Corkdork's Ramblings

Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I've begun working with Cork'd Content to provide articles for their audience; if you want to, you can check out my first one on recession-friendly sparkling wines.

Hooray for guest columns!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The basics of bubbles

Sparkling wine has long been a passion of mine; there's just something about the "pop" of a cork leaving a bottle, the bubbles in the glass, that simply makes me happy.

That being said, I know that most people get confused easily with sparkling wine, and can understand that -- the terminology is confusing (and somewhat counterintuitive), for one thing, and for another, most people might drink 2-3 bottles a year; a shame, because bubbles are for all the time.

So, here's a quick guide to the sparkling wine making process, focusing on the methode traditional (sometimes called the Methode Champanois, or champagne method, or fermentation in bottle). There are three other methods of making sparkling wine, the Methode Ancestrelle (a rarely-used method in Champagne where the wine is made as it was in the early part of that appellation's history), the Charmat method (used for Prosecco and inexpensive bubblies), and carbonation (sort of like making soda). Still, most sparkling wine is made using the method outlined below, from inexpensive Cava in Spain, to Cap Classique in South Africa, to the rarest luxe cuvees from Champagne.

Step 1: grapes are picked, crushed, and vinified into wine. Now, this is sometimes called the "mother wine," and it can be pretty... well, sharp is a polite way to put it (it's been described as drinking battery acid). This wine can be stored for years to blend several vintages together to make a nonvintage wine (which is what most sparkling wine is), or one year can be vinified alone to make a millesme, or vintage wine. Nonvintage wine is the bread-and-butter of the sparkling winemaker, while vintage wines are generally what make their names famous (sparkling wine is not unlike Port in that fashion).

Either way, in Step 2: the mother wines are put in a bottle, yeast and sugar are added, and the whole thing is capped with a crown cap (a beer-bottle cap). The yeast eat the sugar, excrete a bit more alcohol and more CO2, putting the bubbles in the wine. This is the stage where you see old French men in bicycles riding around the cellars, rotating the bottles once per day (called riddling the bottles), forcing the lees, or yeast cells, into the neck of the bottle as the bottles are slowly angled upright (neck-down). Of course, that's mainly for show, or for the prestige cuvees -- most wine now is rotated on a big machine called a gyropallete, that does the work automatically, although some producers do still hand-riddle their bottles (Schramsberg, in Napa, comes to mind). This stage can take literally years (in Champagne, the minimum aging time is 18 months if I recall, and some prestige cuvees can remain at this stage for up to 10 years).

In Step 3: the bottle neck is frozen, the crown cap removed, and the plug of frozen yeast and wine removed (well... it removes itself, due to the gas pressure inside the bottle), and a bit more sugar and wine is added to fill the bottle. That's the dosage. Then the bottle is corked with a Champagne cork, the cage and foil are added, and voila, you have bubbly. Note that the technical name for removing the yeast plug is disgorgement.

Now, for terminology, some wines will be labeled Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs -- that just means that at step 1, all the grapes were white (chardonnay, pinot blanc, etc), or red (pinot noir, pinot meunier, etc), respectively. White wine from white grapes, or white wine from black grapes.

Some wines will be labeled Brut, or Extra Dry, or Demi-Sec (there are other classifications to be found, but they're rare). That just refers to the amount of sugar in the dosage. Brut is the lowest sugar level, extra dry is slightly sweet, and demi-sec is sweetest still. Cava is also sometimes labeled Semi-Seco, which is roughly the same as Demi-Sec or Extra Dry. Why is extra dry not the driest level, you ask? Because, in the 1800's, when that classification system was created, sparkling wine was consumed much sweeter than it is now (the average dosage for a Champagne for the American market was roughly twice what the sweetest one is now, in terms of grams of sugar per liter), so extra dry really was quite dry.

Sparkling wine trivia:
  • There are six twists to the cage on a sparkling wine cap (go ahead, next time you open Champagne, count!).
  • A bottle of sparkling wine contains roughly three times more pressure than the tire of a car.
  • Although there are nine grapes allowed in Champagne, generally only 3 are used in any significant quantity; pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay. The other 6 are very rare -- arbanne, petit meslier, and pinot blanc (which together account for 0.02% of the acreage of Champagne), pinot gris (also called fromentau), pinot de julliet, and pinot rose.
  • Most rose sparkling wines are made by adding a dash of still red wine between steps 1 and 2. However, some (called saignee roses) are made by leaving the red wine grapes (the pinots) in contact with the wine for a couple of hours.
  • To open a bottle of sparkling wine properly, tilt the bottle at a 45 degree angle, pointed away from anything that the cork might hurt (a wall is OK, while a TV, pet, or person... not so much.). Remove the foil, release the cage, put your hand OVER the top of the cork (to keep it from shooting off accidentally), grip tight, and twist the bottle. Ideally, the noise that comes out will not be a resounding "pop," but a more delicate "pffft."
  • Sparkling wines are remarkably food-friendly. Try a light blanc de blancs with scallops in butter, or a rich blanc de noirs with Beef Wellington. Sweeter wines go well with salty foods (I once had a semi-seco cava with teriyaki salmon and it completely blew my mind).
  • Champagne's association with celebration comes from the fact that the King of France -- starting with Hugh Capet -- was traditionally crowned in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, in Reims. After the coronation, the local wine was featured in celebration.
  • Champagne producers are noted for early adoption of the idea of a celebrity spokesperson; they would pay noted entertainers (opera singers, etc) to publicly and conspicuously drink their wines as far back as the 1800's.
  • The bubbles in a Champagne glass form on imperfections in the glass itself. Some glassmakers will purposefully etch a small ring into the base, to provide with locations for that to happen.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On beer

Even though I'm a cork dork, I do enjoy a good beer every now and again (in fact, the Fiancee gave me a basic homebrewing kit for Christmas this year, and the bottles of my first batch are carbonating even as I type), which got me to thinking, how do different beers vary?

Beer is really just a combination of about 4 items -- starch/sugar, yeast, water, and hops. Of those 4, even though the water is what breweries harp on, the water is the least important (think about it; with a good water purification filter, basically all water is the same). The yeast determines what kind of beer you'll be making (ale or lager). The general source of starch/sugar is malted grain, and different grains will yield different flavor characters to the beer. Hops impart the bitterness and flavor to the beer.

So what is an ale? How does it differ from a lager? Basically, the difference lies in where the yeast ferments in the mix and the temperature that the yeast enjoys -- ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) ferments on the top and ferments best near room temperature, while lager yeast (Saccharomyces uvarum) ferments on the bottom and prefers cooler temperatures. On a technical level, lager yeast eats more sugar, which results in a crisper beer, but ale yeast results in a bit more robust beer.

Then what about the hops? Generally, hops add bitterness. A little hops = a little bitterness, a lot of hops = a lot of bitterness. There are also flavor characteristics added by hops -- floral, citrus, or herbal notes. Hops also act as a preservative, favoring the brewer's yeast over all the other stuff that can grow in beer. Different strains of hops (eg, Cascade, Hallertau, or Willamette, among others) will add different flavors or different levels of bitterness. Some beers will note how much of an influence the hops have had by listing their bitterness level, as mesured in IBU's (International Bitterness Units, and yes, there is a formula and standard for measurement) -- more IBU's means bitterer beer. As a rough scale, Bud Light rates about 5 IBU's, Guinness about 45, and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA is about 60 IBU's.

Now, different styles of beer have different characteristics. For example, an India Pale Ale, or IPA, tends to be a very highly hopped light ale (it's named for the extreme use of hops in ale made by British brewers for their troops in India -- the beer wouldn't survive the long voyage without it). Stout is a type of ale that is made using roasted malt, resulting in a characteristic dark color and often a cocoa/coffee note. Pilsener refers to a pale, hopped lager made popular in the Czech town of Pilsen.

One of the joys of beer is that it's more like cooking than wine is -- with wine, if you have the same ingredients (grapes grown in the same spot, the same strains of yeast, same kinds of barrels), in different years the wine may still indicate different characteristics. Not so much with beer; it's more akin to making a recipe. You do the same thing consistently and cleanly, and the result is the same.

Which means, of course, that it's a perfect beverage to mass-market, as it's the same if it's brewed in San Francisco as it is if it's brewed in Vienna. It's also relatively easy to scale production; a brewmaster can make a small batch of a beer as a sample to see if large-scale production would make sense.

Photo from Clemensfranz, on Wikipedia.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Splurge wines, holiday edition.

Looking at my Top 10 list yesterday, and I got to thinking... "what wines would I splurge on?"

Note that not all of these are wines I've had -- in fact, most, I haven't tried. But, if you had to get me a splurge-worthy wine, these would be the ones I'd love to see under the tree on Christmas... perhaps the wine geek on your Christmas list might enjoy one as well!

  • 10: Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval 2006 ($55-ish). I've never had it, but a friend of mine at work got to taste it this past year, and said it was sublime, a wonderful Left Bank style blend from Washington. I like Washington wines, and I like the Left Bank, so I think this'd be excellent.
  • 9: Pavillion Rouge de Ch. Margaux 2005 ($100-ish). I've always had good luck with second wines, and 2005 was -- as everyone has said -- an amazing year for Bordeaux. Pavillion Rouge is, traditionally, every bit as good as almost any other wine from the region.
  • 8: Dr. Loosen Erdener Treppfchen Riesling Auslese 2007 ($55). Sublime Riesling, and the perfect antidote for the person who thinks that "sweet" = "bad" for wine. A perfect balance of sugar and acidity, that finishes for seemingly days. Truly an experience, and one I'll gladly repeat.
  • 7: Dom de Perdrix Echezeaux 2005 ($150). A little young for drinking now, but... well, it's Grand Cru Burgundy. What more needs to be said?
  • 6: Bodega Catena Zapata Catena Alta 2006 ($50). A big Argentine red, but well-balanced, easy to access, and most importantly incredibly tasty! Argentine wines offer some of the best value on the market right now, and a wine of similar quality from California would easily cost thrice as much.
  • 5: Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay Searby Vineyard 2007 ($55). I loved Far Niente's charddonay... Nickel & Nickel is their single-vineyard line, and I'd love to see how it compares.
  • 4: Bodegas LAN Culmen 2004 ($65). Powerful, deep, complex wine from a producer that's best-known for more value driven, mass market crianzas. The big, cult-wine bottle doesn't hurt the presentation either!
  • 3: Titus Vineyards Reserve Cabernet 2006 ($60-ish). I've loved Titus' cabs for the last several vintages, and their '06 has amazing reviews (a better review than Screaming Eagle in Wine Spectator, if you can believe it!)... which I can say it's earned completely. A tasting pour is all I got to have, and I really, really want a bottle to cellar.
  • 2: BV Georges de Latour 2006 ($105 list, but often on sale for less). Yeah, I know, you're wondering... "BV? Really?" And while their lower-end wines are pretty pedantic, their Georges de Latour is... well, amazing. I've had several vintages (2005, 2004, and 1990), and enjoyed them both old and young. '06 is the latest release, and it's one of those wines that wound up being a diamond in the rough -- '06 wasn't a great year in Napa, but BV did admirably.
  • 1: Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs 1998 ($250-ish). Champagne Salon is arguably the best producer from Le Mesnil sur Orger, and 1998 (their latest release) is one of the better vintages available. It's pricy, but what better way to ring in the New Year than with cult Champagne! Only 6,000 cases per vintage are produced by Salon (they source only from the Le Mesnil vineyard, where Le Mesnil sur Orger gets it's name from), and they don't produce a wine every year, so it's really the definition of "cult wine."
Any one of these under the tree would be absolutely excellent! What would you like to find with a bow on it for Christmas?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top 10 of 2009

Looking through my notes for the year, the following are my favorite wines of 2009 (note: not highest scoring wines, some of these are on the list for their quality to price ratio).

  • 10: Mendoza Station Torrontes 2008. For under $6, it's a crisp, clean white from a region best-known for it's heavy reds, and it's insanely tasty. One of the very few wines that I've bought more than one bottle of this year.
  • 9: San Andrea in Colle Il Rosso 2007. One of the best inexpensive Tuscan IGT's that I've had. Period. Again, one that I bought more than one bottle of; the perfect pairing for this one is a couch and a TV! Roughly $9.
  • 8: Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico. My favorite Prosecco of the year, wonderful white peach and spice notes, surprising intensity and complexity out of a wine that most people think of as Champagne's poor cousin, showing how Prosecco can really stand on it's own. About $18.
  • 7: Pertois-Moriset Grand Cru Champagne. Breathtaking blanc de blancs, from Le Mensil Sur Orger (home of Champagne Salon, and where Krug sourcers their Chardonnay). A surprise; generally I dislike blanc de blancs, as they're so think and over-acidic, but this one has a bit more weight on the palate, and the acidity is better balanced. Hard to find (only 250 cases were imported), but a great argument for RM Champagnes. A steal at $35. As a note, they also make a vintage -- the current release is the 2000, pictured, but it's even harder to find, as only 75 cases came into the US.
  • 6: Titus Chardonnay 2007. Opulent, plush Chardonnay from Carneros. This is a Rombauer-esque wine for half the price; wonderful ripe golden delicious apples, vanilla, and buttercream. They only make about 500 cases of this a year, but if you can find one, a bottle should set you back about $20, even though it's worth more.
  • 5: Coelho Pinot Noir Paciência 2006. When I tasted this, my immediate reaction was "so, this is why people keep going on about Oregon pinot..." It was spicy, full, and absolutely, insanely tasty. Fairly small-production (Coelho makes about 2500 cases a year), and $35.
  • 4: Château Doisy-Védrines 2005. An absolutely amazing Sauternes, powerful, with spot-on characteristics of the type -- including the "gym sock" note in the nose. At just under $40, it's a pricey dessert wine, but with some blue cheese or pate, it's an amazing experience and I highly recommend it.
  • 3: Pierre Amadieu Grande Romaine Gigondas 2006. It's like mature Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at half the price. Gigondas is my favorite "hidden gem" appellation of the Rhone, offering wonderful wine with the power and depth of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but since it's not as well-known, the wines from there cost less than half. This one was $22.
  • 2: Thorne-Clarke William Randall Shiraz 2005. A monster of an Aussie shiraz, but amazingly well-balanced. Is it over-the-top, huge wine? Yep. Do I want another bottle? Yep. Expensive, at about $40, but worth it.
  • 1: Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2006. One of Wine Spectator's top 100, and I can agree with that assessment. A rich, deep, chewy wine, one with a breadth and complexity that I found amazing. Young now -- I'd say drink 2012-2020. The most expensive wine on the list, at $45, and worth every penny.
What would your top 10 of 2009 be?

Image from Austin Keys, used under Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wine for the holidays

Even though it's late October, thoughts around casa Corkdork are turning to the holidays; partly because November also happens to be my father's birthday, partly because it's the time when we start considering "hey, what should we have with Thanksgiving dinner?"  There'll have to be at least 7 bottles purchased for gifting/celebrating this year -- two for Thanksgiving dinner, two for Christmas Eve, one for Dad's birthday, and two more for Christmas presents.  Oh, and something to ring in the new year with.

There's food to pair with, people's flavor preferences (and dislikes!) to work around, and gift-presentation thoughts to consider!  What is a wine afficianado to do?!

The current thinking is running something like this:
  • For Thanksgiving, we traditionally have two bottles; a sparkling wine and a red with dinner.  For the bubbly, I have to say I love Cava, both for it's affordability (hey, they're all under $25 at my local wine store, and most are under $10, including my two favorites, Conde de Caralt and Rondel), and it's zesty flavor -- the perfect thing to start a meal with.
  • For dinner, we traditionally have a Pinot Noir, and this year will probably be no different -- Pinot is versatile enough to work with the variety of foods on the table, and it's cranberry notes are a natural choice.  In the past, we've had Oregon and Russian River Pinot, but this year I think we may go for Burgundy, with the Chateau Chamirey Mercury Rouge 2005 (under $40) -- I got to try it twice this past weekend, once newly-opened and once with some air, and it's evolution was wonderful.  Newly-opened, it's fresh and fruity, but with some air, complexity is added, with earthiness and minerality underpinning the ripe fruit.
  • My father loves reds and steak, so the natural thought there is a wine to go with steak.  He especially loves California Cabernet and Chateau Neuf du Pape, and those fit quite well in that milleu.  Since his birthday is in November, he'll get two bottles this season; probably one of each.  The current thinking is something from Martin Ray for the California Cab -- Dad's a big fan of their Stag's Leap and Diamond Mountain District cabs -- and a 2006 Chateau Neuf du Pape ('05 was a better year in the Southern Rhone, perfect for laying down for a couple years, but '06 is ready to drink young, and Dad doesn't hold onto wine long).  Another possibility would be a bottle from Von Strasser -- I know Dad's not had anything from them before, but they're excellent.  In all three cases, the presentation is part of the key -- the bottle looks good, as well as having good juice inside it.
  • Not unlike with Thanksgiving, we start Christmas eve with bubbles, but generally Champagne.  Here, I'll look for a grower-maker wine -- it'll be a treat, pretty much regardless of what I pick.  Currently, I'm leaning towards a vintage 2000  Pertois-Moriset -- not as great of a year as 1996, but still quite good, and very tasty.
  • Christmas Eve dinner traditionally consists of a roast of beef with lots of garlic and herbs.  I've got my eye on a very small-production Barolo (200 cases made, from a single vineyard), which will get a full decanting treatment, as we'll be drinking it young -- Barolo is notoriously long-lived.
  • My fiancee loves Italian wines, and while a Barolo would make a great gift, she doesn't hold onto wine for more than a year, so a mature Brunello makes sense; there's lots of 2000's still out there, and even some '99's.  In fairness, since I'll likely be consuming the wine with her, it makes sense to pick out something I like too, and I love Brunello.
  • Finally, to ring in the new year, something sweet (hopefully a harbinger of the year to come).  Demi-sec Champagne comes to mind -- it's much better for drinking on it's own than a brut -- and one of my favorite grower-makers has just the answer...  Franck Bonville's nonvintage Demi-sec (which they don't mention on their website -- hopefully it's not out of production!).
So, what can we learn from this list?  Well, for one, that I tend to spend about $40 on a bottle of wine for a gift (more or less, but everything averages out around $40 here).  Additionally, the perfect gift for one person may not be perfect for another -- while my fiancee might enjoy the Von Strasser or Martin Ray, she'll love a Brunello, and my father might like a Brunello, but he loves California Cab.  Additionally, it's not necessary to go to one of the major, spendy bottles for a gift (that's, of course, if you can find them -- there's not a lot of cult Brunello for sale in my area); a good gift of good wine, even if it's not from a "name brand" winery, will be appreciated -- and, may, in fact, be better (as the "name brand" wine charges a surcharge for the name!  To wit, I think the Von Strasser Sori Bricco cabernet is the equal of Diamond Creek's Red Rock Terrace, and it's half the price).  Finally, traditions are hard to break; we've had Champagne for probably 20 years for Christmas, and that's probably not going to change any time soon.  So go with it!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tasting the grand cuvee.

Through work yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to a very nice tasting (our last for the year, alas) -- wines for selling through the holidays.  We concentrated on sparkling wines, ranging from $8 cava through a $170 Krug Grand Cuvee.

Interestingly enough, the Krug was a late replacement for another bottle -- the 1998 Nicholas Feuilette Palmes D'Or, which we've had some quality control issues with (in fact, I got to taste the tester bottle of Palmes, and it's nothing like how the '97 I had last year was -- much more bitter.).

So, how was the Krug?

In a word, it was a razor-wire balance between weight and acidity, and Champagne Krug does this very well.   There's a unusual green-yellow cast to the wine in the glass, and it shows a lot of tart fruits (green apple, lime), and bracing, steely minerality.  It's a unique wine -- I've not had any Champagne that quite matches the style -- and I can understand how people would want to seek it out.  (93 points, if you're looking for a number and not a tasting note)

Is it worth $170 a bottle?

Well... if you've got $170 to blow on a bottle of wine, sure, why not!  Still, for the money, one could almost have a 6-pack of the best value Champagne from the tasting (the $30 GH Martel Brut Presteige -- much more yeasty/toasty than Krug, with more red fruit, but a great value and 91 points), or 4 of the second-best Champagne (the $45 DeMargerie Cuvee Special Grand Cru -- big, luxuriant wine with tons of red berries, tons of weight, and length.  92 points).

And that, I think, is the point of the luxe cuvees.  Are they better wines?  Yes.  Are they 4 times as good?  Not so much -- it's a very marginal difference.  So, really, when it comes time to buy a bottle of Champagne this year for a present... I don't think I'd go for a tete de cuvee.  Much more likely would be a bottle of a very good non-luxe cuvee, and some glassware.  Except for that one wine-geek friend who can really grok the difference (or, for that matter, for myself).