TRADITIONAL HOLIDAY MESSAGE: WINES FOR THE BIRD, AND OTHER FAVORITES

We interrupt our originally scheduled rant to bring an important message…holy smokes it’s November!  Yeah, it kind of snuck up on us again as we were scurrying around trying to find delicious deals and innovative new sources of fermented grape juice.

We realize there are folks that have it all planned from their own cellar stock.  But there are others who treat this family holiday differently than they would a dinner or event with their ‘wine and food’ friends. Ours is neither to judge, nor comment on prices because that is up to everyone’s discretion and based on their individual needs.

We’re merely here to comment on some categories that we think work well with the Thanksgiving bird.  Isn’t it the same stuff every year?  To a point, yes.  The ‘basics’ still apply.  No matter how it is cooked, turkey is still fowl and tolerates a wide range of wine choices.  It is less about the bird and more about the stuffing and other accoutrement in determining which choices might prove most complimentary.

Every year is different wine-wise as well.  There are some categories hitting a high note this year, and others that are at a nadir.  For the most part this year offers more potential choices in what we feel are the ‘right’ categories.  Our basic rule of thumb is that, given the varied goodies that will be on the holiday table, whites should have good acidity and little or no oak, and it’s a fine spot for something with a little residual sugar.  As for reds, bright fruit, light to medium body, and not a lot of tannin or obvious wood work best.  Again a bit of underlying acidity is a good thing, and large framed, oaky, high alcohol wines can get tiresome over the course of the meal.

For those ‘big reds’(Cabernet, Bordeaux, Syrah), save them for hearty beef or lamb roasts.  Acidity is good, wood and tannins not so much with fowl.  These are our favorite red plays with the bird.

Pinot Noir-The fruit driven, bright fruit of a Pinot marries beautifully with roast, smoked, or fried bird.  These are wonderful times for Pinot fans as California has been rolling out the hits and there are plenty of 2012 and 2013 examples on the shelves, with a few 2014s now in the mix, a vintage that has a real elegant tender edge that makes them pretty serviceable.  Oregon has plenty of good stuff, too, particularly the outstanding 2014s and remaining 2012s.  Burgundy?  Of course, if the budget allows.

BeaujolaisThis is also the ‘near perfect’ choice always and one we have been recommending for ages.  But this year is particularly exciting given the arrival of the bold, expressive 2015s and the remaining tender, elegant 2014s.  Serving them with a slight chill offers another dimension to the folks at the table.  Not everybody ‘gets’ room temperature.  Forget the still travel-shocked 2016 ‘nouveau’ when even the ‘little’ 2015 Beaujolais are lovely, juicy glassfuls.

Rioja-Somehow you knew we’d get there but the elegance, versatility, and the bottle age of reservas and gran reservas make them crowd pleasing choices.  Spanish wine for an American holiday?  Heck yeah.

Chianti- Sangiovese works nicely particularly on tables where the food choices have a more savory bent.  The 2015s are quite juicy.

If Thanksgiving is a ‘white night’ for you, there are lots of unique options this time around that didn’t exist last year.  The key is fresh, bright flavors, lifted acidity, and little or no oak.  Again the choice has a lot to do with the sides because turkey itself is pretty versatile.   Spanish Albarinos, Portuguese versions of the same, white Rhones, and a host of things from northeastern Italy (Kerner, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Friulano, etc.) are as good as they have been since the benchmark 2010s, maybe better.  The 2016s have even a bit more drive.  Consider this a blanket recommendation.

Riesling- Crowd pleasers and the kind of wines that far too many people deny even liking (until they taste it).  We are not fans of the new ‘trocken’ movement in Germany and find the majority of the examples either under nourished or over priced.  That being said, classic German Riesling at the kabinett (fruity) and halb-trocken or fienherb (medium dry) level are always lovely choices, particularly from the 2015 vintage.  If you want dry Riesling, the Australians and Austrians do fine work with the 2015s from Austria particularly noteworthy.

Pinot Blanc- We are referring to the examples from Alsace rather than the bigger, often oaky California versions, though there are some Oregon efforts that will work also.  Pinot Blanc definitely plays well in a ‘supporting role’ and rarely calls attention to itself…until the bottle is empty.

White Bordeaux- People are surely waiting for us to say Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre.  Hey the 2015 Sancerres are knockout, but the pungent edge, while gorgeous with a plate full of oysters or mussels, can run afoul of some of the varied things on a lot of Thanksgiving tables.  The Bordeaux versions, tempered with Semillon and Muscadelle, play more to the melons and minerals profile with less of the lime/grapefruit edge.

Wild Cards- We aren’t deliberately trying to frighten people here.  But sometimes they need a nudge to try something new.  The 2015 vintage in Austria is the ‘year of the Gruner Veltliner’, with so many examples carrying the classic terroir-driven stony flavors, but also with more stuffing in the middle and stone fruit flavors adding another gear and dimension that we can’t remember in any recent crop.  Our wildest card?  Muscat from Alsace, with a super spicy nose that says sweet, but a bone dry cut to clean the palate.

We could go on, and certainly haven’t covered all the possibilities.  But this is where our heads will be spinning as we are out looking at the shelves for our own holiday plans.  It is a particularly bountiful year in some of our favorite categories for Thanksgiving service.  Of course, if you can’t decide, there is always Champagne!  Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAMPAGNE, PART ONE: THE ROAD TO ZERO

As we have mentioned in a couple of other pieces, the holidays are considered Champagne season.  We love Champagne any time, but it difficult to get a lot of people’s attention for most of the year.  Usually at this time of year, because of the Q4 tradition, we have been through a number of serious tastings focused on Champagne.  Having completed that gauntlet, it seemed time to offer a few thoughts on what’s out there and the happenings in the wonderful world of Champagne.  For the most part all is well.  The big brands are the same as ever, there are more grower Champagnes appearing in this market all the time, and the selection is historically unparalleled.

In simple English, if you want a great bottle of Champagne, you can find one at virtually any price you are willing to pay over $30.  Occasionally less.  Of course, the issue is what you are looking for.  If you are looking for classic, likeable fizz that anyone would enjoy, most of the bigger brands will deliver that.  They are formulated with a higher dosage (i.e. a little more sugar) to appeal to a broader range of palates.  Consistency works for the big houses and delivering a fruit driven wine has never proven to be bad business in the glass.  There’s a saying in the industry that “People talk ‘dry’, but they drink ‘sweet’. That is true the majority of the time…provided that no one actually says the word ‘sweet’.

We have been leaning towards individual grower Champagnes for a long time.  Our feeling is that the more specific terroirs of these smaller estates adds another dimension to the wine’s profile, and the lower (but not necessarily low) dosage tends to augment the visibility of the terroir elements.  These grower cuvees are made a little dryer stylistically to approach a more sophisticated audience.  Plus, because they are not necessarily aiming for the ‘broad market’, the individual growers can take a more personal approach to their wines which also, over the vast majority, leans a bit more to the dry side.

Any time we talk about ‘sweet’ and ‘dry’, there are invariably some misunderstandings about meaning.  Before we go on, we should make the point that there are definitely guidelines for the descriptors.  In the real world, sweetness is a perception.  What people say, how they describe things, are subjective, but not necessarily accurate.  One man’s sweet could be too dry for someone else.  So our references here are based on scientific fact.  A Champagne can be called ‘brut’ up to about 1.2% per cent residual sugar. A Champagne that is 0.9% residual sugar is drier, period.  As you can probably surmise, there is a significant difference in the profiles of something that has zero residual sugar and sitting at 1.2%.

One’s individual appreciation of a particular style or dosage is strictly personal.  In other words, it is not up to us to tell you what to like, merely give you data to help you determine what you might like.   Because of Champagne’s higher acidity, a higher level of sweetness will, in plain talk, not taste as sweet as it would in a lower-acid still wine.  Unlike a lot of people who think anything with any sweetness at all is for grandma, some wines need a bit of sweetness to offset certain levels of acidity.  It is particularly true with varietals that have higher natural acidities like Chenin Blanc and Riesling.  We see Champagne as falling into the same kind of requirement.  Don’t get us wrong, we don’t mind a little sweetness, or a complete dryness.  But no matter the profile, the individual wine has to be balanced. Most important, it has to be enjoyable.

That being said, we are seeing a strong trend towards more dryness, maybe a little too much.  A lot of folks we have followed for years seem to be lowering their dosages across the board, or at the very least introducing ‘brut zero’ or ‘no dosages’ options in their line.  Let us first point out that the industry does not ask the people what they want.  They merely decide what is best for all of us and proceed to make it (see also Syrah and Italian varietals in California).  One of our more frequent descriptors regarding a rather substantial number of Champagnes we have tasted this year is ‘angry’.

A somewhat drier entry is an indicator stylistically, but far too many examples cut away mid-palate exposing something soily, stoic and a sometimes little bitter.  The grower says he is ‘expressing the terroir’by keeping the sugars very low.  To that we say ‘yeah, but it isn’t very pleasing to drink.’

We are sure there are self-appointed gurus and twenty-something sommeliers who think the super dry cuvees are the ultimate food wines.  It seems that the brut-zero/orange wine/underripe-red set currently has a disproportionately larger voice among suppliers.  Maybe the next generation of producers like ‘angry’ wine better.   Who are we to question the pontifications of some self-appointed ‘trend setter’ who has moved on from skeletal trocken Riesling to embrace literally ‘bone dry’ Champagnes.

To be honest, we have had a few examples (Ruppert-Leroy, for one) of low dosage bubbly that we liked a lot.  But to pull it off is really, really difficult.  The fruit has to be near perfect, have enough flesh on it to give the impression of richness, and an extra lift at the finish.  Very few that we have tasted, a really small percentage in fact, can deliver that style in an engaging way.  We get it that there are a lot of folks that decry the mawkish nature of some of the most popular French bubblies (like Moet White Star).  But there’s a new wave in Champagne that seems to be taking it too far the other way.

Not to sound like Mary Poppins, but a little bit of sugar does help the ‘medicine’ go down.  It makes it taste good, and ultimately that is the point.

Another trend that seems to be developing throughout the industry (though most folks may not see it for years, if ever) are ‘dirt’ cuvees (they don’t call them that, but the name fits).  We encountered more than a couple instances where some growers were not only bottling from their property, but subdividing parcels and making even more finite cuvees based on soil types, exposures, etc..  While they gave those cuvees individual names, the explanation was, ‘…this one comes from mainly chalky soil, and this other one comes from volcanic soils’.  In other words their base was rooted in some more finite aspect of site specifics.

There were also individual plot bottlings defined by vine-age, and still others that featured a specific varietal.  We love artisan Champagne, but many of the artisans are becoming a bit too artisan, and we have a hard time believing that a producer can (or should) make six, seven, eight different cuvees.  Sure, winemakers, being winemakers, love to tinker with new ideas.  But they sometimes get too involved in their own world.  We’re afraid things will go the way of California and Oregon Pinot Noir where too many individual bottlings from the same house confuse the consumer (and us), and don’t provide nearly as significant a varied profile to people out in the world as they might appear to a winemaker who tastes them repeatedly in a closed environment.

We understand trying to challenge the palate.  But even most Champagne dorks (and we count ourselves among them) would not  find a lot to get viscerally excited about with the slightly different nuances of these varied cuvees (which are noticeable in a side-by-side comparison but certainly less so otherwise), all done in a more austere style, at $60, $80, $100 per bottle.

Growers already have a challenge in that they only have their own dirt to work with, and can’t address problems that crop up in their own winemaking by blending juice from other areas.  We taste growers every year because they can vary quite a bit from year to year based on the base wines and reserves they have available.  There are some houses that we have loved almost every year (Vilmart, Billiot, Agrapart, Pierre Peters).  But most are off-and-on and can ‘sing’ one year and disappoint the next.

The overall quality level has been augmented by some exceptional vintages in the base wines (like 2012).  But the stylistic shift towards drier styles negates some of that because of the demands it puts on the individual cuvee.  If you expect the consumer to appreciate the terroir, the terroir has to perform. The lower the dosage, the more the base wine is exposed.

If we aren’t sounding like cheerleaders, it is due to our concern about the trend we see taking shape. It wouldn’t be our choice.  Somewhere in between those tart, no-dosage Champagnes and the sweetish broad market cuvees would seem to be the happy medium.  ‘Drier’ isn’t ‘better’ by definition as far as Champagne goes.  Still, as far as thrilling options, there are plenty of those.  We’ll get more specific about that next time.