by Sandra Crittenden

by Sandra Crittenden

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Understanding a Champagne Label - 1999 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Le Mesnil Sur Oger Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne

In addition to the Memorial Day festivities of the past weekend, we also start to celebrate my birthday week every year at this same time. This year we opted to start the "celebration of me" on Saturday with the 1999 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Le Mesnil Sur Oger Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne. As I typed out the name, I was thinking that it was quite long for something affectionately known as "Farmer's Fizz". Within the long title, however, there is a wealth of information about this wine on its labels.

Starting with 1999, this means that this bottle was produced exclusively from grapes grown and harvested in 1999. Champagne producers do not get to determine when they want to call a vintage, it is legally declared in what are expected to be the best years. 1999, as a vintage, has been met with mixed reviews as to its "greatness". This was due to heavy rains in September before harvest which can result in diluted flavors and low acidity. Some producers were more affected than others. A vintage date also says that this wine was aged longer on its lees than a non-vintage version by law, a minimum of 36 months as opposed to a minimum of 15 months. On this bottle, there is a disgorgement date on the back label which lets me know that this bottle was aged on its lees significantly longer than required for about 10 years and it has rested/matured in this same bottle for over three years after that date.

On the label, under the producer's name Pascal Doquet, is the term Recoltant-Manipulant (all spelled out here making it easier, only RM is required by law) which means that this wine was produced by an individual estate grape grower who then independently made his own wine using at least 95% of his own grapes, hence the nicknames: Grower Champagne or Farmer Fizz. This is not unusual in the world of wine but it is somewhat unusual in the world of Champagne production where less than 5,000 of the approximately 19,000 independent growers do so.
Grand Cru Le Mesnil Sur Oger refers to the location of the vineyard. This tells you that the grapes were sourced from the commune of Le Mesnil sur Oger which is a Grand Cru village in the Cote des Blancs sub region of Champagne. The Cote des Blancs is almost exclusively planted to Chardonnay and the grapes from here tend to be more expensive and heavily sought after than the other sub regions. The Le Mesnil area is a prestige area within the sub region which will then, in theory, help to create a wine that is more terroir specific. The belemnite chalky soil of Le Mesnil was formed in the tertiary period and should help the grapes maintain their acidity while adding a chalky mineral character to the wine. 

Blanc de Blancs means that the wine is white and was made from white grapes. Typically, in Champagne, this means 100% Chardonnay, although there are rare exceptions, this is not one.

So, from the front label, I know that I am getting a Chardonnay-based wine made sparkling in the traditional method, sourced from a Grand Cru vineyard in a premier region of Champagne, France, created by a producer who grew the grapes on his property  during a specific year and then created the wine himself, following not only production methods required for the region but also the more stringent requirements required in the production of a vintage Champagne. 

It is easy to understand why the market for Grower Champagne continues to expand. There is the sense that you are getting something a bit more special for your money. In the glass, the 1999 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Le Mesnil Sur Oger Blanc de Blancs was a pale straw color with golden glints and a steady stream of pinpoint bubbles creating a soft mousse at the rim. Brioche bakery notes were the most pronounced aroma followed by fresh lemon and baked pear. On the palate, there was a creaminess to the texture with a high level of racy acidity (defying the trials of its vintage) with zesty citrus and toasty flavors along with a decided minerality throughout the lengthy finish. Absolutely outstanding!

In a breakaway from the expected heavy barbeque meals of the weekend, we served this with my homemade crab cakes- almost all crab, very little cake (with optional pineapple/mango Tequila sauce and a Horseradish sauce), a meadowkaas gouda cheese, heirloom cherry tomatoes, natural almonds and fresh strawberries. The Champagne was not only fantastic alone but delicious with all the above food including the sauces.
Highly recommended and available at Spec's for about $70.
related posts:
Thinking about Vintage Champagne
Dosage Comparison in 2002 Ayala Perle Champagne
Ruinart Champagne Challenge - Houston

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Salta Tour 2012

Vine Connections and Pioneer Wine Company hosted a seminar and tasting event for Houston's wine trade and media at Backstreet Cafe yesterday. All but two of the wines were from the Salta Province of Argentina.
Salta is the most northern wine region in Argentina lying close to the Bolivian border. The climate is very extreme due to the high altitude. Plantings start at 5,000 feet above sea level and climb to 9,000 feet, making these vineyards the highest in the world. The intense sunlight the area receives helps to create grapes with more anthocyanins, these are the color pigments which result in softer tannins, lower astringency and more intense flavor. The wines produced are extremely pure, concentrated and terroir specific. Torrontes Riojano which is considered the best of the three Torrontes clones is the most widely planted grape with plantings of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat increasing.

The seminar started with a tasting of four Torrontes wines, three from different areas of Salta and one from Mendoza. All were produced from ungrafted vines, were stainless steel fermented and were from the 2011 vintage. When compared side by side, the three from Salta were lighter in color than the one from Mendoza. The three from Salta had similar aromas with differences in the amount of fruitiness vs floral notes while the one from Mendoza had a more cosmetic type floral aroma. Upon tasting the wines, the three from Salta were more crisp with fresh fruit flavor while the one from Mendoza was decidedly somewhat flabby and a bit bitter. We were all assured that the one from Mendoza was considered one of Mendoza's better examples.
Trying to pick my favorite of the three was a bit difficult, there were small differences in the acidity levels and body of each, but in the end, I think that the 2011 Hermanos Torrontes was my favorite. It is produced from a vineyard with 25 year old vines on sandy soils located in town in Cayfayate at an elevation of 5,575 feet. It fell in between the other two for both body and acidity with fresh floral and peach aromas and peach/lychee flavors. Again, I made myself choose as all three were lovely expressions of Torrontes. I found out later that my choice is also slightly less expensive than the other two retailing for around $15.

At the walk around tasting after the seminar, the first wine I tried was the 2011 Finca Las Nubes Malbec Rose which also has 10% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The name translates to Farm of the Clouds which refers to its location at 6,068 feet above sea level in the Cafayate Valley. I really enjoyed it. It was not as aromatic as the Torrontes wines. It was dry with a strawberry/mineral character and was nicely refreshing. Priced at approximately $20. It, like the Torrontes, would make an excellent "patio pounder" for our hot Houston summer.

Moving on to the Malbecs, without a doubt, the 2005 Yacochuya Malbec was the absolute best, it was also the oldest wine presented and one of the most expensive retailing around $85. It was being poured by Virginie Rolland, niece of famed winemaker/consultant Michel Rolland, who along with the Etchart family had worked to produce this wine. It was sourced from 60 year old vines from an estate vineyard located at 6,600 feet in the Calchaquies Valley in Cafayate. It was rich, with good acidity, nice structure, a creamy mouthfeel with black cherry, coffee, chocolate and smokey characteristics. Truly fantastic, but only 100 cases produced so get it while you can.

Because there were several Malbecs represented, I am going to name my second favorite which was a bit more affordable at approximately $35. The 2011 Domingo Molina Malbec M Squared is 100% Malbec sourced from two vineyard sites, Rupestre and Yacochuya. It is so new that it has not yet been labeled but definitely worth looking for. It had more upfront fruit flavors of ripe dark berries with a nicely balanced structure; it was just a very good young Malbec. The Domingo family also produces the Hermanos line.
My last top pick was the 2011 Coquena Tannat with a blueberry flavor, good acidity and smooth tannins priced about $20. This Coquena line is produced by the Etchart family from a vineyard area 5,576 feet in the mountains above the town of Tolombon.
The Torrontes in this line was my second pick of the Torrontes, I tasted both the 2010 and 2011 vintages. While Torrontes is a wine that you want to drink while young, there was not really any difference between the two yet, a testament to both the consistency of the vineyard and the winemaker's process. It is priced slightly higher at about $20 a bottle. I felt it was a bit more floral, with slightly higher acidity and a slightly lighter body than my other choice. 

Of the approximately twenty wines I tasted, I felt, at minimum, they were all good with a great quality to price ratio. The wines I listed above were truly delicious and I would highly recommend each one.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Nice Wine Dinner at the Strip House

Last Thursday night, I attended the Nice Winery dinner at the Strip House. While I have eaten dinner there a few times, this was the first wine event of theirs that I had enjoyed. Ryan Levy & Ian Eastveld, the winemakers and owners of the Nice Winery, were at the event to present each wine with each course and answer questions about the selections. They have an interesting history as they are both Le Cordon Bleu trained Chefs, Certified Sommeliers and, since their initial harvest in Napa Valley in 2007, winemakers. This boutique winery is located in Houston and the wines are handcrafted from grapes sourced from premium vineyard locations.
The 1st course was a vine ripened tomato salad with red onions, basil and balsamic reduction paired with the 2010 NICE Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is sourced from  a single vineyard in the Lujan de Cuyo area of Mendoza, Argentina. I really enjoyed the balance of this wine and it was excellent with the salad. It was crisp with a citrus blossom nose and tropical fruit flavors; if I were to compare it with other Sauvignon Blanc styles, I would say that it did not have the searing acidity or bell pepper notes so typical in New Zealand nor the too flat, non-refreshing style often seen in California. It retails for about $22.

The 2nd course was the Strip House roasted bacon with wild arugula and heirloom tomatoes served with the 2009 Malbec Reserve. This course was phenomenal. I will never think of bacon quite the same way again, it was thick cut with a sweet and spicy barbeque flavor. The wine was sourced from old Malbec vines also from the Lujan de Cuyo area of Mendoza. Again, nicely balanced with a black cherry/blueberry character and some vanilla and licorice notes, retail price of approximately $35.

The 3rd course was sliced New York strip with black truffle creamed spinach and goose fat potatoes served with the highly rated 2007 NICE Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, absolutely delicious. This wine was the first wine produced by NICE with the artisanal talents of acclaimed winemaker, Steve Reynolds and it is everything that you would expect it to be, including its premium price of $110 retail.

The final course was creme brulee with the 2007 Demi-Sec Sparkling made from Muscat de Alexandria which was also sourced from Lujan de Cuyo. I know I enjoyed it but I did not note any specifics as I was quite caught up in conversation with another dinner companion at that time.

The food was fantastic, the dinner group was quite lively and the wines...they were beyond NICE. I have recommended the Strip House for dinner in the past and now I would definitely recommend their wine events as well.

NICE Wines are being poured in many of Houston's top restaurants and have won several awards. Ryan and Ian are currently in the process of negotiating with a new source in an acclaimed area of Tuscany, so we can expect to see some premium Sangiovese-based wine from them in the future, which is certainly something to look forward to.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

La Mancha Spring Roadshow

When I received my invitation to the Wines of La Mancha event in Houston, I was excited because, despite a fairly serious effort to learn about wine, I still knew very little about this region. I had never even tasted any wines from La Mancha while taking classes from the ISG or the WSET.
What I had been taught was:
  • It is the largest D.O. in Spain.
  • It has an extreme continental climate.
  • Airen, one of the world's most widely planted white grapes (but I had never tasted it), is the main grape grown there.
  • Tempranillo plantings and other international grape varieties are on the rise.
  • It has long been considered more of a bulk wine region but after much investment, quality is on the rise and there is "good value for the money" wine to be found. 
  • Much of their production is consumed locally.
So, when the D.O. La Mancha Roadshow Spring 2012 arrived in Houston at the Parador on Thursday, I was there for the opening seminar before the tasting event. As with many of these events, it was a bit of a pep rally but still interesting, never the less. It was somewhat horrifying to hear that the group had eaten dinner at one of America's chain restaurants rather than having the opportunity to try some of the great food that we have here in Houston. I think the main thing that I learned about was the large number of organic and biodynamic producers that are in La Mancha. 

I tasted the biodynamically produced 2011 Viento Aliseo Viognier which was nicely balanced and had a distinct Fruit Loop character from the Dominio De Punctum Organic Estate and Winery. I also enjoyed their Tempranillos and their Cabernet/Graciano blend. While most of the wineries emphasized the new barrels, equipment and just generally the investment in both the winery and vineyards, Dominio De Punctum promotes their specific terroir; their vineyards are located at a higher altitude on a sandy loam, limestone-rich soil in Las Pedroneras. 

I tasted through a lot of Airen and found most to be very light and fresh with a slightly floral nose and a fairly neutral flavor with a bit of minerality, some had a bit more fruit than others. The majority seemed priced for retail in the $8-10 range.

I also tasted through a fair amount of Verdejo. One standout was the 2011 Parra Jimenez from Parra Family Organic Imports priced at approximately $10. It was light bodied and crisp with a citrus/melon character. Their Graciano and Earth Tempranillo were also quite good. 

I would say that many of the white wines were better than others that I have had in the same price range from elsewhere in the world.
One of my favorites of the day was the 2011 Artero Rose which is made from 100% Tempranillo. It was like a glass of fresh strawberries. I also enjoyed the Coeli Del Cielo medium sweet sparkling rose wine which was really nice with my crackling pork sandwich.

Some of the Tempranillo-based red wines that were being showcased would certainly be mistaken for Rioja in a blind tasting. The best of which move into a higher price category starting around $30.

The main issue, aside from the region's former reputation, seems to be a lack of availability in the American market right now. I did talk with some importers who were making the rounds and who seemed pleased at the good quality of many of the wines particularly for the cost. It will be interesting to see how this promotion goes and whether our market is ready to believe that La Mancha's wines are indeed worth discovering.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Portfolio Tasting of Spec's Top Wines

Spec's hosted a trade tasting featuring some of their top wines at Reef yesterday. The array of wines was interesting because the featured wines were in different price points and from many different places in the world, giving tasters the opportunity to compare a variety of styles side by side. 

Upon my arrival, I quickly made the French Connection, starting with the line-up from Classified Wine and Spirits and their selection of wines from Burgundy. I started with an Aligote by Mikulski which was crisp, mineral driven and reasonably priced. It is a drink that could be enjoyed with simple seafood dishes all through our long hot summer. The more premium priced 2009 Fontaine Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Les Vergers was another favorite on this table- smooth, round and all that you would expect in a wine from this area but with more of a tropical fruit note. I was a little more focused on the whites just because of the time of year but there were several lovely red Burgundies as well.

I was also interested in trying the three bottles of Champagne by Bonnaire which I had previously seen in a listing for top budget Champagne. They did not disappoint in this value for money assessment and I actually drank a glass of the Blanc de Blanc while munching on some of the seafood appetizers that were provided.

As I started to delve into the assortment of red wine, I stopped to talk to Frans, a fourth generation winemaker and his wife, Liz Roskam, who were serving up tastes of both their 2007 Chateau Cantenac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru and the 2007 Chateau Cantenac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Selection Madame, which was a wine that was created for Franz's mother. Both were Merlot and Cab Franc blends and both were nice, mid-priced Bordeaux.
The rock star of the event was Philippe Melka who, in between pouring tastes of his 2009 CJ Cabernet and 2009 Melka Metisse Napa Valley, was graciously indulging the wine geek crowd with photo ops. These tastes appeared to be fully consumed by everyone, no dumping or spitting that I saw at this table.

With over 50 wines to be tasted in a two and a half hour time span and due to some distractions from other tasters, I unfortunately left much ground uncovered and I also left my tasting notes behind. But also of note, from Knights Bridge, was the 2010 West Block Chardonnay and the 2008 Cabernet Dr Crane. I was sorry to have missed the rest of that line-up. I also enjoyed the 2008 Riglos Gran Malbec, good fruit with good structure.
All of these wines are available at Spec's.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dinner at the Mockingbird Bistro

I enjoyed a fantastic dinner last night at Mockingbird Grill with my husband and some of his business associates. We sat upstairs in a separate dining area that has a balcony overlooking the main dining room. This restaurant has a great atmosphere (they call the decor "funky gothic"), impeccable service, a diverse wine list and delicious food.
I had the Asparagus Soup of the Day to start my meal which was good, my husband had the Carmelized Onion Soup which was even better. Everyone snacked on the truffled pommes frites as the main courses arrived. Both of us had opted for off the menu specials. I chose the pan-seared snapper with corn risotto and broccolini and he got the filet of tenderloin with crabmeat served with asparagus and mashed potatoes. Perfectly-sized portions and scrumptious flavors.
Our table went through a few bottles of Domaine Faiveley "Clos Des Myglands" 1er Cru Mercurey which I enjoyed from the soup through the dessert, a homemade raspberry sorbet with mixed fresh berries.
Everyone in our group enjoyed the evening and the meal. I intend on going back soon, I think I want to try the duck entree and the lemon tart dessert on my next visit.
Highly recommended!

Tasting Notes on some Spanish Red Wine

From Rioja, in north-central Spain, the classic style is a Tempanillo-based blend with Garnacha (aka Grenache) and small amounts of Graciano and Mazuelo with long aging often in American Oak barrels producing a wine with sweet vanilla flavors with less fruit character. Some producers are now experimenting with shorter aging periods in French Oak creating a more fruit forward wine. There are some single variety Tempranillo wines as well.
2006 Lan Rioja Crianza $13
Crianza means this wine was aged for 2 full years with 12 months spent in oak barrel.
Clear, deep garnet color with clean, medium intense developing aromas of cherry, strawberry, plum and leather. Dry, medium body, tannins and alcohol, medium+ acidity with a medium length red fruit finish. Very good, pleasant and easy-drinking. Serve with hamburgers, pizza or non-seafood paella.
2005 Herderos del Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva $18
Reserva means this wine was aged for 3 years with one in oak.
Clear deep garnet color going brickish at rim with clean, medium+ developing aromas of leather, cigar, dried red fruit, licorice and baking spices. Dry, medium body and tannins with medium+ alcohol and acidity. Flavors mirrored aromas with a medium+ peppery, licorice finish. Very good in a more traditional style, serve with grilled meats and mushroom risotto.

Penedes lies south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia. Wines from Penedes are very diverse in style using both Spanish and international grapes.
2005 Torres Gran Coronas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva $24(85% Cabernet and 15% Tempranillo)
Clear deep garnet color with brickish rim with clean, medium intense developing aromas of jammy black fruit, leather and a bit of bell pepper. Dry, medium+ body, alcohol, acidity with grippy tannins and a medium finish. Good, Serve with Charcuterie or roasted meats.

Priorat is also in Catalonia but is located further inland. Many of the vineyards sit on steep slopes at high altitudes. The focus is on red wines made from Garnacha and Carinena.
2009 Negre Scala Dei Priorat Garnacha $15
Clear, medium purple color with clean, medium intense youthful aromas of candied red fruit. Dry, medium body, tannins, alcohol and a medium slightly astringent finish. Acceptable.
2004 Idus de Vall Llach $45
Clear, deep garnet with clean, medium developing aromas of black fruit, cedar, vanilla and bit of herbaceousness. Dry, medium+ body, alcohol, tannins, acidity and a long peppery, earthy finish. Very good.

Jumilla is located in the province of Murcia in the Levant which is south of Catalonia along the Mediterranean coast. They are known for their red wine from the Monastrell grape, the Spanish name for Mourvedre, sometimes blended with Garnacha or Tempranillo.
2009 Juan Gil Jumilla (100% Monastrell) $17
Clear deep ruby with clean, medium intense youthful aromas of ripe red fruit with a bit of baking spice. Dry, medium+ body, medium alcohol and acidity with high tannins and a medium length red fruit, peppery finish. Good+, Serve with grilled meat and mushrooms or beef stew.

Ribera del Duero is located in the Duero Valley in Castile-Leon. Tempranilo is the most important grape variety (the local clone is called Tinto Fino), though there is also Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot, as well.
2006 Condado de Haza Ribera del Duero $25
Clear, deep garnet with clean, medium intense developing aromas of leather, cigar, dried fruit and cherry. Dry, medium body and alcohol with medium+ acidity and tannins with a slightly astringent finish. Good+. Serve with grilled meat and vegetables.

related post:
Tasting Spain - White Wines