Superb Summer Treats: Non-Champagne European Sparkling Wines

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SPARKLING (NON-CHAMPAGNE) THEMED EURO LUNCH – Donato Enoteca, Redwood City, California (7/10/2011)

The summery theme for our July Euro Lunch was sparkling wines from throughout Europe with the exception of Champagne. We excluded Champagne so as to give more focus to our theme, and to afford ourselves the opportunity to taste and compare some of the wonderful Cavas, sparkling Loire and Jura wines, and fizzy Italians that are out there, among others. It also seems to me that other sparkling wines are all too often automatically, and unfavorably, compared to Champagne, even when they are made from different grapes, by different processes and from very different terroirs. Champagne, to me, is its own wonderfully diverse and fascinating category, but since Champagne so often overshadows other sparkling wines in the minds of many, it’s important–for the sake of vinous and tasting experience diversity–to give other sparkling wines their own place at the table once in awhile. As usual, our chef at Donato, Pedro Ayala, did an outstanding job of pairing very creative dishes to our wines. The result was a delightful summer afternoon of bubbles and flavor that made me thankful for the felicitous combo of summer weather and sparkling wine, as well as for wonderful wine-loving friends to enjoy them with.

We started with a flight that included two very impressive vintage Italian sparklers, from Franciacorta, made by Monte Rossa, along with one representative each from Portugal and the Canary Islands. My favorite of this flight, which paired beautifully with Chef Pedro’s creative fried mussel, clam, tomato and zucchini dish, was the 2005 Monte Rossa Brut Cabochon. We then moved to a trio of Cavas, with a truly delicious stuffed calamari dish. My favorite Cava producer–Raventos i blanc–came through with my top wine in this flight: the ’07 L’Hereu Reserva Brut–a delicate, complex and impressive Cava, as I’ve grown to expect from this house. Our third flight was devoted to the Jura and Loire, and it was the best overall flight of the day. The very best of this flight of five, for me, was a 2007 Crémant du Jura from Les Chais du Vieux Bourg with the punning name “Delire des Lyres.” This was closely followed by the always reliable sparkling wine from François Chidaine. With our fourth flight, we changed color to pink, enjoying two crémants d’Alsace and a Spatburgunder sekt. The easy standout of this trio for me was the Domaine Allimant-Laugner Crémant. In an afternoon full of striking presentations from the kitchen, the presentation of our fish course for this flight, including the upright fried tail of a Branzino d’orada, was the most striking of all. A couple of sparkling Shirazes from Australia managed to make their way into the lunch as well, even though they’re not European sparklers, so we opened those as a little intermezzo flight, before our dessert. These were my least favorite sparklers of the day, both being on the oaky as opposed to the fruity side for sparkling Shiraz. We finished with a trio of sweet sparklers, including a Clairette de Die, a Bugey-Cerdon and a quite delicious Brachetto d’Acqui from Braida that retails for about $20.

A major takeaway for the day for me was a sense that the world of sparkling wine outside of Champagne has advanced dramatically since Tom Stevenson, in his groundbreaking World Encyclopedia of Champagne & sparkling wine, complained bitterly about the quality of French sparkling wines outside of Champagne. In his book, published in 1998, Stevenson asserted that “two-thirds of French sparkling wines are undrinkable,” and claimed “more than three-quarters of Cavas are boring or worse.” I believe the increasing emphasis on quality and artisanal products that has taken hold throughout the wine world in the past ten to 15 years can definitely be sensed in sparkling wines as well, and that there are many more fine, complex and noteworthy non-Champagne sparklers being made now than ever before. Many of these wines have great minerality and acidity, and arguably pair even better with a variety of foods (especially dishes from the same regions and countries where these wines are made) than rich, yeasty Champagnes. The latter are wonderful aperitif wines, for enjoyment and contemplation on their own, or with simple bites of caviar or oysters, but are arguably often too big and attention demanding to play any kind of equitable supporting role for more complex and attention-worthy creations from the kitchen. Kudos, once again, to Chef Pedro for showing us how well a creative array of dishes can pair with many of the wonderful sparklers represented in our luncheon.

For more details on many of our wines, and my complete tasting notes, see below.

Eclectic flight

The Monte Rossas are made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, i.e., Champagne grapes, grown on a hillside vineyard. The Cabochon is their top tier wine, and it undergoes its first fermentation in barriques, and is aged on its fine lees for 40 months. Keeping in mind what I wrote above about the too-automatic tendency to compare other sparklers with Champagne, due to the grapes and methods involved here, one could argue it is more fair than usual to compare this sparkler to Champagne. From this perspective, both Paul, who brought the wine, and I were surprised at how easy it would be for the ’05 Cabochon to pass for a fine Champagne if it were poured blind. It was also the most pricey of our sparklers that afternoon, at $55 to $65 a bottle. Paul had to obtain it from the importer, as there is none currently available from U.S. retailers.

I also quite enjoyed our sparkling Malvasia from the Canary Islands–the Los Bermejos Lanzarote Brut Nature. It’s minerally, delicate and flavorful. It’s also fairly pricey, at about $42, if you can find it. The Pato, from the Beiras region of Portugal, made from the indigenous Baga grape, was not as strong as other sparkling wines I’ve had from this producer, especially the ’08 Bairrada Vinhas Velhas.
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Green tomato and zucchini with tomato emulsion, rice flour fried mussel in tomato and red pepper emulsion, fried clam with Italian parsley and calabria pepper
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  • 2005 Monte Rossa Franciacorta Brut Cabochon – Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta
    Light lemon yellow color with very tiny bubbles; lifted, yeasty, elegant, tart citrus, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Nero) (92 pts.)
  • 2004 Monte Rossa Franciacorta Brut Cabochon – Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta
    Light medium lemon yellow color with tiny bubbles; rich ripe apple, tart pear nose; tasty, fine mousse, rich, leesy, tart apple, very tart pear, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • N.V. Luis Pato Maria Gomes Espumante – Portugal, Beiras, Vinho Regional Beiras
    Very light yellow color with a steady stream of tiny bubbles; fresh, bright, ripe peach, apricot, floral, nectarine nose; ripe lemon, mineral palate; meium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
  • N.V. Bodegas Los Bermejos Lanzarote Bermejo Brut Nature – Spain, Canary Islands, Lanzarote
    Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; leesy, chalk, tart citrus, mineral nose; tasty, delicate, tart citrus, mineral, very tart orange, chalky palate; medium finish 90+ points (90 pts.)

Cava flight

One of our Cavas in this flight, the 2001 Castell Sant Antoni Cava Gran Reserva Brut Nature, could have been quite wonderful, but was unfortunately corked. I look forward to sampling another bottle. The Avinyó Penedès Seleccio La Ticota Gran Reserva was good, with a remarkably powdery texture. It and the star of this flight, the Raventos i blanc, were both made from the traditional cava grapes–Macabeu and Xarel-lo, plus Parellada in the case of the Raventos. Neither included Cava newcomer Chardonnay, which was authorized for Cava in 1986. The week before, at Luce Restaurant in San Francisco, I had another Raventos i blanc, a rosé, which was my favorite sparkler yet from this producer. It’s the 2007 Cava de Nit, and for $20 to $22, I think it’s about the best buy for a sparkling rosé out there right now. I strongly recommend it.
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Monterey calamari ripieni stuffed with wild prawns, balsonic olives and garlic with sauteed fennel, beans and arugula
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  • N.V. Avinyó Penedès Seleccio La Ticota Gran Reserva – Spain, Catalunya, Penedès
    Light yellow color with small quantity of medium-sized bubbles; intriguing tart apple, chalk, lemon nose; powdery textured, tart lemon, chalk, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (Macabeu and Xarel-lo from old vines) (90 pts.)
  • 2007 Raventos i blanc Cava L’Hereu Reserva Brut – Spain, Catalunya, Cava
    Very light yellow color with a good stream of tiny bubbles; lovely, ethereal, light green fruit, green onion, vaguely savory nose; tasty, delicate, refined, tart green fruit, lime, mineral palate with a sense of green herbs; medium-plus finish 92+ points (60% Macabeu, 20% Parellada, 20% Xarel-lo) (92 pts.)
  • 2001 Castell Sant Antoni Cava Gran Reserva Brut Nature – Spain, Catalunya, Cava
    Light medium yellow color with steady stream of tiny bubbles; TCA on nose; TCA, tart citrus, mineral palate (NR/flawed)

Jura and Loire flight

As I mentioned above, this was our best overall flight, and all of the wines were quite good. This was the second time in a month that I’ve had the Rolet Crémant Brut, and its minerality and fine definition are growing on me. Domaine Rolet is now the second largest winegrowing concern in the Jura, with 60 hectares of vineyards in well placed areas in the hills of the Arbois and Côtes du Jura. The 2007 Brut is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, 15% Poulsard and 15% Pinot Noir. It sells for only about $19.

Les Chais du Vieux Bourg was established in 2003 by Ludwig Bindernagel and Nathalie Eigenschenck. It consists of two and a half hectares of vineyards in Arlay, with vines from 40 to 50 years old. The Blanc Delire des Lyres is made from Chardonnay (there’s also a rosé by the same name, made with Pinot Noir). K&L is the only U.S. producer that has it (only the blanc), for $30. It’s a very appealing sparkler, and another strong recommendation.

Our two Montlouis-sur-Loire producers included one of my favorite producers anywhere, whom I’ve written about here a number of times–François Chidaine–and Domaine La Grange Tiphaine. The latter was founded in the late 1800s by Alfonse Delecheneau, and is now run by his great grandson Damien Delecheneau and his wife Coralie. The Nouveau-Nez is made from young Chenin Blanc vines. Chidaine also makes his Brut from younger Chenin Blanc vines, and picks them at a high level of ripeness, so as not to have to add dosage. It’s another good buy at about $20.

Our most unusual wine in this flight, with the least bubbles (since it is only a petillant), was Frantz Saumon’s “Un Saumon dans La Loire,” which is imported by our buddies Cory and Guilhaume, the principals behind a small importing and online retail company called Selection Massale, based here in Oakland. The wine is made from the Menu Pineau grape, also known as Arbois, which makes softer wines than the predominant Chenin Blanc. A petillant is made with only one fermentation, instead of the two required for Champagne and most other sparklers. It is made by lowering the temperature of the wine before it has completed fermentation, bottling it, and then allowing the fermentation to complete in bottle. The wine’s subtitle is the French slang expression for a morning erection, literally “the little morning pole.”
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Risotto safforono with rock shrimp and calamari with hydroponic watercress and fennel
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  • 2007 Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura Crémant Brut – France, Jura, Crémant du Jura
    Very light green-tinged yelllow color with an abundance of tiny bubbles; tart pear, leesy, mineral nose; tasty, light citrus, mineral, tart green apple palate with definition; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2007 Les Chais du Vieux Bourg Crémant du Jura Delire des Lyres – France, Jura, Crémant du Jura
    Light wheat yellow color with steady stream of tiny bubbles; very appealing, peach, tart nectarine nose; tasty, very poised, tart peach, light apple, ripe lemon palate with perfect balance; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Nouveau-Nez – France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Montlouis-sur-Loire
    Light yellow color with lots of very tiny bubbles; rich, baked apple, peach, pear nose; tasty, poised, tart peach, pear, mineral, yeasty, floral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Une Saumon dans la Loire Petillant Naturel “La Petit Gaule du Matin” – France, Loire Valley, Touraine
    Light lemon yellow color with very few bubbles; poached pear, mineral, stone nose; tasty, poached pear, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Brut – France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Montlouis-sur-Loire
    Light medium lemon yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; lifted, ripe apple, golden apple nose; tasty, good mousse, tart golden apple, baked apple, mineral palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)

Rosé flight

On to our pink flight. The Allimant-Laugner was a remarkably good Crémant d’Alsace, an excellent buy for $18 to 21 from a number of retailers. It’s made from Pinot Noir. The other two wines were good, but the Allimant-Laugner was the most impressive.
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Branzino d’orada real with heirloom tomato and pea sauce, wild mushroom puree under potato and pearls with agromato lemon-infused olive oil
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  • N.V. Domaine Allimant-Laugner Crémant d’Alsace Rosé – France, Alsace, Crémant d’Alsace
    Light orange pink color with medium bubbles; tart cantaloupe, orange cream nose; tasty, poised, light cantaloupe, orange cream, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • N.V. Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé – France, Alsace, Crémant d’Alsace
    Light orange pink color with steady stream of tiny bubbles; yeasty, light strawberry, strawberry cream nose; tasty, strawberry cream, light raspberry palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • N.V. Latitude 50 Pinot Noir Spatburgunder Sekt – Germany, Nahe
    Light orange pink color with steady stream of tiny bubbles; light strawberry cream, mineral nose; tasty, creamy textured, tart cherry, red berry, floral palate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)

Sparkling Shiraz intermezzo

I’ve had one extraordinary sparkling Shiraz in my life, the 1998 Rockford Shiraz Black Shiraz, which I rated 94+. It was complex, had a very long finish, and in no way called for or brought to mind any comparisons to Champagne. My dear L.A. friend Andy had obtained that bottle on a trip to Australia, and it’s virtually never seen in the States. The other sparkling Shirazes I’ve had have ranged from mediocre to worse. With many of them, like the Schild Estate below, one has the sense that they just added bubbles in an attempt to jazz up and disguise otherwise faulty and unmarketable Shiraz. The Black Chook was at least tolerable, as compared to the Schild. From my one excellent experience, I know that very good sparkling Shiraz is possible, if very rare in these parts.
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Chef Pedro Ayala

  • 2004 Schild Estate Shiraz Sparkling Barossa Valley – Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color with large bubbles; smoky, roasted plum, tart berry, oak, coffee nose; oak, roasted berry, smoke palate; medium finish (83 pts.)
  • N.V. The Black Chook Shiraz Sparkling – Australia, South Australia
    Very dark red violet color with medium bubbles; roasted plum, black fruit, charcoal nose; roasted plum, black fruit, charcoal palate with a light sense of pepper; medium finish (85 pts.)

Sweet finish

We had this fun array of traditional sweet sparklers for our last course. Our Clairette de Die Tradition is based on Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grown around the town of Die in the Rhône region. It’s made by the méthode diose, where the juice is kept at very cold temperatures before being fermented to about 3% alcohol. It’s then bottled and completes fermentation, usually based on just the remaining grape sugar. After four months or so, the wine is then decanted off the lees and rebottled under pressure. Our Bugey came from grapes grown in the 170 hectare cru Cerdon. It’s predominantly Gamay, with a little Poulsard. It’s made by the méthode ancestrale, which is much the same way that the Clairette de Die is made, with a continuation of the fermentation in the bottle. Both of these were good versions of very traditional wines, but the delicious and refreshing Braida Brachetto d’Acqui was the show stopper in our final flight. The grape variety is Brachetto, an appealingly aromatic light red grape grown in Piemonte near Asti, Roero and Alessandria. The 2009 vintage from this producer was quite good when I had it a couple of times last summer, but I think this 2010 is even better, and well worth trying with summer fruit tarts, fresh berries and similar desserts for only about $20.
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  • N.V. Carod Clairette de Die Tradition – France, Rhône, Clairette de Die
    Very light yellow color; ripe apple, ripe pear, peach, orange blossom nose; tasty but simple, ripe pear, peach, orange blossom palate; medium finish (87 pts.)
  • N.V. Caveau du Mont July Vin du Bugey-Cerdon Méthode Ancestrale – France, Savoie, Vin du Bugey-Cerdon
    Light medium orangey pink color with limited tiny bubbles; tart plum nose; tart plum, tart apricot palate; medium finish 87+ points (95% Gamay, 5% Poulsard) (87 pts.)
  • 2010 Braida (Giacomo Bologna) Brachetto d’Acqui – Italy, Piedmont, Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG
    Neon dark pink color; wild berry, roasted berry, charcoal nose; charming, tasty, ripe cranberry, tart raspberry, juniper berry, tart cherry, wild berry palate; medium-plus (very appealing light dessert wine for about $20) (91 pts.)
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One Response to Superb Summer Treats: Non-Champagne European Sparkling Wines

  1. A very interesting event! You have an amazing list of wines from the Shiraz and Rose! Great job!

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