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Champagne

Krug Grande Cuvee Is Very Good

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Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne is very good. In fact it is very, very good. You could even say excellent. In the case of Krug I guess you could say that is damning with faint praise. For Krug mere excellence is a failure. By reputation and price it should be sublime. It is not. The real problem for me, is that I really believe it once was.

I thoroughly enjoyed Alice Feiring’s book, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and in particular was moved by her chapter on Champagne. It moved me because I am old enough to know what Champagne was and my palate is aware enough to know what it has become. The big name Champagne brands, with a few notable exceptions like Gosset or Bollinger, have all sold out. Today they are led by accountants and marketers instead of winemakers. All the big Champagne brands are run by corporate ownership that implements and believes in the marketing strategies so successfully employed by the perfume companies - that is image is more important than substance. What the bottle looks like and what’s on the label is everything, while what’s inside is an afterthought.

In her book Alice talks about what Krug once was and the empty symbol of conspicuous consumption it has become and it’s a very sad story. Perhaps one of the most offensive things about Krug Champagne these days is the environmental assault their packaging represents. Each bottle is packaged in a heavy, pretentious presentation box. It’s hard to believe that a company could be so unaware of the world around them. On top of the excessive price, anyone concerned at all with the environment should be offended by the packaging of Krug and refuse to buy it on that level alone. Anything that is so sumptuously packaged should automatically set off your internal alarms. If it was so good, why would they have to waste so much money (and so many trees) on the package.

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A real litmus test for spotting someone not in the know about wine is that they’re  drinking Krug, Dom Perignon, Cristal or anything from Veuve Cliquot. Savvy bubbly buyers are drinking grower Champagne selections from Terry Theise, Becky Wasserman or other sharp importers. In the topsy turvy world of Champagne the less famous the brand the better chance you have of getting both a good wine and a fair price.

According to wine-searcher.com, the average price for NV Krug Grande Cuvée is $179. Here’s a wine IQ test: Do you buy three bottles of excellent Champagne from the explosion of wonderful grower bottled Champagnes on the market or one bottle of excellent famous Champagne in a fancy box?

Krug used to be the best, now it’s just one of the pack.

Stellar Cellars

chateau-petrus

I was a guest, which is by far the best way to attend tastings like this, although as this was a dinner, it might be better to call it a drinking. Be assured I didn’t spit once. It never crossed my mind. One thing drinking old wines confirms is they don’t make’em like they used to. For better or worse, they’re different – more delicate and less alcoholic. It was a great evening with outstanding food, wine and company. What else is great wine for? Many thanks to Dr. Mike Dragutsky for inviting me to join in. Below are the wines with some short comments.

1990 Cristal Brut, Magnum – A reminder of how great Cristal used to be. Toasty, creamy, long and very complex. Cristal today is a mere shadow of this wine.

1985 Kistler Chardonnay, Carneros – Rich and powerful, but a bit passed its prime.

1995 Puligny Montrachet, Enseigners, Verget, Magnum – Unfortunately showing quite a bit of oxidation already, but still quite exciting with a firm mineral backbone and great length. Drink up soon.

2005 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, Ten, Santa Rita Hills – A powerhouse pinot with a lot of new oak.

1988 Bonnes Mares, Comte de Vogue – Not showing well at first, this bottle ended up by my place so I got to go back to it several times. By the end of the evening it opened into a graceful beauty with layers and layers of length and personality.

1997 Chateau Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, Magnum and 1997 Chateau Lynch Bages, Pauillac – I’ll comment on these two lovely, elegant and totally mature wines together as they dramatically illustrated how much better wines age in magnum. The Pichon Lalande was much fresher with brighter fruit and depth. These wines show how pretty wines can be from lighter years.

1989 Chateau Pichon Baron, Pauillac – Still velvety and rich with an expansive bouquet and a long seductive finish. Twenty years old is a great place for classic Bordeaux from excellent vintages.

1988 Chatau Guraud Larose, St. Julien – Silky, delicate and perfumed. Really lovely with an almost caressing texture. Drink up now while it’s so pretty.

1961 Chateau Bouscaut, Graves (Pessac-Leognan now) – Just a beautiful old wine that is still showing a touch of fruit freshness amid all the coffee, porcini and spice. With that nice touch of that earthy minerality that defines Graves. Long and graceful.

1988 Petrus, Pomerol – Wine of the night. An elegant, graceful wonder. Svelte and incredibly long and complex. A wonderful wine.

1979 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac – The definition of elegance. A perfectly proportioned wine. Subtly complex and endlessly interesting. As usual, a perfect Bordeaux.

1977 Taylor, Oporto – Will this wine ever mature? Still young, fruity, dark, sweet and powerful. Just plain great Port that will age forever.

IPNC 2008: Sparkling Soter

ipnc 08 soter vineyard james leads tour 7-25-2008 1-52-23 PM Twenty or thirty years ago Champagne was a sure bet. All the Grand Marques made great wines and it was only a matter of whose style you liked the best. Those days are long gone and now the big brand Champagnes are some of the worst wines deals you can buy. During this same period a bubbly revolution occurred worldwide and today Champagne is no longer the only source for the finest quality sparkling wines. Now American brands like Iron Horse, Gruet and Argyle offer wines that out-sparkle most of the big Champagne brands in both price and quality. You can now add Oregon's Soter Vineyards to that list.

Last Saturday my group at the International Pinot Noir Celebration found themselves at Soter Vineyards for lunch and a seminar on sustainable agriculture. Every morning of IPNC a fleet of buses spreads out over the Willamette Valley taking groups to seminars and sumptuous lunches, but you don't know where your going until you get there. Your destination really doesn't matter as every event is exceptional.  Our lunch was prepared by Chef Peter Birk of Seattle's famed Ray's Boathouse and served in Soter Vineyard's beautiful new entertainment center with a spectacular view of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA and the Coast Range.

Gouda wafers and smoked sablefish

  • Soter Vineyards Blanc de blancs, Beacon Hill Vineyard, 1997 - Yes, you read the vintage correctly. Soter is releasing this wine after ten years en tirage. This is simply a stunning sparkling wine. Rich and creamy with a deep toasty complexity and a never ending finish. A classic selling for an almost unbelievable $55 a bottle making it an outrageous value, but you'd better hurry with only 190 cases produced.

Alaskan weathervane scallops, arugula, strawberries, fresh corn

  • Soter Vineyards Brut Rosé, Yamhill-Carlton District, Beacon Hill Vineyard, 2003- Close your eyes and think you're tasting a beautiful, light delicate pinot noir. Now add bubbles and you have this seductively fruity wine. Rich and assertively pinot in character with a mouth-filling, juicy fruitiness layered with a light toasty/yeasty highlight. This wine was so delicious our table begged our waiters for more (and more and more...).

 Sockeye salmon, black tea custard, roasted plums

 Oregon chukar, confit of Walla Walla onions and local mushrooms

  • Soter Vineyards Pinot Noir, Mineral Springs Vineyard, Yamhill Carlton District, 2006 - A preview of the yet to be released 2006 Mineral Springs. As you would expect from the vintage, this wine is very fruit-forward with an expansive, deep red fruit character and gentle, silky tannins. A generous and satisfying pinot noir that should develop into a lovely wine over the next several years. You can drink this charmer while you're waiting for the 2005 to mature.mineral springs vineyard 7-25-2008 2-31-56 PM

 Summer fruit tart (made with berries picked on the estate by the Soter family that morning)

  • More of the Brut Rosé, graciously supplied to our table by Megan Moffat, sommelier at Café Soriah in Eugene, which, by the way, was wonderful with the fresh berry tart.

 

Hot Restaurants

hot wine The food was fantastic as was the wine list. There were so many interesting wines to choose from that it was difficult to order. All was in place for a great wine evening and the Riedels on the table sparkled in anticipation of delights soon to pass from their lips to ours. The evening started with the sublime Champagne, Pierre Gimmonet, Blanc de blancs 1er Cru, Cuvée Gastronome, 2002, which is creamy, toasty and complex with a finish that just won't quit. It was paired with an assortment of pristine Puget Sound oysters and it was such a magical interplay that it only sharpened our palates for the wine and food yet to come.

The impending arrival of our next courses called for red wine and the Chénas, Vieilles Vignes de 1939, Pascal Aufranc, 2005 arrived at the table and was poured only to be met with tepid enthusiasm. That tepid response was caused by the temperature of the wine, not the wine itself. Once again a restaurant that was flying all the flags of a serious wine restaurant ignored one of the most basic requirement for serving a fine wine. Our Chénas had to be almost 75 degrees. What was an elegant, beautiful wine had been turned into a mushy, cooked hot alcoholic brew. We summoned an ice bucket and actually poured our glasses back into the bottle to try to save what we could of this wine, but, while the buckets chill dramatically improved the wine after ten minutes, putting a natural wine through this kind of roller coaster will not bring out the best in a wine.

Hot restaurants serving hot red wines is a ridiculously common occurrence. They spend and spend on the accoutrements of fine wine, but then ignore one of the basics of wine service: temperature.  Proper serving temperature for most red wines is in the 60's, not the 70's, and it's better to error on the side of cooler rather than warmer.  I am amazed how many times I've had a sommelier rave about this or that obscure producer only to pour a lukewarm wine into a glass that costs more than the wine. A restaurant that does not make the effort to serve their wines at the proper temperature cannot be considered to have a serious wine program. This also applies to their wine-by-the-glass programs where half-empty bottles languish on the back bar no matter the balmy ambient temperature.

America is the country where we serve red wines too warm and white wines too cold.

Wine Notes

Recent wines I’ve enjoyed:

  • Anderson Valley Brut Sparkling Wine, Roederer Estate, 25th Anniversary, NV - I’ve had this very nice sparkling wine many times lately; several bottles at home and then one interesting experience at a wine bar. First for the wine bar experience; my local wine bar was offering both the NV Roederer Champagne Brut and the Anderson Valley Sparkling, but having had the Anderson Valley recently I, against my better judgement, ordered the Roederer Champagne. I say against my better judgment because few wines are more disappointing these days than big name Champagne. However, I took one sip and was blown away by the quality of the Roederer Brut. Not so fast, I soon found out the bartender had poured me a glass of the California Roederer by mistake. She quickly followed up with a glass of the real Champagne, which, as usual, was lackluster. The Anderson Valley Roederer continues to be an outstanding American sparkler and is clearly superior (and less expensive) then their Champagne.
  • Champagne, Grand Cru 100%, Blanc de Blancs, Reserve Brut, Guy Charlemagne, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, NV - High strung and very toasty, this is a delicious and complex Champagne that shows the best of chardonnay in Champagne. The aromatics are delicate, but not a bit shy with a steely froth that races across the palate, stopping just long enough for a compelling finish. Although I prefer the big Bouzy Champagnes, this is an excellent wine and a bargain at $46. This is a one of those Champagnes that can handle caviar.
  • Riesling Kabinett, Selback-Oster, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, 2006 - I enjoyed a bottle of this lovely wine over four days as an aperitif when I arrived home from work. I swear after four days in the refrigerator this wine hardly changed a bit. Such stability is a tribute both to their winemaking and winegrowing. Only perfect grapes can produce such harmony. Beautifully fragrant with honeysuckle and spices, it took effort to pull your nose out of the glass to take a sip. That sip delivered pure charm and seductive white peach and ripe pear flavors laced with tart citrus and a lovely touch of sweetness. No thought required here, just up-front delicious pleasure. Nice screw-cap, I’d drink this up young and fresh.
  • Riesling, Alsace, Albert Boxler, 2004 - This is it, riesling right on the money. No-over-the-top, off-dry, high alcohol, quasi-dessert wine from Alsace here, but a big, rich wine that maintains respect for the variety and vineyard from which it came. On the fuller gold side of color with a rich nose touched with hints of figs laced with bright apricot with touches of crisp apple that continue into the complex layered flavors. It is rich and expansive on the pallet without becoming dull as it maintains a racy, crisp essence under its substantial girth. I enjoyed this thoroughly with some of my own crispy fried chicken.
  • Monferatto Rosso, Braida IL Banciale’ di Giacomo Bologna, 2004 (60% barbera, 20% pinot nero, 10% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot) - Not so long ago I had a bottle of the most expensive wine Bologna produces, which I did not enjoy. Yet here is one of their least expensive wines and it was a delight. Earthy and fragrant with great complexity and balance, it was delicious with a very buttery mushroom risotto at Bice. Oddly enough, the cabernet and merlot hardly show in this wine as the backbone is all barbera and the aromatics and elegance all pinot nero. I really enjoyed this wine, which only really seemed to open with the last glass.
  • Dolcetto d’Alba, Pra di Po, Germano Ettore, 2006 - This is simply a wonderful dolcetto that I intend to buy a few cases of as soon as possible. I recommend you do too before it’s gone. This wine is all about hedonistic pleasure over the next two years, although I doubt any bottle I have will make it that far. I salivate thinking about the beautiful bright wild dark cherry and blackberry fruit flavors and aromas intermingled with hints of black truffles, new leather, sage and lavender. All of this is held together by racy acidity and some silky tannins that bring all the fruit intensity into perfect harmony.
  • Barbera d’Asti, Roberto Ferraris, 2006 - This is one of those stealth wines. It seems pleasant enough at first, but by the time you finish your second glass it has you hypnotized. What is amazing is no matter how long you leave it open it just seems to get better and better. I finished the last of a bottle that had been open for three days tonight and it was flat out wonderful. This is not a big wine, it is exceptionally balanced and the underlying complexity requires you to pay attention and introduce yourself before revealing everything. I’ve opened three bottles now and I would suggest decanting this wine for an hour before serving if, like me, you can’t resist drinking it. What this wine is not is a jammy, oaky ultra-purple barbera like so many make these days. If you can, give it a few years in the bottle and you’ll have something special.
  • Gigondas, Bertrand Stehelin, 2004 - Big and beautiful is not easy to do, but this wine achieves it. The aromas and flavors are richly pungent, bringing to mind an old fashioned butcher shop where the aromas of raw meat mix with sawdust and smoke. Intermingled with all these carnivorous sensations are ripe wild blackberries, an engaging warmth and round tannins that give it a nice backbone. I served this wine with some braised, bone-in pork loin and all three of us enjoyed the experience. While obviously too young to be at its best, this is a wine that just draws you into its sumptuous experience and you find yourself savoring each drop as you finish your glass after the meal is done.

Wine Notes

Recent tastes -

  • Champagne, André Clouet, Silver Brut Nature, Grand Cru Bouzy, NV (under $45) - Clouet has rapidly become one of my favorite Champagne producers. Rich, creamy, toasty, complex and intensely dry. This is a wine that would be hard to explain to those used to the more innocuous flavors of industrial Champagne producers. Great bubbly.
  • Champagne, Delavenne Père & Fils, Cuvée Rose, Grand Cru Bouzy, NV (under $45) - Lots of flavorful pleasure here, but what impresses me most about fine Champagne are the wonderful textures and the creamy frothiness that coats your palate with complexity and pleasure. Bouzy seems to be the epicenter of complex grower Champagnes. The lovely copper color is a inviting prelude to the bright wild strawberry fruit with a lively frothy texture and a long creamy finish. An excellent wine.
  • Semillon, L’Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, 2006 - Big oily, yet dry and bracing. Too bad the alcohol is a bit over the top. Semillon continues to be one of Washington’s most interesting whites. Lobster and crab come quickly to mind when you take your first sip.
  • Rioja, Remelluri, 2001 - Just as you would expect there’s plenty of oak here, but it somehow seems to work in Rioja. Very aromatic and spicy with a great balance and an interesting intertwining of sweet oak, tar and ripe bitter cherry fruit. Though thought of as a modern-style Rioja, it seems almost old fashioned compared to today’s fruit bombs. A very nice wine that is more than interesting to drink.
  • Barbera d’Alba, Marcarini, Ciabot Camerano, 2005 - This is a wonderful barbera. A beautiful deep ruby with an expansive nose redolent of wild blackberries it is deeply flavored, yet lively and zesty. The combination of power and depth with an almost electric back bone make this an extraordinary pleasure to drink.
  • Barbaresco Riserva, Pora, Produttori del Barbaresco, 1999 - I always feel the worship that surrounds the Produttori wines is a little excessive. While dedication to the traditions of the Langhe are to be respected, some traditions are better left behind. The Produttori wines always seem a little hollow compared to other fine traditionalists who have found ways to stay true to the integrity of their vineyards and nebbiolo while bringing to the forefront more fruit character. That’s not to say I did not like this wine, which I did, but these wines are mostly good bargains as compared to being great wines. That being said, this is a very good nebbiolo, although the fruit has already dried out leaving little to balance the substantial remaining tannins. It certainly will be interesting for many years, but will never attain perfect balance.

I Remember When...

clicquot-loveseat-1_12 I remember when it was easy to buy two of my favorite beverages, Champagne and Cognac.  A few decades ago you could hardly go wrong with either no matter the brand available. They were the perfect start and finish to any evening. The big brands were the best brands and wines like Veuve Clicquot Brut and spirits like Remy Martin were liquids to be contemplated, not just quaffed. Today these labels are more suitable for cocktails than snifters or flutes and are both brands to be avoided as bad values.

I always like to have bubbly in the fridge and enjoying an effervescent glass while cooking is a nightly preference. Lately, in addition to Venegazzu Prosecco, I’ve been buying the Spanish Cava brand Cristalino in both its Brut and Brut Rose versions at $7 a bottle and in all honesty prefer them both to Veuve Clicquot Brut. Many nights I also have a weakness for adding a dollop of Campari to my nightly bubbly aperitif and the Cristalino Brut is both financially and spiritually open to this experience. While the Clicquot is equally refreshing and enjoyable with Campari, the fact that it is five times the price makes the experience at least ten times less enjoyable. Buying Clicquot is getting way up there on the list of wines to buy only if you don’t know what you’re doing.

At the end of a rich dinner, few things are more necessary than a spirit to spur the digestion. That’s as good of a rationalization as any for letting yourself enjoy the warmth and good feelings brought to you by a fine brandy. It used to be that Remy Martin V.S.O.P was the most reliable Cognac around as it was widely available, reasonably priced and of excellent quality. Unfortunately, somewhere over the last twenty years Remy V.S.O.P. devolved into a warm caramel syrup. Today there are few large Cognac producers worth their weight in the caramelized sugar product known these days as Cognac.  While there are some wonderful small producers in Cognac, there is only one direction to turn for fine French brandy: Armagnac. For some reason this region has never become cool enough to push prices out of range, while simultaneously pushing down quality. Over the holidays I picked up a bottle of the 1974 Bas Armagnac, Domaine Le Basque an exceptional estate bottled spirit from Christiane & Michel Lamothe for a bit more than Remy V.S.O.P. and a bit less than the Remy X.O. and in comparison this earthy, fragrant spirit makes Remy look like industrial brandy from California.

Drinking Remy  and Clicquot used to make me feel stupid if I drank too much. Now they make me feel stupid to buy them at all.