We're into September (my, how time flies when you're having fun), and that means the bubbles are getting ready to pop. The final months of the year, as we build to holiday toasts and year-end greetings, is the time when Champagne and other sparkling wines make the preponderance of their sales. There have been heavy crops in recent years, and the poor economy has kept prices down as well.
Champagne, by French law and a tradition honored by most of the world, comes from a single AOC (controlled area) in northeastern France, covering 34,000 hectares, or about 84,000 acres (a hectare is about 2.47 acres). It is further split into five sub-groups, the Cote des Bars, Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne, Montagne des Reims and Vallee de la Marne.
Reims, Ay, Epernay and the well-named Bouzy are among many villages with plantings both large and small. The underlying soil is largely cretaceous chalk, which provides the unique terroir and the delicious flavor of first-rate Champagne. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier (sometimes Pinot Meunier) grapes are the primary crop and the sparkling wine is made from a single grape or any blend of two or three. "Blanc de Blancs" is made solely from Chardonnay grapes and rose usually comes from Pinot Noir grapes with minimal skin contact to keep the wine from taking on too much red color. Much of the sparkler is made in small batches, with racking and riddling by hand.
A recent tasting offered a delightful experience to anyone who considers Champagne the best of all aperitifs. I tasted six non-vintage Brut offerings, all properly dry, and found small, tight bubbles and excellent, dry flavor. Four will retail for about $60, the others a sawbuck higher, and they will be on many local retail store shelves by mid-October. Of course, with the holidays in sight, there will be a lot of sparkling wine out there--both imported and domestic--at price ranges from single digits to many hundreds of dollars.
It's worth a search for a trustworthy wine-seller; upper-class Englishmen always have claimed that a gentleman needed three people with that character trait, a wine-seller, a tailor and a bookmaker.
My favorite was a Brut Rose from Henri Billiot in the village of Ambonnay (Montagne des Reims). I'm very fond of rose wines, both still and sparkling; the still offerings from the Cotes de Provence, mostly from Grenache or Syrah grapes, sing of a seat overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with a light breeze and a lunch to match. This offering had a lovely bubble and a crisp flavor with a delightful tingle. It was on the expensive side, as was another Montagne des Reims offering from Vilmart and Co., whose vineyards are in Rilly-la-Montagne, and dubbed Cuvee Grand Cellier. Good fruit, with the Chardonnay flavors under good control.
I was taken by two wines from the Vallee de la Marne, a Carte Verte from Gaston Chiquet of Vizy, and a Cuvee Prestige from Henri Goutorbe of Ay. Both were delicious, with slight earth tones to balance the citrus values in the grapes. Wines from that area always cause me to pause for a moment. The World War I battles at the Marne were so fierce, so deadly, and so many young soldiers are buried where they fell, that it's wine to grieve for, not to honor, a war. The battlefield park, more than 90 years old, remains one of the most poignant sights I've ever seen.
The last two are from the Cotes des Blancs, a 2005 Cuvee Gastronome (the only vintage-dated wine in the tasting) from Pierre Gimonnet of Cuis, and a Cuvee de Reserve from Pierre Peters of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger. The latter displayed a fascinating tingle on the tongue, probably from high carbonation), and the former showed a hint of peach behind its citrus, tart notes.
None of these are real bargains, but they are excellent values in comparison with many French imports.
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A Couple of California Winners: J. Lohr, a veteran winemaker in the Monterey area, has a delightful Napa Valley entry in this '09 Sauvignon Blanc, from Carol's Vineyard, north of St. Helena. Good citrus flavors, primarily grapefruit, a little passion fruit, no oak, $24. Equally impressive is a 2008 Syrah from Paso Robles that involves two clones, one American and one Australian. The winemaker triumphed in the blend, with a full nose, a strong flavor of dark cherries, tannins that already are softening and which should be delightfully smooth after cellaring until spring and a long, brisk finish. $28.
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And Winners at Home: It was Stone Hill against the world in the recent Missouri wine competition, and Stone Hill won by a landslide. I don't serve as a judge any more, and I don't know how many entries there were, but things seem a little out of balance when a single winery--Stone Hill--wins eight of 12 Best of Class medals and 13 of 41 Gold Medals, plus the Governor's Cup for the best overall wine. There were too many silver and bronze medals to even count the winners.
Time was when the judges tasted and scored the wines. The top wine in its class earned gold, the next two got silver and bronze, respectively. But when the competition became a marketing arm for winery sales, things changed. Each wine is judged on a point scale, and wines earning a set number of points got medals. I don't know what the various goals were, but looking at the number of winners, the bar isn't set very high.
There now are close to 100 wineries in the state, and the politically oriented Wine and Grape Board seems more interested in improving cash flow than wine quality. I'm certain that a number of winery people will be offended, but I think awarding so many medals just cheapens their value. It's like social promotion in schools, fine for the family, not worth much in terms of real learning.
Stone Hill's 2009 Sweet Vignoles won the Governor's Cup and best in the Sweet White class, and the Hermann winery won the other two white wine categories with dry and semi-dry also earning best-in-class honors for two other versions of the 2009 Vignoles (Dry and Semi-Dry Vignoles. Other best-in-class winners for Stone Hill were dry red, 2008 Cross J Vineyard Norton; semi-dry red, 2009 Steinberg red; late harvest/ice, 2008 late harvest Vignoles; dessert/fortified, 2006 Port.
Other best-in-class champions were: fruit wine, Pirtle Winery, blackberry mead; sweet red, Mellow Red; sparkling wine, Les Bourgeois Brut; blush, Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, 2009 Spring Rose. Runners-up as gold-medal winners were: Montelle, 4; Les Bourgeois, Chaumette, Adam Puchta, Pirtle, 3 each; Mount Pleasant, 2; Inland Sea, Jowler Creek, Native Home, Peaceful Bend, St. James, Stonehaus, Twin Oaks, 1 each.