Archive

Posts Tagged ‘champagne’

Course-by-Course Thanksgiving Wine Guide

November 15th, 2010 No comments

This Thanksgiving turkey might be too pretty to eat!

There’s nothing wrong with picking a wine or two that will please all your guests and complement your full buffet of Thanksgiving dishes.  In fact, if that’s your style, we have two posts for you: one on great Thanksgiving wines, and one on Beaujolais Nouveau.

But if you’re more of the adventurous type when it comes to wine, you might think about another great technique: pairing a wine with each course.  This can be a great way to facilitate spirited dinner table conversation (something you might be looking for if you have guests you don’t know that well), or keep the table talk away from that family-dinner mood-killers: politics.  If you find your interest piqued, take a “pique” at our handy Thankgiving pairing guide:

Appetizers (think olives, pate, cheese and crackers, and the like): Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, and sparkling white wine.

Creamy soup (like a first course of roasted butternut squash soup, my family favorite): Full-bodied whites such as Chardonnay.

Green salad with vinaigrette (one with orange slices, bleu cheese and toasted walnuts makes a festive fall first course): High-acid wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Zinfandel.

Turkey and sides (of course): Think smooth.  Crisp and medium-bodied are words you should look for.  Try Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Grigio.

Desserts: If you can handle a dessert wine after all that food, go for Sauternes or Vin Santo.  If the mere thought makes your sweatpants feel tight, go for more Champagne, or (yes, we said it) coffee.

Great Wines for Thanksgiving

November 5th, 2010 No comments

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Louise Gerome

With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, there’s no time like the present to start planning your dinner menu–and the wines that will go with it.  Choosing wines for Thanksgiving can be a challenge, because you have to please a variety of palates and complement a variety of dishes.  But have no fear!  Our suggestions will help get you through the holiday meal planning stress-free.

Champagne: If your concern is finding a wine that will continue to please from appetizers to pumpkin pie, look no further than champagne or sparkling wine.  As well as being a festive choice, champagne complements all kinds of flavors (even that sweet potato casserole that Aunt Edna insists on bringing every year).  Champagne also acts as a palate cleanser, refreshing the mouth after each rich Thanksgiving-meal bite.

Riesling: Riesling is excellent with dishes that are salty or sweet, like many Thanksgiving dishes.  It can be dry or sweet (we recommend dry as most likely to please a variety of palates.)  Its flavors of apple and honey make it a great complement to fall flavors.

Sauvignon Blanc: The acidic, mineral characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc make it thirst-quenching, a great quality when you’re eating a heavy meal.  Its refreshing quality will keep your guests’ tasebuds interested from mashed potatoes to stuffing.

Pinot Noir: A longtime Thanksgiving favorite, Pinot Noir’s hearty, earthy flavors make it a great match for the homey, earthy tastes of turkey and stuffing.

Beaujolais Nouveau: This is an easy-drinking, light and fruity wine that your guests will enjoy sipping all night.  Its easygoing character makes it pair well with the full spectrum of Thanksgiving dishes.  And each year, Beaujolais Noveau is released on “Beaujolais Day”–the third Thursday of November.  Perfect timing!

Which Wines Age Well?

September 7th, 2010 No comments

Some VERY old bottles. Let’s hope they have what it takes to open up well!

Aging a bottle of wine has a very distinct, qualitative effect on the contents. But it’s a very unpredictable effect. This leaves wine aficionados in a rough place–you don’t want to spend the time and the money aging a nice bottle of wine, only to open it up and find out that: a) you didn’t wait long enough, b.) you waited too long, or c.) it wasn’t a good candidate for aging anyway. Although wine aging is imprecise, there are some clues that can help you, like some psychic detective who figures out the crime in advance, determine the right bottles to cellar.

Sugar content and alcohol: A high percentage of sugar and alcohol slows the aging process, keeping the wine chemicals from reacting too fast and becoming unbalanced, or worse, turning to vinegar.

Tannins: Highly tannic wines are generally great candidates for aging. Tannins are phenolic compounds present in the skin, seeds, and stems of grapes (and thus, usually only in red wines). You know the wine you’re drinking is tannic when it gives your mouth a dry, puckering sensation that can be very unpleasant. But as tannins age, they bind to each other, losing their astringent quality and making the wine supple and smooth. They also bind to other compounds in the wine, changing their chemistry and giving the wine new, complex flavors.

Structure: Tannins don’t mean good aging by themselves. They need the proper acidity and fruitinesss to back them up.  Having great tannins or wonderful fruitiness alone isn’t enough. A wine that will age gracefully needs to have a backbone–or “structure” to it that will keep the wine from deteriorating into muddiness as it ages. A wine with good structure should have tannins backed up by distinct acidity and concentrated, nuanced fruit flavors.

Varietals that age well:

Riesling: A wonderful candidate for aging. A good Riesling can go on improving, growing rounder in flavor, virtually forever.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabs from Bordeaux, California, and many other places have the bold richness needed to age well. When determining whether a Cab will develop delicious secondary and tertiary flavors, ask yourself if it has the structure, tannins, and richness of fruit needed to hold up to years of aging.

Chardonnay: It depends. A rich, buttery Chardonnay doesn’t have the structure to age well and will fall apart within a few years. But acidic Chardonnays with rich mineral tastes can very well improve with aging.

Fortified wine: Port, Madeira and the like age wonderfully because their high quantities of sugar and alcohol act to slow down the aging process, meaning that they can open well after even hundreds of years.

Pinot Noir: Professional opinions vary. Many experts think that the taste of a young Pinot is so great that you shouldn’t hang on to one for more than five years. But others hold that a well-aged Pinot is the holy grail of the wine world. This grape, so unpredictable on the vine, is unpredictable in the cellar too.

Syrah: Most Syrahs age well, but only up to a limit–about 10 years.

Merlot: Merlot is a very forgiving wine. Many bottles taste great young, but will still benefit from some time in the cellar. So Merlot is a great varietal to experiment with–try a variety of ages and see what suits your tastes.

Zinfandel: Like Cabernet Sauvignon, many Zinfandels have the potential to age to greatness.

Old Italian wines: Yes, they’ve already been aging, so you might say they don’t count, but these wines can make a valuable addition to your cellar. Italian wines from the 50s and 60s age wonderfully because they were made by farmers with primitive equipment. Their wines ended up very high in tannins, making them great aging candidates.

Varietals that don’t:

Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and most Rosés: They don’t have the structure necessary for good aging.

Wines under $15: They’re made to drink now.

Champagne: Though some champagnes can age well, becoming rounder, softer, and less bubbly over time, most are not meant to. If you’re holding on to a 20-year old bottle from your wedding, you probably won’t like it.

Why age at all?

You may have heard that since most wine nowadays is drunk within 48 hours of purchase, winemakers are starting to cater to the customer who plans to open the bottle right away. There is some truth to this statement–some winemakers, for example, are tending to harvest Cabernet Sauvignon grapes when they are very ripe–almost too ripe. This results in a wine that is high in fruit, acid and tannins, meaning that you can drink it younger, but not necessarily that it tastes good. Wines like this lack the subtlety and grace of a “true” Cabernet Sauvignon, which has a richness of background flavors that makes drinking it anything but a one-note experience.

Wines that have the foundational flavors to age well–a balance of tannins, acids, fruit, sugar, and alcohol, will develop secondary and even tertiary flavors, meaning that the wine will keep surprising the palate with new tastes and aromas from the first sniff to the end of the bottle. These flavors, which can remind the drinker of smoke, leather, figs, soil, or a thousand other subtle smells and tastes, make the drinking of a properly aged bottle a completely unique experience.

Hints for wine collectors:

No one can predict the perfect age at which a wine should be opened.  If you want to come as close to perfect as possible, the best thing to do is buy a case of wine at a time, and open a bottle every so often to gauge how it’s coming along. And don’t think of it as a waste–it’s an entertaining an educational experience to see how the flavors change as a particular vintage matures. Alternatively, you can look online to find people who have opened the vintage you’re holding on to, and see what they thought of it. This is the best way to determine the right age.

Be sure to keep tabs on the ages of the wines in your cellar. Remember that there’s no use aging wines if you’re just going to let them turn to vinegar in a forgotten corner. Keep tags on your bottles‘ necks so that you can read the label without disturbing the contents, and keep a detailed record of everything in your winery, whether on paper or digitally (such as with an  eSommelier wine cellar management device). Don’t forget to include tasting notes when you finally open the bottle.

How to Pop a Champagne Cork…with a Sword!

August 31st, 2010 No comments

Ok, ok, there are many reasons that you should never try to “saber” (as it’s called) a champagne bottle.  Just off the top of my head: it’s dangerous, it’s sort of silly, and since it isn’t easy, you’ll most likely to get a carpetful of glass shards and spilled bubbly.  Yes, logic would dictate that we always use the tentative twist method.  But this is just so much cooler!

Sabering became popular just after the French Revolution, when Napoleon and his fearsome army were fighting their way across Europe and earning victories at every step.  Their success gave them plenty of reason to celebrate, and they would hold parties that involved many bottles of champagne, which Napoleon’s cavalrymen would open with their sabers.  In fact, Napoleon, who almost certainly supported the practice, once said:

Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.

If you want to impress your friends at your next (preferably outdoor) party by casually sabering a bottle of bubbly a la Napoleon, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure the bottle of champagne is very chilled–it’s best if you let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.  Some sabering experts recommend using only real, French champagne, which they say opens more cleanly.
  2. You’ll need some kind of sword-like object.  You can use a special champagne saber made for the purpose, but in a pinch, a big kitchen knife works fine too.  Of course, if you have an old French cavalry sword laying around, using it would bump up your cool factor considerably.
  3. Remove the foil from the cork, and take off the wire cage that surrounds it.
  4. Locate your target point.  You’re looking for one of the two vertical seams that run the length of a champagne bottle.
  5. Hold the bottle correctly: with a firm grip at the base and at a 45-degree angle pointing away from your kids, windows, and priceless art.
  6. With the blunt side of the saber (or knife) facing towards the cork, practice running the saber down along the bottle, aiming for that target point.

    We hope this kid isn't going to drink the champagne after he sabers the bottle.

  7. When you’re ready, in one fluid motion, draw the saber down along the seam, and pop off the cork.  Be sure to follow through, fully swinging your arm.  Don’t be timid–you need some real force here.
  8. Success!  If you did it right, the cork and the small ring of glass around it should have come cleanly off, and you should have lost no more than an ounce of champagne.  For the ultimate finishing touch, pour a round for your guests like the feat you just performed was no big deal.

Remember, this is an art, not a science.  If you didn’t do it right the first time, try try again.  (Or go back to the trusty manual way.  You coward.)

A Perfect Summer Wine Cocktail: The Classic Bellini

August 2nd, 2010 No comments

If you find yourself craving something sweet and fruity during these hot summer days, we’ve got the perfect suggestion for you: the Bellini.  The Bellini originated in Venice, Italy at Harry’s Bar (which is still going strong and serving great Bellinis!).  The Bellini is a very simple cocktail that uses only two ingredients–sparkling wine and peach puree (making this the perfect recipe for summertime, when the peaches are at their sweet and juicy best).  These two flavors play off of each other exceptionally well, and make for the ideal hot-weather cocktail that is great with brunch, for a bridal shower, or just any old lazy Sunday.

For the best quality Bellinis, we recommend using fresh summer peaches.  Traditionally, this recipe is made with Prosecco, which is a generally dry Italian sparkling wine.  However, you can substitute any decent-quality Champagne, sparkling wine, or Cava.  (Unlike in many of the cocktails we post, because there are so few ingredients in a Bellini, the quality of the sparkling wine you use really makes a difference, so don’t buy the cheapest stuff for this one.)  Here’s the basic recipe:

  • Pour 2 oz peach puree into a champagne flute.
  • Slowly add 4 oz sparkling wine.
  • Garnish with a peach slice.

Could that be any easier?  Just make sure that you don’t pour too fast or, heaven forbid, mix the cocktail, because you can disturb the bubbles and make the final product flat rather than fizzy.  For that reason, it’s best to make this one at a time rather than in a big pitcher.  Now go to it!
Bellini Cocktail on Foodista

Love Champagne but Hate the Price? Try Cava.

July 20th, 2010 No comments

I love to drink champagne.  It doesn’t have to be a special occasion, in fact, sometimes I’ll make one up just to have an excuse to celebrate with the bubbly stuff.  Whether I’m toasting to a job well done or a job I didn’t quite get done, champagne always puts a smile on my face.  But what doesn’t make me smile is the price: champagne isn’t cheap!  So today on the VC blog, let’s talk about a delicious and more affordable alternative to the fancy french stuff: cava.

I discovered cava on a recent trip to Spain.  It’s a Spanish sparkling wine, and something that Spaniards take quite seriously.  Spain is renowned throughout the world for their excellent wines: they are known especially for the care they take in growing wine grapes perfect for their different regions.  Their wines are generally excellent and highly regarded throughout the world.  Not as popular in the US, but just as important to Spaniards, is cava.

Cava is produced in the Catalonian region of Spain, concentrated in the northwestern Penedès area.  130 million bottles of cava is produced each year by 250 Spanish cava makers.  The grapes they use are predominantly Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada, which give cava light, bright, and perfumed characteristics.

Cava is made in the traditional French method used to produce champagne: méthode champenoise, and in fact was called champán or xampany after true French champagne until champagne was given Protected Geographical Status.  In fact,  there are very strict rules governing what can and cannot be labeled a cava (just as there are such rules for champagnes) and one of them is that it’s not a cava unless it is made in the proper méthode champenoise. Thus, in terms of production at least, it’s really no different than a true champagne.  The same, of course, can’t be said for its grapes and growing conditions, but Spain’s reputation in these categories definitely makes cava a tough competitor.

Because cava isn’t as well-known as champagne, you can generally get significantly more bang for your buck by reaching for the Spanish, rather than the French stuff.  Be aware that cava comes in different degrees of sweetness, with Brut Nature being the driest (no sugar added) and Dulce being the sweetest (more than 50 g/litre of sugar added.)  Also be aware that not ever sparkling wine from Spain is a cava (and those that aren’t are not subject to the same production quality regulations).  Here’s an easy way to tell: all true cavas have a 4-pointed star on the cork.

So, fellow champagne lovers, get out there and try some cava, and let us know what you think!

Bringing Wine to a Dinner Party

April 16th, 2010 1 comment

So you’re on your way to a dinner party.  You stop at a wine shop to pick up a bottle.  But then you stand there, bewildered.  Red or white?  How expensive?  What do your hosts like?  What will go with their dinner?

Let us simplify matters for you:

First of all, you should not expect that your hosts will serve your wine at the actual dinner.  Remember that gifts should not come with obligations.  Especially if they’re wine lovers like you, they might have put a lot of time and planning into their wine selections, and your wine just might not fit with their planned menu.  It’s always polite to relieve your hosts of any obligation by saying something like, “You definitely don’t have to serve this tonight, unless you want to.  Put it aside and enjoy it another day!”  With this as your tactic, you don’t have to worry about pairing your wine gift with their food.  A bottle of wine that you’ve tasted yourself and enjoyed makes the best gift, and it can be a great conversation starter!

Another tactic is to call ahead of time and offer to provide wine for the dinner, or part of it.  If you don’t know your hosts well, this may be stepping on their toes, so use your judgment.  If you’re good friends with your hosts, they will probably be grateful to you for taking some of the planning–and expense–off of their hands.  If you’re going to bring wine to share, a great choice is champagne to be served with appetizers.  Champagne is almost universally liked (especially if you stick to a dry champagne, to please more palates), and it goes well with almost any kind of appetizer your hosts might serve, even those tough-to-match cheeses.  Just make sure you provide more than you think you’ll need–champagne goes fast!

If your host wants you to get involved, you can bring a wine that pairs with a specific dish or course.  But remember that pairing goes far beyond that simple “whites with fish or chicken, reds with red meat” rule.  If you want to learn more about pairing wine with food, click here to see our post on the subject.

Remember that picking out a bottle of wine to give shouldn’t be a stressful experience.  Put a little time and thought into it, and your hosts will be happy!

Wine and Chocolate: The Perfect Valentine’s Day Gift

February 8th, 2010 No comments

To all you boyfriends and husbands out there: it’s that time of year again.  Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, which means that you’d better get thinking about what you’re going to give the lovely woman in your life.  Sure, there are the old standbys like a dozen roses or a nice dinner out, but the gift that will truly wow her is something a little more original and personal.  If she’s like me, she’d like nothing better than a box of good-quality chocolates and a bottle or two of wine to enjoy with them.  Choosing the chocolates and wines you think she’ll like best is fun and creative, and shows that care and thought went into your gift.  If you play your cards right, she might even let you share!

Matching wine with chocolate can be an intimidating task, especially since no two experts seem to agree on pairings.  But luckily, many of the same rules that guide us in pairing wine with food can help us decide which wines might go best with which chocolates.  Just like in food pairing, the most important consideration is balance.  You don’t want either the wine or the chocolate to overpower the palate, so pick wines and chocolates of similar intensities.

White Chocolate: The extra sweet, delicate flavors in white chocolates respond well to wines that enhance their buttery qualities, like Sherries or Muscatos.  Though experts often recommend pairing chocolates with sweet wines, I find that this matchy-matchy approach results in a cloyingly sweet tasting experience.  The combination of a sweet wine and a sweet chocolate can be overwhelming to the palate, making it difficult to pick up the more subtle flavors in both the wine and chocolate.  If you feel the same way, try a Pinot Noir or a mellower Merlot with your white chocolate–the key is to pick a wine that isn’t too tannin-heavy or acidic.

Milk Chocolate: Milk chocolates provide perhaps the widest range of possibilities for pairing.  If you prefer to pair the chocolate with a sweet wine, try a Muscat, a Riesling, or a sweeter sparkling wine.  Dessert wines and port wines, especially Ruby Ports, are a classic pairing for milk chocolates, as the richness and heaviness of a port blends well with the creaminess of milk chocolate.  And if the milk chocolate you’ve chosen happens to surround some succulent strawberries, don’t mess with something perfect–choose champagne!

Dark Chocolate: Some women (including me) feel if it isn’t dark chocolate, it isn’t really chocolate at all.  If your significant other doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth or loves strong, rich flavors, she might prefer chocolate of the dark and decadent variety.  Dark chocolate needs to be served with a wine that can match up to its strong flavors.  The higher the percentage of cacao in the chocolate, the stronger the wine needs to be.  Ports are a great choice on the sweeter side, but I find that dark chocolate pairs best with bold, spicy reds.  Try a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel for a truly mouthwatering flavor combination.

For a unique tasting experience, try a chocolatier that specializes in unique flavors.  Chocolates made with chili powder or filled with goat cheese ganache are unique and interesting, and their savory flavors can break up the sweet-on-sweet monotony.

If you want to give something a little different, pair your wine choices with a chocolate souffle, chocolate mousse, or chocolate cake, either chosen at a great bakery, or (for the especially intrepid) homemade.

For an especially romantic gift, consider setting up a private wine and chocolate pairing session, just for the two of you.  Pick a variety of wines and chocolates and taste all the variations.  Besides encouraging great conversation and a romantic mood, this method will let you and your sweetie discover your favorite flavor pairings.

See some of our suggestions for Valentine’s Day wine pairings.

A Toast to Champagne!

December 31st, 2009 No comments

Happy New Year from the crew at Vintage Cellars!  We’d like to remind you that tonight, when you’re raising your glass with family and friends, to not forget a small, personal toast for that beverage of celebration: champagne!  If you’re looking for a great new bubbly to try, here’s the San Francisco Chronicle’s 100 Top Wines list, headed by seven great champagnes.

In honor of New Year’s Eve, we bring you a few interesting tidbits you might not have known about the world’s most beloved sparkling beverage:

  • Champagne was associated from the beginning with the anointment of French kings.  Since then, the word “champagne” has been synonymous with luxury and power.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wine.  It was invented by English scientist and physician Christopher Merret in 1662, when he presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed the “méthodePicture 6 champenoise,” basically, how to add sugar for a secondary fermentation that produces bubbles.
  • In France, the first champagne was created by mistake.  Accidental secondary fermentation caused bottles to spontaneously explode from the pressure of carbonation.  Because of this, the French called champagne “the devil’s wine.”
  • Champagne was always sweet until 1876, when Brut was first created.
  • Bubbles occur when the liquid contacts small imperfections in the glass.  These “nucleation points” are often added to champagne glasses with acid, a laser, or a glass etching tool.
  • Bottling champagne in magnum-sized bottles is said to produce a higher quality beverage, as there is less oxygen in the larger bottle, and the volume-to-surface area ratio creates bubbles of a perfect size.
  • Champagne corks are originally shaped like cylinders.  Pressure forces them into their distinct mushroom shape.  The longer champagne has been in the bottle, the more mushroom-shaped the cork.
  • Champagne is usually served in a champagne flute.  The shape of the other common glass, the Victorian flute, with the wide, short bowl, is said to have been modeled from the breast of Marie Antoinette.
  • When opened correctly, a bottle of champagne won’t make a loud popping sound, as this means you might be spilling-and wasting!  The sighing sound of a properly opened cork is called “le soupir amoureux” (the loving whisper).

Tips for Wine and Cheese Pairings

December 5th, 2009 No comments

As the holiday season draws nearer, we find ourselves meeting friends and family to drink, be merry, and forget how much money we’re spending on Christmas presents.  Whether you’re hosting a party or attending one, it’s a good bet that sometime this month you’ll be faced with that eternal challenge: the wine and cheese pairing.   A wine and cheese pairing can be a perfect gift for the host or a great way to start off your own party, but a good one takes planning.  Here are a few tips for doing one right:

1.  Don’t be intimidated.  Matching wine and cheese perfectly isn’t easy; even the experts disagree on what tastes good with what.  Rather than second-guessing yourself and adding to your holiday stress, just remember this: if it tastes good to you, it probably tastes good to your friends too.

2.  White wines are safer than reds.  White wine pair well with soft cheeses and stronger flavors.  Many cheese, especially the soft, creamy (and I might add, delicious) kind, contains fats that interfere with the flavors of red wine, making them seem to lose their deeper flavors.

3.  If you do want to go for a red (and don’t be afraid to!), stick to the hard, milder cheeses like swiss.

4.  Sweeter wines, dessert wines, and champagnes generally fair well with a wide range of cheeses.  The carbonation in champagne actually helps break down the fat from soft, creamy cheeses, and the mild flavor prevents it from interfering with the taste of most cheeses.  If you’re bringing wine to a wine and cheese party, champagne or sweeter wines like Gewürztraminer might be your best bets.

5.  If your harbor a love for the soft and stinky varieties of cheese (I know I do), pick big, bold wines to back them up.  Cabs and Bordeaux have flavors that can handle strong cheeses.  If you’re looking at a Bleu or other moldy or blue veined cheese, a sweet dessert wine is your best bet.

Good luck with your wine and cheese pairings!  Remember that food is supposed to be fun and pleasurable: don’t let picking a wine and cheese pair add to your holiday stress.