bacon or pancetta, so we use the “opposites attract” approach to pairing.  Heavy food, light wine.

Below are some suggestions presented in the order of the dishes above.  Next time you’re making pasta, maybe you’ll leave the Chianti on the shelf just once and discover a new approach to complement your food with wine.

Champagne Henriot Blanc de Blancs ($59) – While many Champagnes (and sparkling wines made by the Champagne method) are a blend of several grapes, a “blanc de blanc” is made from only Chardonnay.  This example has a fresh minerality and notes of honey that will set off the cheese and saltiness of the Cacio y Pepe pasta preparation.  WW 92

Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain ($45) – As mentioned above, seafood works best with wines that have pronounced acidity and citrus notes.  The flavors of this Champagne include lemon zest and a pronounced core of acid that pair perfectly with the “vongole” (clams). WW 91

Champagne Henriot Brut Vintage 2006 ($99) – Most Champagnes are non-vintage, unless the estate manager declares a “vintage year,” when the growing conditions and harvest are especially noteworthy.  For a treat, this sparkler has a bright acidity that balances and moderates the spices in the richly-flavored Carbonara sauce.  WW 94

Laurent-Perrier Brut NV ($45) – This is a very traditional style, blending all three heritage grapes:  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.  Since it’s almost half Chardonnay, the citrus and flower notes are very pronounced, and very pure.  This would go well with any type of seafood pasta.  WW 90

Is there life after Chianti?

The Other Italy

If you’ve ever eaten a pizza or ordered a plate of pasta in an Italian restaurant, chances are you know at least a little bit about Italian wine.  We’ve all encountered Chianti on the wine list, and probably Brunello and Barolo, too.

But even though Italian wines are wildly popular in the US, and even though we’ve all quaffed a carafe of Sangiovese at one time or another, there’s so much more to enjoy.  Let’s go a bit off the well-worn track, away from the Chianti region, away from Piedmont, and see where it takes us.

First stop – the Marches.  This area is just west of the port of Ancona, on Italy’s east coast about 230 miles south of Venice.  The most famous wine of the region is Verdicchio, a white wine with a lemony flavor profile and zippy acidity.  An extremely ancient varietal, it’s mentioned in Roman writing as far back as 400AD.  Aside from being a great pairing with seafood, you’ve probably seen the famous bottle, which is made in the shape of a fish.  Fun stuff.

Inzolia is a golden white wine grown in Sutera, on the south coast of Sicily. It has honey and melon aromas, and often contains flavors of bitter orange and grapefruit.  Many times, it’s left to oxidize, when it gains a deep golden color and nutlike qualities.  Interesting, and worth the search.

In Umbria, the wine to look for is Sagrantino di Montefalco.  The area borders Tuscany and the Marches, but the main varietal is the Sagrantino grape.  It’s deeply colored and quite tannic, so it’s often blended with Merlot, which makes it a bit softer.  Since it contains a high proportion of tannin, it ages well, and winemakers often leave it in oak barrels for over two years.  Flavors include black cherries, ripe blackberry, and some spice and earth.  Since it is so highly structured, it pairs especially well with steak, truffle dishes, venison, hard cheese, and even wild boar.

While you might not go out of your way to find wines from Sardinia, you probably should.  This island is the second largest in the Mediterranean, off the west coast of Italy, just south of Corsica.  Here, they make a killer Grenache, which they call Cannonau.  It’s a bit rustic, so it pairs well with strongly flavored red sauces and spicy pasta dishes, but the flavors of ripe plums, blackberries, and violets, accented by a slight bitterness on the finish, make it a great food wine.

There’s so much more to enjoy with Italian wines, so make a New Year’s resolution to explore some of the less familiar areas.  Meanwhile, here are some other Italian recommendations to start the year off right.

Citra Caroso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2010 ($22) – It’s easy to get confused between Montepulciano, which is the name of a grape, and Vino Nobile from the district of Montpulciano.  Hint:  look for the word “Abruzzo.”  The almost-black color in the glass promises a full-bodied experience, with flavors of raisins, licorice and complex fruit.  According to the tasting notes that accompanied this sample, the flavors are “elegante e potente,” because the whole thing was in Italian.  Enjoy this wine with food, and decant it first.  WW 92

Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti Chianti Rufina Riserva 2012 ($27) – This classic blend from the Rufina area of Tuscany follows the traditional recipe of Sangiovese, with a percentage of Colorino, Malvasia Nera, and Canaiolo.  A nose of warm earth, tobacco, and a burst of dark fruit is followed by a medium-bodied mouthfeel, and a mix of dark plum and cherry, and soft tannins.  This is a very typical “true to type” Chianti.  As a Riserva, it was aged for 24 months in oak and an additional three months in the bottle before release.  WW 88

Tenuta Valleselle Aureum Acinum Amarone della Valpolicella 2012 ($40) – This traditional blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes is on the sweet side, which we expect from an Amarone, with heady flavors of smoke, raisins, and dried black cherries.  Try it with more aromatic cheeses such as French Camembert, and other strongly-flavored foods.  WW 91-92

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