For most of us, even though we may give lip service to the hypothesis that any time is fine for sparkling wine, the fact is that we're most likely to spring for Champagne for the holidays and New Year's Eve.
And when I say "Champagne," I mean the real thing from the Champagne region in France. As good as some of the sparkling wines made on the Champagne model in the U.S., Australia, Spain and other places can be - and Italy's Franciacorta in particular comes mighty close to the mark - there's still no substitute for the French original for consistent quality and style.
Champagne's big names are familiar to most wine lovers, and they're generally reliable: Pol Roger, Piper-Heidsieck, Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger and Krug (when I can afford it!) are among my favorites; other top names include Moet et Chandon, Perrier-Jouet, Veuve Cliquot, Roederer and more.
But if you enjoy the fun of wine discovery as much as I do, you ought to venture beyond the popular brands and experiment with the products of the region's smaller, "artisanal" wine makers. The wines from these tiny, "hands-on" producers may be harder to find, although the thrill of the chase can be part of the fun. In the U.S., a number of artisanal Champagnes are brought in by the importer Terry Theise (represented by Michael Skurnik wines); look also for selections from Vintner Select, North Berkeley and many other quality importers.
I'll present occasional tasting notes on artisanal Champagnes and other less familiar sparkling wines between now and New Year's. Today's featured wine, Jean Vesselle "Oeil de Perdrix," is one of my favorites. It's produced by a family in the village of Bouzy, south of Reims, that's been making Champagne for more than 300 years. Its two tiny vineyards are planted in 90 percent Pinot Noir and 10 percent Chardonnay. Like all genuine Champagnes, it's not an inexpensive wine, but in a niche where popular labels can cost upwards of $100, it is more than competitive at $30.
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An exceptional Champagne
Clear pale-bronze in color, this wine's slight coloration from Pinot Noir earns it the nickname "Eye of the Partridge," an old French term for white wines that show a glint of pink. Tiny and extremely persistent bubbles form a persistent fountain in the glass. Its aromas are delicious and appealing, earthy and toasty notes over apples and bread dough and a whiff of cocoa. It's full and rich in flavor, creamy at first, with a tartly acidic component becoming more evident as it crosses the palate, making it an exceptionally good food wine. U.S. importer: Vintner Select, Cincinnati, North Berkeley Wine Merchants, Berkeley, and other regional importers. (Oct. 20, 2001)
FOOD MATCH: Demonstrating good Champagne's affinity for food, it went beautifully with a simple dish crafted to match: Shredded leftover roast chicken with fresh Mission figs in a simple honey-mustard veloute over rice.
WINERY WEBSITE: Jean Vesselle has a Website in French, English and German at http://www.vignoble-vesselle.fr/; click the flag of your choice for each language.
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the Rhone and Provence
Lauriann Greene and Jean-Pierre Sollin, sommeliers-conseil who live in France, will join me to present this tour. Lauriann and Jean-Pierre take a down-to-earth, plain-talk approach to wine, sharing my commitment to make the often daunting world of wine simple and to take the mystery out of it in a friendly, non-snob environment that's equally welcoming to wine novices and advanced experts.
With Lauriann, an American who is fluent in French, as our translator, we'll spend a week of in-depth exploration of the wines of these two beautiful regions, with extensive tastings, elegant hotels and excellent restaurants. We're planning winery visits, tastings and interviews with wine makers of some of the best producers in Gigondas, Beaumes-de-Venise, the Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac, Tavel, Baux-de-Provence, Coteaux du Luberon and one of my favorites, Bandol, where we will visit the stunning mountaintop property Domaine de Pibarnon, whose excellent red wine I reviewed in yesterday's edition. With all the wine, there'll still be time for visits to Roman ruins and romantic chateaux, and a "gala" dinner along the way in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The trip begins and ends in Paris, with high-speed TGV train connections; and those who wish may extend their stay with a two-night extension in Paris, touring the city on your own by day, and hitting interesting wine bars and restaurants with your guides in the evening.
The tour will be June 11 through 17, 2002. It is strictly limited to 16 guests, and places are going quickly; this offer will be available only until the tour fills. For more information, or to make reservations, visit the French Wine Explorers' Website, http://www.wine-tours-france.com/RhoneProvence.htm; or send E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 1-877-261-1500 (toll-free in the U.S. & Canada) to request a reservation form.
If you're worried about overseas travel in these troublesome times, I would be happy to tell you about my good experiences with air travel and security on a recent trip from the U.S. to Italy and back. Feel free to drop me a note at email@example.com if you would like to discuss this or ask questions about the tour. I would be delighted to meet a group of you in France next year!
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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.
Vol. 3, No. 40, Oct. 22, 2001