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Valentine's Day: Decoding Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, etc
Valentine's Day screams for sparkling wine, but it’s important to note that not all bubbles are created equal.  When shopping around for the perfect bottle at the right price point, it is extremely helpful to know what the difference is between styles of sparkling wine and where they come from.  Champagne – the O.G.This is it, the wine the world defers to as the best sparkling wine ever. The original bubbly, the standout sparkler, the very best.  However, NOT all sparkling wine is Champagne; in fact, it can only be called Champagne if it comes from the specific region of Champagne in France.  This can be confusing here in the U.S. where you will still see the term Champagne on labels of California sparkling wine, but make no mistake! Those are not the real deal. What makes real Champagne so unique and sought after is the place that it comes from and the way it is made.  In Champagne, the wines undergo a second fermentation in a bottle – most often the one that you buy it in – to capture the CO2 and make it bubbly.  This process is referred to as the Traditional Method, and while this method is used elsewhere to create similar styles of sparkling wine, Champagne is the hallmark.  This is also why Champagne will usually cost you a pretty penny but is pretty much always worth it.Grapes used in making ChampagneAll Champagne is made using three main varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.  These grapes, grown in chalky Champagne soil, are responsible for creating the unique aroma and flavor profiles of the wine. High quality Champagne will deliver wines with racy acidity, a creamy mousse (the feel of the bubbles on your palate), and a toasty quality often described as brioche, biscuit or pastry dough.  The official terminology is that these wines display autolytic characteristics. These aromas and flavors come from extended contact with the lees (spent yeast cells) in the bottle during the second fermentation and are the calling card of any wine that is made using the Traditional Method. Which Champagne to buySo which Champagne should you buy?  Depends on what fits into your budget, but I recommend going with a Champagne made from Premier or Grand Cru grapes.  They may cost a little bit more, but over deliver on quality. Champagne Lallier makes exceptional Grand Cru champagne in both white and rosé style, but there are many others to be found as well.What is grower-producer ChampagneAnother hot trend in Champagne now is buying Grower-Producer Champagnes. Most of the Champagne sold is made by the big houses from grapes they buy from other growers, but there is more availability these days of Champagnes that the individual growers are making from their own grapes. You can tell which is which by looking for a little two letter code on the back label, followed by a string of numbers. If it says RM, it is a Grower-Producer Champagne; if it says NM, that means it comes from one of the big houses. "RM" stangs for récoltant manipulant, a grower who makes champagne out of their own grapes.Photo credit: http://culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.comVintage Champagne – The best of the bestAs discussed above, Champagne is associated with that delicious biscuit aroma and flavor that comes from the winemaking process, but most Champagne is made by blending multiple vintages, so normally the label will say NV, or non-vintage. This allows Champagne producers to make a consistent, high quality product year after year that their customers can rely on and easily recognize. However, in the very best years some producers will make Vintage Champagnes, using only grapes from that year. These wines will reflect the overarching style of the house, but also have unique characteristics influenced by vintage variation. They are also often aged much longer on the lees, sometimes up to eight years or more, developing even more of that autolytic character common to all Champagne. So if that is a quality you like, vintage Champagne will be right up your alley. It will definitely cost you so be ready to throw down some cash, but once you take a sip of, oh let’s say the Henriot Brut Millésimé 2008, you’ll likely be glad that you did.Crémant – Top notch, bottom dollarCrémants refer to traditional method sparkling wines made in France that are not from Champagne, and they represent an EXCELLENT value in the category.  Crémant d’Alsace and Crémant de Loire (two other wine growing regions of France) will deliver excellent sparkling wines with a similar autolytic character at a fraction of the price. They can also be made with non-traditional Champagne varietals like Chenin Blanc or Riesling, adding intriguing layers of aromatics and flavors to these wines that differentiate them from Champagne. The Loire Valley actually produces the most traditional method sparkling wine in France after Champagne, so they know a thing or two about good bubbles, and you can find a great one that will knock your socks off for less than $20.Cava – Bang for your buckCava comes from Spain, and they have been making their bubbles there since the 1800’s.  The traditional method is used here as well, but winemaking technology allows them to expedite the process and also lower the cost, meaning it is easy to find an excellent bottle of Cava for often much less than $25. Traditional Cava also uses the indigenous Spanish varietals Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Perellada, which can lend some more tropical Mediterranean notes like melon and peach to the aroma and flavor profile.  Cava is, and always will be, a bargain for the traditional method junkie, but it's helpful to know your producers.  Bottom shelf Cava from the grocery store will not show the same kind of elegance and complexity you will find from a more quality oriented producer like Juvé Y Camps.(Watch the recap to I like this grape's first SOMMX event? Kanye West's Music Interpreted Through Spanish Wine: Video recap.)New World Sparklers – Blow your mind, not your budgetWhen you leave Europe and enter the New World, you will still find sparkling wine made it all countries. This includes South America, Australia, the USA, South Africa, New Zealand, you name it. Sparkling wine is just that popular. It can be hard, though, to readily identify the quality sparkling wine since new world countries don’t have nearly the same number of regulations that old world wine regions do. Knowing your producers and terminology can help.  For example, several large Champagne houses have set up shop in California, and produce traditional method sparkling wine in the states: Louis Roederer has Roederer Estate up in Anderson Valley and Domaine Chandon is owned by the powerhouse Moët & Chandon.  Looking on the label for the term “Traditional Method” will also key you in to the style and quality of production. Some countries use a different name for it, like the term “Cap Classique” in South Africa. In fact, my recommendation to anyone who wants to blow their mind with a new world traditional method sparkling wine is to go out immediately and purchase a bottle of Graham Beck Brut Zero Cap Classique.  It will be the best $25 you have spent all month.Prosecco – Sassy SparkleProsecco is the princess of Italian sparkling wines.  This wildly popular wine can be found all over the world, but can only be made in the northeastern region of Italy. It is the aperitif of choice among locals and tourists alike. What makes Prosecco so specifically delicious is that it uses a different method of production from Champagne and all other traditional method sparkling wines.  Prosecco does not have a second fermentation in the bottle or extended contact with lees, so the resulting wines are crisp, fresh and fruity without the nuance of biscuit or brioche.  This makes it an incredible versatile option to drink on its own or mix in cocktails, and it is always refreshing and delightful. While some Prosecco’s may have a little bit of residual sugar and seem sweeter that other sparkling wines, drier versions are becoming more common and easy to find on the market. Again, these are also incredible value wines, offering up their sassy sparkle in a lower budget bracket.  For an added bonus without much added cost, look for a DOCG Prosecco. A smaller category, but worth the investigation.Moscato d’Asti – Sweet and spectacularThis iconic dessert wine of Piemonte, Italy, is often underrated and underappreciated. These lightly sparkling sweet dessert wines are made from the aromatic Moscato grape and offer sublime elegance to any event. Unfortunately, its good name has been tarnished by the flood of syrupy sweet imitations labelled simply “Moscato” that can be found in the supermarket, but these carbonated sugar waters can’t hold a candle to the real thing. True Moscato d’Asti are delicate wines and excellent pairings with lighter desserts that aren’t overly sugary, like strawberries and Chantilly cream, or even as a delightful aperitif.  Have any questions on Champagne? Just send us a message on Twitter or Instagram! Cheers!If you're still looking for that perfect Valentine's Day present for the wine lover in your life, then check out Drive Through Napa, a modern primer on Napa Valley. Bonus content from 16 of Napa's top wineries + industry's first Price to Value charts powered by Vivino.
Give Sherry Wine a Shot. Secrets of Sherry wine.
Sherry - it's more than your grandmother's beverageWhile on the rise in popularity with some inner circles of imbibers, Sherry is still a relative mystery to most drinkers. A lot of people associate Sherry with a sweet beverage sipped by grandmothers or used for cooking or as a vinegar. The reality of this exceptionally diverse and unique beverage, while complicated, is well worth diving in to. From where it originates to how it’s made to why you should try it, Sherry is a definitely a drink you should get to know.What is Sherry wine?So what exactly is Sherry? Sherry is a fortified wine. Sherry producers first make a base wine and then add 96% abv neutral spirit to the finished product, raising the alcohol level of the wine before aging it. The aging process is the hallmark of Sherry, but before we get to that let’s talk about where it comes from.Where can Sherry wine be made? Sherry can only be made in Spain, specifically in the DO of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry. Geographically this area is located in the in the southwest corner of the country anchored by the three cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, commonly referred to as the Sherry Triangle. Jerez has the distinction of being one of the oldest wine-producing towns in Spain. The whole region of Andalucía was actually the base of exploration for Christopher Columbus, and the port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda became of great importance to the new trans-Atlantic trade in the late 15th and early 16th century.  It is not unlikely that Sherry was the first wine to enter North America.It’s hot in this region, and dry.  Proximity to the Atlantic does offer mitigating climatic assistance, but that help doesn’t reach very far inland. The main varietal grown here and used to make Sherry is Palomino Fino. It’s a neutral grape with moderate acidity; not much to shout about on its own, but perfect for creating a neutral base for the process of Sherry-making. The process is really the star of the Sherry show.Process of making SherryAs mentioned earlier, Sherry starts its life as a base wine, most made from the Palomino grape. Depending on where the grapes were grown for the wine and how it evolves during fermentation, the base wines are classified in one of two ways: as a Fino or as an Oloroso. After this classification the wines are fortified and begin the aging process in their designated solera.What? This is the key right here: solera.  Solera is both a system and the elements which physically makeup that system. The solera system is one of fractional blending over time, one that defines the characteristics of every Sherry made; the solera is also the name for the grouping of barrels that the wine is aged in. Think of the newly fortified wine entering the top of a pyramid made up of barrels with many layers, and the wine finishing aging at the bottom layer of the pyramid. The finished wine is drawn from the bottom layer to be bottled, but whatever amount of wine is removed from the bottom layer is replaced with the same amount from the layer of wine above it; so on and so forth all the way up to the top of the pyramid, where newly fortified wine is continuously being introduced. In this way a little bit of every addition every harvest is in every layer and constantly being blended.Type of Sherry & alcohol percentage So what does this process do besides blend and age the wine?  This depends on whether the Sherry is a Fino or an Oloroso.  Lighter colored, more delicate wines classified as Fino Sherries and only fortified to 15% ABV before entering their solera. The richer, heavier wines are categorized as Oloroso and fortified too. In both cases, the barrels are only filled 5/6 of the way full capturing air inside.  In the Fino Sherry solera, this extra space of air at the top allows for a thin film of yeast known as “flor” to form over the wine, protecting the wine from the oxygen in the barrel, and feeding off of the alcohol and glycerol in the wine. Aging in solera with the presence of flor is known as “biological aging”, and this process creates lighter colored wines with delicate, nutty flavors and aromas, along with a very lean mouthfeel from reducing the amount of glycerol (glycerol is an odorless, tasteless substance naturally occurring in wine that lends a smoothness to the mouthfeel) and introducing acetaldehydes.  Acetaldehydes are naturally occurring chemical compounds also found in coffee, bread, and ripe fruit, and are imparted to biologically aged Sherry through the presence of flor. The flavor profile of these wines is usually savory, austere and very surprising to someone who has never tasted it before; there is nothing quite like it, and people can be taken aback or dislike it at first. I say give it a chance. 😊Now for Oloroso Sherry, no flor develops in the barrels of the solera because flor cannot survive at 17% ABV.  This means that throughout the entirety of the blending and aging process, Oloroso Sherry is exposed to and interacts with oxygen. This process is therefore known as “oxidative aging”. These wines take on deeply nutty and rich characteristics, are darker in color and have a fuller mouthfeel.A third category of Sherry is Amontillado. These wines begin the same way as Fino Sherry, aging biologically under flor. However, if somewhere along the way the flor begins to die off and the wine begins to be exposed to oxygen, the wine will be re-classified as an Amontilldo, and finish the aging process oxidatively like an Oloroso.  Because it sees both types of aging processes, Amontillado Sherry contains qualities from both: some of the bready, yeasty acetaldehyde aroma of a Fino with a richer, fuller mouthfeel, landing the final wine characteristically between a Fino and Oloroso.Lastly, a rather elusive and highly prized category known as Palo Cortado is said to have the elegance of Amontillado and the power and richness of an Oloroso.  This intermediary style occurs when flor fails to develop properly in a Fino solera, and the wine begins aging oxidatively. Typically a high quality Sherry, the production process is natural but based on a fluke, and can be very difficult to replicate intentionally. Pairing Sherry with food & sweet SherryAll of these wine styles are naturally dry at the end of the solera process, and these dry styles of Sherry are made to pair with all types of food.  The general rule for which style to drink with what food is “If it swims – Fino, if it flies – Amontillado and if it walks – Oloroso”. While this is of course not a hard and fast rule, it is a good way to start thinking about how you might introduce a Sherry to your next meal. A classic pairing is Marcona almonds and Manzanilla (a Fino Sherry made only in the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda) which also happens to be a great pre-cursor to just about any dinner.Now, some Sherry is definitely sweet.  Sweet Sherry comes in two classifications:Naturally sweet Sherry made from fermentation stopping early, either by fortification or because there is just so much sugar in the must the yeast die off, usually made with the other two varietal of Jerez: Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel.Dry Sherry as discussed previously sweetened by the addition of naturally sweet Sherry or grape must.  Sweetened sherries are known as cream sherries, named for the insanely popular Bristol Cream, a thick and sweet blended Sherry developed in Bristol around 1860. The category, however, varies in style and levels of sweetness:Pale Cream Sherry is made with a biologically aged wine – Fino or Manzanilla. Will contain between 45 and 115 grams per liter of sugar.Medium Sherry will have between 5 and 115 grams of sugar per liter, so therefore the range is quite wider in level of sweetness. Often based on Amontillado.Cream Sherry will contain between 115–140 grams of sugar per liter, the sweetest style of the three, usually made with Oloroso and sometimes Amontillado.Sweet Sherry, like dry Sherry, can be exceedingly complex and of high quality, and it makes an excellent dessert beverage. That being said, there are many cheap, syrupy sweet knock offs that can easily turn you away from your potential new favorite after dinner drink.  Why I love SherryWhy do I love Sherry? I love its versatility and uniqueness. For me, the nuttiness and austerity make it an excellent food pairing wine in all categories. It is not a shy beverage, it is bold and complex and either you love it or you hate it. The most important takeaway is not to be scared of it. The best way to sample it is the way it was made to be enjoyed: with food of the region. More up and coming restaurants are beginning to revive interest in Sherry through dedicated and thoughtful beverage programs. Vaca Restaurant is a great example in Orange County where the knowledgeable staff can guide you through a Sherry tasting experience with your meal. Sherry use in cocktails is also on the rise. Many new opportunities to try Sherry are popping up in our ever-progressive dining culture, and I encourage to give it a shot the next time you see it on the menu. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised.Want some more detailed information on Sherry?  There is a ton of info out there. In fact, the region’s website https://www.sherry.wine/ can answer pretty much any question you may have about Sherry. The website Sherry Notes is also a site full of great resources and information: https://www.sherrynotes.com/.  Of course, if you prefer a hard copy of something to read, I would recommend investing in the book Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem.Salud!Photo credit: Deb Harkness
The Battle of Old World versus New World Wine
People often come into our shop and, after explaining they are looking for a nice bottle, immediately offer up the caveat “But I don’t really know anything about wine!” These are some of my very favorite people to help. The vast and endlessly complex world of wine is as yet unknown to them, yet the possibilities are still endless.“I just want something I like,” they tell me. Here, here.This can of course be a tricky thing to determine for someone else, and even for yourself. Where to begin? How to describe and define those elusive elements of enjoyment that you get from a bottle of wine that you like? Palate and structure analysis and even common flavor descriptors may not be helpful in this situation without a baseline reference, but hey, we’ve got to start somewhere.I often like to begin with one of my favorite elemental distinctions: Old World vs. New World. While this concept is rudimentary for anyone in the industry, its meaning is not self-explanatory. It is a relatively unknown concept to many general consumers, even some that have a decent amount of basic knowledge. Living in California is both a blessing and a curse; we have a plethora of world class winemakers in our backyard. Yet for many California residents, this is all they know. However, this simple distinction between Old World and New World helps to define in a very broad sense two particular styles of wine.This is where it becomes exciting - at least for a geek like me. I'll use this distinction to help my customer find a unique and exciting bottle of wine they will enjoy at any price point.Geographically, the Old World refers to Europe and the Mediterranean basin. The New World refers to everywhere else they make wine. Stylistically, Old World wines tend to have higher acidity, lower relative alcohol, and - most significantly - more minerality and earthy components on the nose and palate.New World wines tend to have more generous fruit, slightly acidity and generally more alcohol. My straightforward explanation is: stick your nose in the glass. If you smell fruit first it’s probably New World. If you smell dirt or rocks or other funk, it’s probably Old World.Of course, these days, with so much progress in both the technological and philosophical sectors of wine making, we are starting to see more crossover in these two styles from a geographical standpoint. Yet the styles themselves still maintain their original distinction.So, what makes Old World wines old world? A lot of it has to do with the climate. European wine-growing regions often have a cooler climate and a slightly shorter growing season. This means grapes grown in these regions will naturally retain more acidity and produce less sugar – which also leads to lower alcohol levels – than grapes grown in warmer regions.The old world also has history. Grapevines have been cultivated for the purpose of making wine since the Roman era, on the oldest soils of our planet. This ‘terroir’ is something that is unique to the Old World and cannot be replicated or faked. And, of course, with all that history comes an awful lot of regulation. Old world countries have some of the strictest laws out there regarding how a producer can make his or her wine. These laws help to identify and regulate quality and expectations, and also create a huge headache for the consumer who doesn’t know how to interpret them.Overall, if you like to taste in your wines a bit of tartness, leafy forest floor or wet rock minerality, then Old World wines are probably right up your alley.Given all that, the New World seems like a pretty big place…and it is! So-named for the fact that all these areas were initially colonized by the Europeans, and thus christened as nouveau. This is also an important fact to consider because the species of vine we make wine from is indigenous to Europe, meaning that these colonizers had to transport the vines to their new outposts in order to continue their vinous enjoyment.So, New World winemakers got a later start to the game. Specifically in where they chose to plant their vines, discovering the best areas that produce the highest quality grapes, and attempting to use European techniques that maybe didn’t work as well with their new environment.The New World has indeed evolved into an entrepreneur’s paradise! Free of the traditions of Old World winemaking, producers can explore, experiment and define their own style of wine with their entirely unique geographical situation. Much of the New World tends to have a warmer climate, resulting in naturally riper grapes that yield higher levels of sugar, and therefore higher potential alcohol as well.One often defining through-line of New World wines is an identifiable purity of, and focus on, fruit. Pure fruit on the nose and pure fruit on the palate. It is a point of pride to many New World winemakers to protect this expression of fruit quality in their wines. New Zealand is an excellent example of a New World country as a whole that often seeks the purest expression possible of their fruit.There are also a lot of New World wines that experiment in other ways through enhancements available on the market, such as additives, shortcuts and fancy gadgets – options not available in most of those regulated Old World areas. This, combined with the fact that these such “experiments” are usually not required to be disclosed to the consumer, can lead to extreme variation of quality from any given New World region.However, if you tend to enjoy fruit forward, easy drinking wines that are lush on the palate, then New World is likely your style.Does that mean one style is better than the other? Absolutely not! When it comes down to the nitty gritty, drinking what makes you happy is the right thing to drink. Yet, it’s always great to branch out and try something new every once in a while. You will likely be surprised. This is an easy assignment for newbies to wine, but an even better challenge for consummate wine professionals stuck in their ways.If you are a die-hard white Burgundy fan, grab a bottle of Margaret River Chardonnay one night just to test it out. Big, bold Napa Cab drinker all the way? Head over to Rioja and check out a Gran Reserva. Or look around for the grape you have never heard of from the country you didn’t know made wine and have that bottle with dinner tonight. Even ask your local wine shop attendant, they’ll likely be chomping at the bit to offer you several new options.The world of wine is vast and fabulous; our job is to enjoy as much of it as possible while we can.