Wine column no. 49: Napoleon knew how to live when it came to Champagne

May 18, 2014: Once upon a time (circa 1804-1814), in a land far, far away (Google says there are 4,305 miles between Evansville and Paris, France), there lived an emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte (his name was really Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, by the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine and the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, Mediator of the Helvetic Confederation — but there’s no need to get technical.)
Anyway, everyone knew Napoleon.
He was a complex fellow. At first, he joined a committee that, among other things, said that all French citizens should be equal before the law. The resulting Napoleonic Code established an important, wide-ranging precedent in civil law. Then, when he became more influential, Napoleon reestablished a French aristocracy and handed out titles to family and friends. Mercurial and ambitious, Napoleon kept his country in a constant state of war to amass power; yet those same wars were expensive, tedious, and demonstrated his tendency to overreach.
Arguing that war should feed war, he financed his battles with an unending range of seizures in kind and in money, according to the Napoleon Foundation. Legal or not, it was war. And regardless of whether he won or lost, Napoleon usually drank Champagne.
I’m not like Napoleon. I’d also rather obey the law. But, like many people, I do appreciate what I call the finer things in life — love, respect (for oneself and others), privacy, the chance to speak and move about freely, the opportunity to raise and feed a family and, when times are really good, the joyful sound a popped cork makes when it’s finally liberated from the bottle.
Champagne may announce itself with gusto. But what really makes this “wine of kings” unique is the region’s iffy, northerly climate and chalky soil about 90 miles northeast of Paris. (That’s according to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible.” Published in 2001, this book contains an index, a dictionary, charts and more and is a useful reference for those looking for credible, verifiable information.)
According to complicated appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) law and World Trade Organization agreements, only sparkling wines made in the region of Champagne may bear that term on the label; everything else is just sparkling wine.
However, it is possible for Champagne to become a protected name elsewhere. After a lengthy and well-documented application process that requires the permission of the AOC, the Champagne name is now officially recognized in China. This means there’s a much higher probability that real Champagne will be sold and imbibed there. That’s good for the Champenois and it’s good for the Chinese. It’s also good for those who see the benefits of fair, legal trade.
Not everyone abides by what is protected under the WTO. Some sparkling wines are labeled Champagne when they clearly are not. That has led to legal action, and some arrests and fines, in other countries.
Untruths pervade commonly told stories, too. Legend has it that Dom Pierre Perignon invented Champagne, yet this tale does not intersect with reality. British wine writer Nicholas Faith called it “an agreeable paradox” that the world’s most notorious “seduction wine” should have been the brainchild of a Benedictine monk whose Catholic model for monastic life was the family. I agree; it’s an entertaining, salacious story that the less circumspect would be tempted to embellish even further. It’s too bad it lacks facts.
Here is something tangible, real and true that can be purchased for $52 at The Winetree on Washington Avenue. The Taittinger “La Francaise” Brut Champagne contains 12 percent alcohol and does not smell sweaty or unpleasant as some Champagnes do when the barrels are not cleaned properly. The bubbles are fine and don’t overwhelm the glass. It has a nice golden color. As with many wines, the conduit matters; I had this Champagne in flutes with a narrowed rim. This type of vessel helps concentrate the aromas at the top of the glass, allowing for a more authentic experience.
I’m not a big fan of cold wines. But keep in mind that Champagnes should be served at temperatures between 46 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s also a health element. Champagnes made with Pinot Noir grapes (the Taittinger is made with 50 percent Pinot Noir grapes, 40 percent chardonnay grapes and 10 percent Pinot Meunier grapes) can improve memory and vascular function.
Ah, the finer things in life. I think I need some Champagne. Then I want to read about the Battle of Waterloo.

Wine column no. 48: Importer Solomon serves as talent scout for lesser-known wines

May 3, 2014: Eric Solomon has a unique mantra: place before process.
“I’m interested in what makes grapes from one vineyard different from a vineyard 100 kilometers away and I’m not interested in a cookie-cutter approach to winemaking,” he’s quoted as saying on his European Cellars website.
Solomon was named Food and Wine Magazine’s 2007 Top U.S. Importer, and from his shop in Charlotte, N.C., he specializes in studying wines from Spain, France, Portugal and Switzerland. Yet he also considers himself to be a talent scout.
“You taste a lot of forgettable wines looking for that one that really moves you,” he said. “But I loved the thrill of recognizing raw talent and bringing it into the marketplace.”
I like his philosophy. First, it’s logical. It’s much easier to fashion good wine from good grapes. Second, it’s heartfelt and responsible. This is a man who is in the wine business for the right reasons.
One of his imports, the 2012 Herencia Altes garnatxa negra, is a joint venture with Nuria Altes, the proprietor of Herencia Altes. Garnatxa, or garnacha (the French call it Grenache), is one of Spain’s major grapes. According to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible,” the grape contributes richness, juiciness, body and density. This particular garnacha was grown in sandy and clay soil with some calcareous content on the southeastern corner of Catalonia, bordering Aragon and Valencia in Spain.
Medium bodied, the nose reminded me of fruit punch and blackberries. Like many garnacha, it starts smooth yet has a peppery finish. I love its complexity. Robert Parker rated it 91 out of 100. At 13.8 percent alcohol, the Herencia Altes also was picked “with a good level ripeness but avoiding excessive alcohol.”
That’s a notable point in wine literature. Overripe grapes often create wines with high sugar (alcohol) contents. These are the big, bold and — at times — flashy cabernet sauvignon and Zinfandels of the world that tend to dominate the meal. While fun, these wines (some clock in at 15 or 16 percent alcohol) can be beguiling if not held in check. A good test of their powers is to make a promise or statement before you’ve opened the bottle, then wait to see if you still feel the same way while under their influence.
I prefer caution. While not all of Solomon’s imports have lower alcohol contents, he does prove that softer, more muted wines can be just as engaging. This is because they tend to work cooperatively with all aspects of the meal.
Alpana Singh, a master sommelier, says Solomon is “a champion of indigenous varieties and lesser-known appellations with a knack for discovering seriously delicious wines.” How does he do that? I’ve never met Solomon, but I think it’s because he seeks vistas instead of snapshots. He looks for depth, for quality, and he isn’t afraid to ask questions he doesn’t know the answers to. In this way, he’s more than just a wine importer. He’s a wine explorer, too.
This wine was sold at The Fresh Market for roughly $10-15.

Wine column no. 47: The art of finding a good wine

April 20, 2014: A good friend asked recently, is the art of finding a good wine just a guessing game?.
Is there a more reliable and methodical way to discover a wine that you will likely purchase again?

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. Chance is part of the equation, but many of the decisions about whether to purchase a wine depend on the parameters you choose.

These can include cost, type of foods and their seasonings, style and even the occasion. The people I’ve found to be most trustworthy have decades of knowledge about wine styles, regions and food pairings. Not only can they give you solid recommendations on style and grape varietals, but, keeping their minds open to what you value, they are often able to put those suggestions in perspective.

I don’t yet have that level of experience, but I have noticed this: the winemaker can make a difference. It takes skill to shape wine into something of consistent value and some people do that better than others.

Enter Dave Phinney, a University of Arizona graduate who worked as a temporary harvest worker at Robert Mondavi Winery before moving to Opus One Winery and Whitehall Lane Winery. One year later, in 1998, he started Orin Swift Cellars with “two tons of purchased Zinfandel and, as my wife, Kim, likes to say, ‘one pair of shoes,’” according to a blog on Wine Spectator. The name is unique, and so is Phinney’s philosophy about wine. (Orin is Phinney’s father’s middle name, and Swift is his mother’s maiden name. The winery is located in St. Helena, Calif.)

“I worked on the night shift on an all-Mexican crew, with some great guys, but what they taught me (was): A lot of winemaking isn’t the romantic stuff of blending wines and being out in vineyards and doing wine tastings. So much of it is just being clean and just work; it’s just cellar work,” Phinney says.

It shows. Phinney’s most famous wine is his Prisoner, a Zinfandel-based blend of cabernet sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Charbano and Syrah first made in 2000 under the Orin Swift label that made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year at least three times in six years. Soft, supple, and filled with the flavor of red berries, the 2002 vintage (the blend often changes each year) was so impressive that I still remember it years later. This was before Phinney sold the Prisoner brand to Huneeus Vintners, owner of Quintessa in Napa Valley and Veramonte in Chile, in 2010.

These days, Phinney has a relatively new brand of wine under the label Locations, where he bottles wines from grapes grown in France, Italy, California, Spain and Argentina.

The premise is simple: Using the most capable vineyards, Phinney seeks to make the best wine possible, all while having fun in the process. In the case of the “F-2” (for France) wine, which you can purchase at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago for about $17, his style is big and he lets his grapes ripen (some might say over-ripen) much more than your typical French red blend of Grenache, Syrah, and other assorted Bordeaux varietals. Additionally, the words “14.5 percent alcohol” on the label make it clear he’s marketing to a more American audience.

Yet I don’t mind. What’s great about winemakers like Phinney is they are just as willing to discount their talents as they are to talk about a wine’s greater contextual value. When Austin Beeman asked Phinney in a YouTube video what he really wanted to say to the wine world, the laid back, somewhat exasperated Phinney responded, “Oh, geez, that it’s just wine. Like, in most countries, that it’s just a part of the meal as much as potatoes or steak or whatever. It should be enjoyed, and it shouldn’t be put up into this stratosphere of something it’s not or misconstrued or mythicized or whatever. Anybody can do it; it’s not magic.”

That gets to the heart of this, I think, because it’s true. This is something I’ve thought a lot about after spending an evening with my French cousin, Philippe, while visiting my 93-year-old grandmother in Brittany, France, recently. The wine really is secondary. You can get all the advice you want or need or seek; you can spend as much or as little as you think is necessary. But much more than regions and price, varietal and winemaker, it’s the people you share the bottle with who add the most value.