A Buyer's Guide to Sustainable Caviar & Blanc de Blancs Champagne

Photo by LauriPatterson/iStock / Getty Images

A decade ago, buying the black pearls was straightforward. Whether Russian or Iranian, almost all sturgeon eggs came from the Caspian Sea, and it was common knowledge that beluga was the best, followed by osetra and sevruga. In January 2006, this knowledge became as useful as an eight-track tape. A toxic mix of pollution, poaching, and overfishing had put 85% of the global sturgeon population at risk, and the worldwide trade of wild caviar was finally banned. Nonetheless, the global appetite for the coveted delicacy did not disappear, and that demand has since created a dynamic market for sustainably farmed sturgeon. Today, anyone can legally purchase, via the Internet, caviar of exceptional quality from well-run caviar farms.

You just have to know how to shop.

As before, caviar should be evaluated by three ­criteria: taste, texture, and tone. The taste should be fresh, nutty, and creamy. There should be no fishy aroma or aftertaste. The texture of the eggs should be firm, smooth, and a little moist to the touch, never sticky or wet. Upon taking a spoonful, you should be able to use your tongue to separate the grains on the roof of your mouth. Tone simply means color. Some people prize golden caviar; others prefer silver hues or shiny black pearls.

You also need to know your producer. Like heirloom peaches and grass-fed beef, caviar has entered the age of the celebrity farmer. The key to buying high-quality cured sturgeon roe is to know its origins, which does not mean fine-food purveyors like ­Petrossian and Zabar’s, which repackage caviar under their own labels. It means knowing the farms from which they source their product. It is a geographically diverse group that includes—but is by no means limited to—Caviar Giaveri in Italy, Galilee Caviar in Israel, Mottra Caviar in Latvia, Kaluga Queen on China’s Russian border, Royal Belgian Caviar, and Fish Breeders of Idaho. Prices vary from $53 to $394 for a 30-gram tin.

Pristine water is why these particular farms are sought out. The best fish farms have a superb water source and use recirculating aquaculture to cleanse and re-oxygenate the water in their pools. Many of these pools are also temperature controlled to mimic the sturgeon’s natural spawning cycle. Latvia’s Mottra Caviar, whose farm has earned a seal of approval from the official Slow Food organization, takes the purity of their environment to the extreme. To ensure a fresh product with no muddy aftertaste, the sturgeon are raised in temperature-controlled pools with water pumped from artesian wells 500 feet below the earth. Hangers equipped with air-filtration systems protect the pools from pollutants and local birds.

Some fine-caviar purveyors, such as Browne Trading, have started cobranding with premium sturgeon farms in order to create more transparency in the market. “This way, the consumer knows ­everything about their caviar, from the sturgeon’s species, to its diet, to its country of origin and how it was raised,” says Rod Browne Mitchell, Browne’s president. Whether your local caviar purveyors cobrand or not, they should be able to tell you exactly where their caviar was sourced and how it was cultivated.

Species matter, as well. Beluga caviar has been banned in the U.S. since October 2008, though China’s Kaluga Queen exports a beluga hybrid that is a true indulgence. Sevruga is nearly impossible to raise in captivity and has mostly disappeared from the marketplace. Of the traditional caviars, only osetra remains available, and it has become the connoisseurs’ caviar of choice. Keep in mind that osetra comes exclusively from Russian sturgeon.

Be careful: “Siberian Osetra” is a misnomer used to confuse consumers. Osetra simply means sturgeon in Russian, and ­Siberian sturgeon is a separate species that is far easier to breed. The white-sturgeon transmontanus is, in contrast, increasingly considered a premium-quality caviar. Native to our West Coast, it has a fine grain and nutty flavor similar to osetra.

Finally, be sure to check the “sell by” date. Caviar is a cured product whose flavor evolves and matures in the months directly following the harvest, but it does not stay fresh forever. Most ­experts recommend consuming caviar within six months of packaging. If you open a jar of caviar and it smells fishy, return it to the store. Most retailers won’t balk at making you whole.

This article was originally published in PENTA/Barron's


The Harmony of Caviar with Blanc de Blancs Champagnes  

Blanc de Blancs I Life with Wine.jpg

When serving caviar, I prefer to pour Champagne that is either one hundred percent chardonnay, known as a Blanc de Blancs, or one with a base wine dominated by the grape variety. Chardonnay lends Champagne its elegance. It brings freshness, structure and aromas of white flowers. What's more, the alchemy of Champagne production (second fermentation in the bottle and years in the cellar resting on sediment), encourages chardonnay-based Champagnes to develop the same characteristics we associate with fine caviar and its accoutrements. The wines become creamy on the palate, tasting of almonds and hazelnuts. They take on a suggestion of the sea, reflecting the chalky soil the vines are grown on. There are even hints of brioche, evocative of lightly buttered toast points. Of course, Blanc de Blancs Champagnes don't taste like caviar, instead they suggests the same notes. The flavors are complementary and this creates a sense of harmony when the two are served together.  


10 Champagnes for Caviar

A Tribute to Wineries that Sell Mature Wines

British couple sitting on high stools at ice bar outdoors at Grand Hotel St. Moritz . (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

British couple sitting on high stools at ice bar outdoors at Grand Hotel St. Moritz . (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Over Christmas break, after not skiing for fifteen years, we ventured to northern Vermont to a small family mountain to see if we still liked the sport. We obeyed all the rites and rituals of such trips: luggage, equipment, provisions and gifts filled our car so that our rear vision was blocked, and if you opened a door too quickly a bag or a child might come tumbling out.

With plenty of fresh powder and not-too-frigid temperatures, we rediscovered that skiing is a great way to spend a winter day outdoors. But the food on the mountain was strictly from hunger. To call it institutional would be an insult to some of the fine food now being served at schools. Within twenty-four hours, we vowed to take all our meals in the condo.

Which brings me to lunch on the second day in Vermont, the spread of charcuterie and artisanal cheeses our traveling companions had brought from Connecticut and the magnum of 2001 Domaine Savoye Morgon we’d found a few months earlier on the shelf of our neighborhood wine store, Flatiron Wines.

You can eat with a certain kind of abandon after a day of skiing. As we sat at the dining table surrounded by mountain views, reaching our knives across one another for a slice of country pâté or aged cheddar, and refilling our glasses from a seemingly endless bottle tasting of dark berries and anisette, we may as well have been in St. Moritz.  The improvised lunch is among my favorite meals of 2016. The lusty deliciousness of the charcuterie was elevated by the Morgon, not because it was an important bottle in the classic sense, but because it was a beautiful example of its type that had reached full maturity. Of the ten Cru Beaujolais appellations, the wines of Morgon are the most structured and long lived and the granite soils of the Côte du Py, where the Savoye family has been tending vineyards since the eighteen fifties, yield the appellation’s most complex offerings.

The bottle must have come from a private collection, because fifteen-year-old magnums of Savoye are not often spotted on a shop’s bottom shelf. They are the kind of wine you might find rummaging around the cellar of a friend with good taste, ample storage and a healthy dose of restraint. I’ve purchased the current vintage as a grab-and-go wine more than a dozen times, but until that lunch I had not known its potential for depth and elegance, the touch of truffle and fine drying tannins in a rich wine that was still lively enough to be refreshing. The bonus was that with only 12.5 percent alcohol, the wine eased, instead of kicked, us into après-ski naps. 

When I think about building a personal collection, these are the kind of bottles I covet. Affordable wines of exceptional quality, the result of rigorous and ethical viticulture, which are too humble for the auction circuit, yet often take on remarkable depth, complexity and charm with bottle age. The effects of time on these wines are profound. It’s akin to the difference between listening to an accomplished vocalist site read and hearing a performance of a song they’ve sung forever. You don’t need musical expertise to notice the smoothed edges, increased fluidity and more nuanced presentation.

Until this fantasy collection bears fruit, I’m grateful for the handful of exacting wineries that make a point of not releasing their wines until they are showing maturity. There is a great distinction between this and manipulating wines with an eye toward engineering approachability in their youth. This is the application of patience, vision, and financial resources to ensure wines have the opportunity to evolve. 

Summer: Fog fills the Napa Valley, and warms in the morning sun, rising into the Cain Vineyard.  The winery  reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest.. (Platinum Print Copyright © 2010 Olaf Beckmann)

Summer: Fog fills the Napa Valley, and warms in the morning sun, rising into the Cain Vineyard.  The winery  reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest.. (Platinum Print Copyright © 2010 Olaf Beckmann)

The Rioja producer, R. Lopez de Heredia, holds their red and white reservas in barrel for six years and then in bottle for another decade before releasing them to market at a stage of development they identify as reminiscent of “gentlemen who have nobly grown old, while still maintaining some of their youthful characteristics.”

The northern Piedmont producer Vallana works according to the same principle. Their Gattinara sees two years in barrel and then another eight years in bottle before it is available for purchase. I marvel at this wine every time I open a bottle. What a pleasure it is to find mature traditional nebbiolo for less than thirty dollars.

Christopher Howell, the winemaker at Cain, the Napa winery on the crest of Spring Mountain known for its Bordeaux-style blends, recalls having a conversation about the benefits of bottle aging with Cain’s owner, Jim Meadlock. Afterwards, Jim queried, “If these wines develop with age and evolve slowly, why are you willing to release them too soon? Why don’t you hold some so people can experience what they’re like with time?” The winery now reserves a portion of each vintage of Cain 5 to be released a decade after the harvest to select shops and restaurants. The wines are also available directly from the winery. 

Of course, in Champagne, aged wine is an integral part of the culture. Reserve wines, wines from previous years, ensure consistency in house blends. The Champagne house Henriot took this practice to an extreme with its limited edition Cuve 38, a Champagne in which the base wine is an ever evolving blend of Grand Cru chardonnay from the Côtes des Blancs dating back to 1990. Vintage Champagnes, declared after an outstanding growing season, rest in the cellar on their lees for at least three years and usually far longer. For example, the Charles Heisieck 2005 Brut Millésime is just now being released. It is this extended time in contact with the sediment from the second in-bottle fermentation that gives all Champagne its rich and savory character.

Thinking about the transformative power of time, I grew fixed on the image of finely sliced onions warming over a low flame, slowly evolving from something sharp and tart into the rich confiture atop a Provencal pissaladière, as in the recipe below. Over the course of an hour, you can see the changes in the onion’s texture, smell the evolution of its sugars, and taste how these elements come together. The trick is not to rush the process, to resist raising the flame and browning the onions, or adding sugar to bring sweetness to the onions faster than slow cooking permits. The dish rewards patience. As the pissaladière's shortbread crust crisps in the oven, it begs to be served with a glass of the beguiling 2004 R. Lopez de Heredia Rioja Blanca Reserva, which to our good fortune is the current release and can be had by walking to the wine store while the tart cools.


10 Wines with Bottle Age


Pissaladière, Provencal Onion Tart

Serves 6

This recipe is adapted from Lulu’s Provencal Table, by Richard Olney. Instead of using whole anchovies as the original recipe suggests, here they are finely chopped and cooked in olive oil, then drizzled over the onion mixture.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • Salt
  • 10 tablespoons cold butter, diced
  • About 4 tablespoons of cold water
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 pounds of sweet onions, finely sliced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 anchovy fillets, chopped fine
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) niçois olives

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, add the diced butter, and crumble the flour and butter together, lightly and rapidly, picking up portions and rubbing loosely between thumb and fingertips. Above all don’t overwork the pastry. Gather it together with a fork and a little cold water, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling it out.

Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large earthenware poêlon or heavy sauté pan, add the onions and salt and cook, covered, over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for an hour or more, or until they are so soft as to form a semi-purée.  Remove the lid and continue to cook until much of the liquid has evaporated; the onions should remain absolutely uncolored. Season with pepper.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sauté pan over low heat. Add the chopped anchovies and cook, stirring occasionally until they dissolve into the oil. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  With the palm of your hand, flatten the ball of pastry on a generously floured marble slab or other work surface, sprinkle over plenty of flour over the ball, and roll to a thickness of approximately 1/8 inch. Roll it up onto a rolling pin and unroll it onto a large baking sheet. Fold up the edges and crimp them, either with your thumb dipped repeatedly in flour, or with the tines of a fork. 

Spread the onion puree evenly over the pasty.  Press the olives into the purée, spacing them equally. Dribble the anchovy oil over the surface and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry are golden and crisp.  Serve hot or tepid, cut into small wedges or squares with an aperitif, or in large wedges as the first course.

Sicily Between Two Moons

Courtyard of the Planeta Winery in Menfi

Courtyard of the Planeta Winery in Menfi

The first time I visited Sicily was Christmas 2010. We stayed at a seaside villa at the foot of Mt. Etna surrounded by lemon orchards for a week that ended with a blue moon on New Year's Eve. My daughter was twenty months old and she wouldn’t walk. She’d only jump. She jumped through passport control and the Rome airport and for a seven days she jumped around the property's jasmine scented Arabic gardens. I think of that spot every time I taste an Etna Bianco, wines made from carricante, a white grape that has been growing on Etna for a millennium. The property was a visual tasting note, a snapshot of the citrus, slate and saline qualities that make the wine so refreshing and memorable. 

Jumping    

Jumping  

 

We could not visit any of the Etna vineyards on that trip. All were closed for the holidays. Instead, we explored the mountain itself. A local volcanologist led us up to the crater’s rim. It was like walking on the moon, but with a view of the Mediterranean coast. By the time we reached the top, the wind had picked up to twenty miles per hour, the path had narrowed to two feet across, and the gradation of the drop had drawn close to vertical, at which point I fell to my knees and became intimate with Etna's gravelly soil.

As much as any winemaker talk, the trek burnished our ardor for nerello mascalese, the dominant grape in Etna Rosso. Not because the earthy, fruity, structured wines contributed immense pleasure to our post-hike picnic, and several meals before and afterward, but because we had personally experienced the brutal conditions under which these remarkable and nuanced wines flourish. Upon returning home, knowledge of Etna Rosso was a great souvenir, a gift that kept on giving. Bottles of Benanti Etna Rosso that could be had for less than twenty dollars, and once opened evolved in the glass for hours, led to the discovery of the more esoteric wines of Frank Cornelissen, and others.  

Still, when it comes to viticulture, DOC Etna is an island unto itself. The grape varieties and conditions on the mountain are unique in Sicily. In fact, bottles of wine from Etna are the only Sicilian wines that are not required to say Sicilia on the label. Around the world, Etna is quite enough. To get a more global sense of island's wine, it is necessary to take a closer look at nero d'avola, the juicy black-skinned grape celebrated for its role in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, particularly by producers such as Arianna Occhipinti and COS, in which nero d'avola supplies the base notes while frappato contributes vivacity and floral aromas.   

Every grape variety has a spiritual home, think nebbiolo in Piedmont. For nero d'avola it is DOC Noto in Sicily's Siracusa province. Poised on gently sloping hills in the southernmost corner of the island, a stone’s throw from where the Ionian Sea merges with the Mediterranean, light bathes Noto’s vineyards. Once the ocean floor, the soil is fossil rich, nutrient poor and adept at retaining precious rainfall. Nero d’avola vines struggle to grow in these environs as much as the nerello mascalese vines struggle on Etna. The result is elegant and distinctive wines with dark fruit, sweet tannins and aromas of jasmine and bergamot. Alessio Planeta, a seventeenth generation Sicilian and the winemaker at his family's five wineries on the island, calls nero d’avola from Noto, “the most Burgundian of Sicilian wines.”

Noto vineyards at dusk 

Noto vineyards at dusk 

For all the majesty of the volcano, even on that first trip, my most vivid memory of Sicily remains the few hours we spent touring Siracusa. It wasn’t the Roman amphitheater or the rare Caravaggio tucked into a small chapel. It was the unmistakable quality of the light, and how looking out from the ancient city to the place where the seas merge, you could feel Sicily’s history as a crossroad of Greek, Roman, Spanish, Catalan and Arabic cultures. There was the sense of being somewhere both deeply European and indelibly connected to continents beyond the horizon. 

In the fall of 2015, I returned to Sicily to tour the Planeta's wineries in Menfi, Vittoria, Noto, Etna and Capo di Milazzo. Once again, we started in Etna, where as a safeguard against lava flow the barrel room is outfitted with a tiny window and a telescope trained on the volcano. Once again, we drove two hours south to the province of Siracusa, this time to Noto. Once again, as I got out of the van I was overcome by the beauty of the light in that corner of the world. The glow at dusk made everything look as it were lit for an art film. I picked a ripe olive from a tree and put it in my mouth knowing it hadn’t been cured, yet thought it looked so plump and round, like a plum, it had to taste good. I was terribly wrong.  

In the winery, we tasted back vintages of Planeta's Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola. The wines were silky with flavors of black cherry and smoke, they had aromas of white flowers and tension in the backbone. Over dinner we tried a lovely and slightly more delicate example from the boutique producer Terra delle Sirene. Unfortunately, Noto wines can be difficult to find in the U.S., but tracking them down is worth the effort. Planeta and Gulfi are the two most widely distributed high-quality producers. There are also a number of smaller wineries that can be found at specialty wine shops, a favorite being the Savino Nero Sichilli.  

Modica in the Val di Noto

Modica in the Val di Noto

Wines are only one of Siracusa province's many draws. We stayed a day, but given the opportunity it is a region I could spend months exploring. The Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rebuilt after being razed by an earthquake in 1693, the majestic stone cities of Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Ispica represent the apotheosis of the late-Baroque architecture in Europe. 

Pastry chefs the world over covet Noto’s fresh almonds. In the heat of the summer, the almonds find their optimal expression at breakfast as locals begin their day with a cooling granita made from the prized nuts. The best granita comes from Caffé Sicilia on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Noto's historic town center.

Along the coast, the picturesque fishing village Marzamemi is home to the restaurant Taverna La Cialoma, where dishes made with local seafood embody the argument for simple preparations and the finest ingredients. If you prefer more artistry, Ragusa has six Micheline starred restaurants. 

The region is also celebrated for cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino commune. The recipe below for Penne with Pesto & Pachino Tomatoes was delicious and full of nostalgia for the summer months when taught to me by the cook at the Etna villa in the dead of winter using supermarket produce. It takes on an entirely new dimension in July and August when tomatoes and basil are fresh and plentiful.

And, of course, there is the lure of the coast....

Capo di Milazzo

Capo di Milazzo

We left Siracusa for Planeta's Vittoria winery, a historic walled property with mature trees and climbing bougainvillea located in the center of the island's southern coast, in a rundown area dominated by an energy plant and industrial agriculture. It was the harvest, and the winemaker Arianna Occhipinti joined us for a pizza dinner with her picking crew, a combination of artists and aspiring oenologists from across Europe who had moved in with her for the month because they admire her aesthetics and the purity of her work. As soon as she arrived, she took Alessio aside. She was worried about the rate of fermentation in the Occhipinti SP68, which was unusually slow. As they huddled, it was evident that the local winemaking community was collaborative and tight knit. After the pizza party, we tried to stay up to see the super blood moon. It seemed the perfect counterpoint to the blue moon I'd witnessed on New Year's Eve at the foot of Mt. Etna five years earlier. Moons remind us to be receptive, the special ones even more so. Both trips were far too brief, but the impressions gleaned had opened my eyes, my soul, to Sicily’s history and rhythms, the idea that it is many places and embodies a multitude of ideas and traditions, depending on where on the island you stand, and through whose prism you look. Most of all, it fostered a longing to return and a sense that once experienced, this is an island that stays with you in your bones. 


10 Wines Sicily


Penne with Pachino Tomatoes & Pesto

Serves six to eight as a first course

The bite of fresh pesto, the sweet tomatoes and the nuttiness of the grated cheese take on a creamy texture when emulsified by the heat of the penne.  Any high quality cherry tomato will be delicious in this recipe, but if you have access to Pachino cherry tomatoes, by all means use them.  

  • 2 1/2 lb cherry tomatoes, quartered 
  • 1 1/2 lb penne pasta
  • 1/2  medium white onion, grated
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed 
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 1/2 tsp red (chili) pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup parmesan, grated
  • 1/4 cup pecorino, grated
  • 1/4 cup almonds, toasted and crushed

Place the quartered cherry tomatoes in a large mixing bowl.  Grate the onion and garlic over the tomatoes and gently toss. To make the pesto, quickly soak the basil leaves in cool water and pat dry with a paper towel.  In the bowl of the food processor with a sharp metal blade, combine the basil, pine nuts, black pepper, red pepper and salt along with half a cup of olive oil and half a cup of grated Parmesan. Pulse the mixture three to four seconds at a time to avoid blackening.  Scrape the edges of the bowl with a wooden spoon.  Add half remaining olive oil, pulse and repeat until you achieve a uniform creamy consistency.   Pour the pesto over the tomato mixture. Add the remaining Parmesan and Pecorino. Gently toss and let stand for thirty to sixty minutes. 

Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the penne. When the pasta is al dente, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon or pour it into a colander.  Place half the pesto in the bottom of a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the pasta and gently toss.  Add the rest of the pesto to the pot and once again, gently toss. Remove the pan from the heat.  Spoon the pasta onto a large shallow platter. Garnish with basil leaves and crushed almonds. Serve warm.

The Quiet Nobility of Chinon

The Quiet Nobility of Chinon

If wines had seasons, late autumn would be the time for Chinon. Earthy, juicy, tannic, brooding, and elegant with age, these wines taste of the moment following the harvest when the work of producing fruit is done and the vines are soaking in the last of the warm autumn sun before leaves fall, wood hardens, and sap descends to their roots.

The wines are one hundred percent cabernet franc, a thin-skinned, aromatic, black grape best known for its opulent star turn further south in Saint-Émilion, particularly in the hallowed cellars of Chateau Cheval Blanc (ten percent cabernet sauvignon is permitted in Chinon, but rarely included in the blend). Cabernet franc-based wines from Chinon may not be as overtly sumptuous as those from a Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, but the best examples can be equally noble, if quietly so.   

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Volnay & Pommard on the Holiday Table

Volnay & Pommard on the Holiday Table

Holiday meals, especially more intimate gatherings or holiday season dinner parties, offer a stage ripe for exploration of wines that may stretch the budget in other circumstances. The table is set. Someone, maybe you, is already cooking a multi-course seasonal meal. Instead of just pairing wines and foods, why not use the opportunity to take your guests on a journey? A couple of well-chosen bottles of Burgundy can certainly elevate a celebration.

Which brings me back to Volnay and Pommard. Perhaps no two communes illustrate terroir in Burgundy as clearly as these neighboring villages. Like Barbaresco and Barolo in Piedmont, they are unmistakably feminine and masculine expressions of the same grape variety, in this case pinot noir. Drive or bicycle south from Beaune on the Route des Grands Crus and you will arrive in Pommard, an appellation whose relatively low elevation, underground spring water, and sediment composed of a heavy mix of clay and iron yield wines of deep color, intensity and structure. These are appealing, powerful, ageworthy wines that will be especially attractive to fans of collectible cabernet sauvignon.

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Wine and Meditation

Wine and Meditation

What does it mean to know a fine wine? Too often we only see what we have been taught to perceive. We measure wines against established categories and personal prejudices about what defines quality. What would happen if instead of rushing to identify or critique, we put aside the reductive methods championed in most wine education classes and afforded wines the necessary time and attention to unfold and reveal themselves naturally. What if we began to value presence over mastery?

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Grenache Lovers, Meet Gigondas

Photo by aronaze/iStock / Getty Images

Mention Gigondas and devotees of this grenache-based wine from the Southern Rhône will wax poetic about the grandeur of the Dentelles de Montmirail, the dramatic limestone cliffs below which region’s vineyards are planted. They will go on about how Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s growing popularity has led to soaring prices and confide that Gigondas provides much of the interest of its famous neighbor, with perhaps a tad less finesse, for a much smaller investment. Once they’ve set the stage and given the sales pitch, hopefully they’ll open a bottle and offer you a glass.

Located in the hills on the eastern edge of the broad alluvial plain that tracks the Rhône River, Gigondas sits in the path of the blustery wind known as the mistral, making it a cool climate wine relative to its famously hot locale. At their best, Gigondas’ are more expressive and complex than their neighbors in the Côte du Rhône. Gigondas must be at least eighty percent grenache; this provides the wines with a rich base of red fruit and plum flavors. They must also be at least fifteen percent syrah and mourvèdre; these thick skinned varieties anchor grenanche’s overt fruitiness with savory aromatics, tannic structure and the capacity to age in oak.

Delicious, if rustic, in its youth, Gigondas begs for an exotically spiced lamb tagine or a hardy stew. Time is this wine’s friend. If you can forget about a bottle for a decade, its rough edges will soften and a sense of harmony between the flavors of fruit and earth will emerge. Wines from Domaine du Pesquier, Domaine du Cayron, Pierre Amadieu and Lavau are all good places to begin to explore this gem of a region in the Southern Rhône.

Denis Dubourdieu on Drinkability as an Essential Characteristic of Dry White Bordeaux

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Denis Dubourdieu is the leading authority on the white wines of Bordeaux. Beyond being the Director of General Oenology at the University of Bordeaux, he manages four family estates, including Doisy-Daëne and Clos Floridéne, and consults with wineries such as Château Cheval Blanc and Château d’Yquem. Here, he guides us through Bordeaux’s distinctive white wines.

Sophie Menin: What are the hallmarks of a great dry white Bordeaux?

Denis Dubourdieu:  Drinkability is the most important quality of a Bordeaux Blanc. They should be fresh and fruity without too much alcohol. A good one will quench your thirst.

SM: What distinguishes the region’s sauvignon blanc and sémillon, the two grapes that make up most white Bordeaux?

DD: Our sauvignon blanc is a wine of the Atlantic coast. It is more delicate than the intensely grassy and tropical wines you find in New Zealand and less flinty than sauvignon blanc from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. At its best, it exhibits flavors of grapefruit and white peach.

Bordeaux is at the northern limit of where sémillon can be cultivated and it does very well here. It is our chardonnay. The finest examples are grown on limestone. Bordeaux wines made from sémillon smell of hazelnut, almonds and brioche. After a few years, they develop aromas of fresh apricot or orange. 

SM: How has dry white Bordeaux changed since you started making wine?

DD: Bordeaux Blanc as we know it did not exist thirty years ago. Our dry white wines used to smell like oxidized sweet wines. Things started to change in the mid nineteen eighties when I was directing white wine research in the enology department of the University of Bordeaux and we began to understand which molecules were involved in creating the characteristic aromas of sauvignon blanc and the role of the yeast in protecting wines from oxidation.

When we applied this knowledge to Bordeaux’s two main white grape varieties, sauvignon blanc and sémillon, we discovered their fruity taste and how well they complement each other in a dry white blend.

SM: Could you describe the sweet white Bordeaux known as Sauternes for us?

DD: Sauternes caresses the mouth. There is a quality of softness. You don’t sense any corners. No matter how long the wine has aged, you always encounter aromas of fresh fruit, not just jam and honey. Last month I opened a bottle of our 1934 Doisy-Daëne, a sweet white made next door to Sauternes in the commune of Barsac. It was a complex bomb of orange, smoke, chocolate, ginger and apricot.

SM: When do you drink Sauternes? 

DD: I like young Sauternes as an aperitif and old Sauternes at the end of the meal. 

 

What is a "Non-Dosage" or "Brut Nature" Champagne?

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The terms “non-dosage” or “brut nature” on a bottle of Champagne may mean that no sugar has been sugar added at the end, but don’t be fooled, these are far from the sparkling equivalent of a SkinnyGirl drink. They are more akin to the feat of appearing gorgeous on camera without makeup. Just as it takes a great beauty to successfully forego a little foundation before submitting to the camera’s lens, it takes a truly exceptional base wine to make a compelling “non-dosage” or “brut nature” Champagne.

To understand why this is so, it helps to review the methode traditional used in Champagne production. Traditionally, Champagne is made by bottling a base wine made of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, then adding a liqueur de tirage (wine mixed with sugar and yeasts) to initiate a second, in-bottle fermentation, which gives carbon dioxide off as a by-product, lending the wine its distinctive effervescence. 

The wine is then aged in bottle for at least fifteen months. At the end of the aging process, the sediment from the second fermentation is coaxed into the neck of the bottle by a process called riddling. The neck is then flash frozen and its contents are pulled out like a stopper. Finally, the dosage (wine mixed with cane sugar) is traditionally added before the bottle is re-corked.

The dosage is like the pat of butter or splash of sherry added to a sauce or a soup before serving. It rounds out the flavors and balances the component parts. For a winemaker, forgoing the dosage means giving up their chance to make small corrections. That’s why some wine lovers have dubbed these wines “naked Champagnes.” 

A renewed focus on farming, the growing importance of grower Champagnes, a wider understanding of Champagne as wine, the preference for drier wines, and global warming have all played a roll in the growing importance of the “non-dosage” or “brut nature” category. If you have not yet tried one, the Ayala Brut Nature, Pol Roger Pure, Benoît Lahaye Brut Nature, or any of bottle from George Laval or Tarlant are an all excellent places to begin to explore Champagne stripped down to its essence.

 

How a Sommelier Helps

As the Gramercy Tavern Beverage Director, Juliette Pope manages every aspect of the restaurant’s wine program from selecting wines, to meeting budgets to the logistics of cellaring, all with an eye toward delighting their eclectic clientele. She chooses wines for a busy casual tavern, a more formal main dining room, locals who frequent the restaurant three times a week and tourists with no fine dining experience. Juliette knows how a list full of unfamiliar wines can make guests anxious, since Gramercy Tavern never pours your typical pinot grigio by the glass.  Here she offers advice on how to make your interaction with a sommelier a success.

SM:  When should you ask for the help of a sommelier?

JP:  Any time you don’t see a bottle that rings a bell or fits your budget, ask for help. If the only sauvignon blanc by the bottle is $100 and you want to spend $50, you need to talk to somebody.

SM:  How can a sommelier help you?

JP:  A sommelier can direct you to a wine that is stylistically up your alley, even if it is unfamiliar. For example, I find people who typically drink sauvignon blanc to be good candidates for grüner veltliner from Austria. The wine may sound Germanic and unlike anything they are used to drinking, but it often lines up well with their tastes and budgets.

SM:  What is the point of tasting a wine before it is poured?

JP:  Technically, it is to see if the wine is flawed, but for the restaurant guest, the point of tasting a wine before it is poured is to see if you like it. Our crew is trained to taste each bottle before it goes out to ensure flawed wines don’t reach our customers. If you don’t like the wine, you can send it back. We believe this is an important part of service, because we don’t want people to sit at a meal with a bottle they are not going to enjoy.

SM:  Do you have any advice for getting the most out of your interaction with a sommelier?

JP:  Don’t be shy about budget. The best way to indicate your budget is to use your finger to point to a price on the wine list and say, “I am looking for something along these lines.” The number doesn’t get verbalized, but the sommelier knows where to take you based on your price requirements and the style of wine you described enjoying.

The Halmarks of a Classic Rosé de Provence

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Rosé de Provence is the kind of wine that fulfills a longing for a particular time and place. Its pale salmon hue, fresh fruit aroma and tumbling minerality evoke seaside lunches and sunset aperitifs. Typically made from grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre, the classic style is light and refreshingly dry. When the weather begins to warm, Americans have an insatiable appetite for Rosé de Provence. For eight consecutive years this bottled essence of Southern France has experienced double-digit sales growth here. As such, today we have access to more rosés from a greater variety of Provençal producers than ever before.

Achieving the elegant simplicity of a well-crafted rosé requires gentle handling of mature fruit. Corners cut in the vineyard lead to thin wines with an aftertaste that can be green or medicinal, wines that are the bad oysters of summer drinks. Good rosés should be light-bodied with mouthwatering acidity and taste of white flowers, seashells and just-picked berries. A few bottles that fulfill this tall order are Château de Pourcieux,  Domaine de Saint-Ser, Château la Calisse, AIX and Domaine de l'’Abbeye Clos Beylesse.   

Rosé de Provence is not a wine to be sipped slowly and pondered. It is meant to disappear quickly, by the magnum if possible, and its charming way of capturing the spirit of Mediterranean idyll should be delivered to the consumer without emptying their wallet.

Salcheto’s Remarkable Winery

Inspired to improve his wines while reducing energy consumption, Michele Manelli, the winemaker at Salcheto in Montepulciano, Italy, has built a remarkable winery that is completely off the grid.

Nestled into the side of a hill with a vertical garden planted on its façade to absorb the sun, the winery is as beautiful as it is functional. The roof doubles as a piazza and is equipped with an automated sprinkler system. When the piazza is wet, the sun’s energy vaporizes the water and cools the winery through a simple (yet ingenious) thermodynamic process. The facility is heated by burning clippings and other materials in the local landscape. Inside, there are no light bulbs. Natural light is delivered through long reflective tubes and mirrors. To pump over, stainless steel vats harness the power of CO2 released during fermentation process. Electricity is provided through solar panels. In terms of metrics, the net result is that Salcheto’s winery us