Monday, July 1, 2024

My Tuscan Getaway

Late May in Tuscany was a gorgeous time of year. Warm sun and blue sky hovered over endless green meadows dotted with cypress trees and interspersed with vineyards and olive groves. With the help of the nice Google lady, our scenic drive ended at A Casa di Dona, the agriturismo or farm stay outside the town of San Gimignano. 

Our farm stay, A Casa Di Dona

The Farmstay

We found the farmstay on, a sort of low-tech no-frills Airbnb that features farm stays from all over Italy. You will not be asked for your credit card information. Nor will you receive a booking confirmation number. You simply arrange your accommodation with the farm stay owner through email facilitated by the website. Voila! A gentleman’s (or in our case, a lady’s) arrangement is made.

View from my balcony

Donatello Rubicini is the proprietress of the namesake farm stay, which translates to At Dona’s House in English. The bubbly hostess was all smiles as she grabbed a heavy piece of luggage with ease and showed us to our rooms. Each of the five rooms in the farm house has an en-suite bathroom and a balcony that overlooks more vineyards and olive groves. Our room costs 90 Euros a night and includes breakfast!

The Food

The one thing that drew us to A Casa di Dona is the many reviews about her culinary skills. Trained in Italian Chef Academy in Empoli, Dona also runs a reservation-only restaurant from the farm house. And boy! Were we in for a treat! For 25 Euros per person, Dona served up seven courses of mind-blowing Tuscan dishes made from scratch with local ingredients. This includes produce from her garden.

Starting top left (clockwise) Freshly baked Tuscan foccacia, onion fritters, foraged mushrooms sautéed in olive oil, grilled beef and chicken over arugula with olive oil, handmade pasta with pesto, herbed riso with beet and hard boiled egg
Dona serving vin santo and cantucci for dessert to her happy diners 
It suffices to say that we stayed in for dinner the second night as well. What was also included in the meal was the perfect wine pairing - a red and a white. Despite being from nondescript bottles with no labels, the wines were exceptional. We found out later that they were made by her cousins who live next door. 

The Wine

Monaldo and Emanuela run Rubicini Winery that is next to the farm house. At our request, Dona arranged a wine tasting for us with Emanuela. The tasting room was modest and simply decorated with framed accolades from Decanter and newspaper clippings, including one from Taiwan! 

Emanuela Rubicini and I at the winery 
Emanuela then walked us through a generous lineup of two whites and three reds. To my delight, they were all DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) and DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines, which are the top two tiers of Italian wine classification respectively. That explains the high quality of wine we had with dinner the prior night. 

Rubicini wine tasting

2022 Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (8.80 Euros) - Made with 100% Vernaccia grapes, this was the white wine we had with dinner at A Casa di Dona. Vernaccia is a white grape that is often associated with San Gimignano. Harvested ripe, the grapes were gently crushed using pneumatic press to lightly extract the flavor from the berries. The juice was then fermented in temperature-controlled steel vats. Straw yellow in color, the wine was aromatic on the nose and crisp citrus-y on the palate with lively acidity. It was a crowd pleaser.

2021 Etherea Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (12 Euros) - The Etherea is a step up from the Vernaccia. After gentle crushing, Vernaccia grapes were co-fermented with a small percentage of Chardonnay in oak. It was similarly straw yellow in color with added almond and vanilla notes on the aroma from the oak. On the palate, it was more rounded in texture while balanced with acidity.

2022 Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG (8.80 Euros) - This was the red wine served with dinner, and it was fantastic! Made with Sangiovese (minimum 75% by Chianti DOCG rule), Colorino, and Celiegiolo, pump down was used during primary fermentation (instead of punch down) to ensure gentle extraction of color and flavor. After alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, the wine was left to age in steel and had no oak contact. Ruby red in color, the wine was aromatic, fruit-forward with a good balance of tannins and acidity. 

2017 Pepenero San Gimignano Rosso DOC (17 Euros) - The only wine in the lineup that came in a a Burgundy style bottle, the Pepenero was also the only DOC. According to the San Gimignano Rosso DOC regulations, it must include at least 70% Sangiovese. Pepenero had a small percentage of Merlot. Both grapes were vinified separately, blended together, and aged in oak for eight months. Punch down took place during primary fermentation for more extraction of color and flavor. A darker wine, Pepenero expressed a fruit-forward aroma with vanilla and spice undertones from the oak. It was delicious with soft and smooth tannins.

2019 Tripudio Rosso Riserva Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG (15.50 Euros) - Tripudio was vinified in the same way and with the same grapes as the Chianti Colli Senesi. The difference was the additional 12-month maturation in French oak barriques after malolactic fermentation. Fruit-forward on the nose with berries and cherries, there were also notes of vanilla and spice from the oak. The fruit profile extended to the palate and was balanced with plenty of tannins, structure, and acidity. The finish was long and lingering. 
Me in Rubicini vineyard

My Verdict: This trip to the Tuscany wine country has been magical. Its simplicity and celebration of life was transformative for me. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to enjoy a rustic Tuscan vacation. Hope this post gives you a flavor of what you can look forward to. I highly recommend a visit!

Friday, May 31, 2024

Cinque Terre - 5 Lands, 2 DOC’s

Cinque Terre, which means Five Lands in Italian, comprises five coastal villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso along the Ligurian Sea. A visit to this picturesque part of northwest Italy has been one of the few items on my bucket list. We were fortunate to spend three days in mid May exploring all five villages, enjoying the rich history and laidback culture, and savoring wonderful local cuisine and wine.

View of Riomaggiore from the water taxi

Speaking of local wine, Cinque Terra boasts of two DOC’s (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata) - a dry white and a sweet white. But first, let’s revisit the Italian wine classification for context. There are four tiers in the Italian wine classification:

Chart from

  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Contrallata e Garantita) is the highest classification for Italian wine. A DOCG wine is governed by viticultural zone with strict rules around permitted grape varieties, yield limits, grape ripeness during harvest, winemaking and maturation processes. There are 77 DOCG’s.
  • DOC is the next and also the most common tier of Italian wine classification. It covers almost every traditional wine style. A DOC wine is also governed by viticultural zone, permitted grape varieties, and wine style. There are about 330 DOC’s. Consistently high-quality DOC’s can get promoted to DOCG’s.
  • IGT (Indicazione Grafica Tipica) is the next tier and the latest addition to the original three-tier classification. It focuses on the region of origin rather than grape varieties or wine styles. There are about 120 IGT’s.
  • VdT (Vino da Tavola), otherwise known as table wine, is the most basic classification. You can still find high-quality Italian table wine. They are just not restricted by the rules of DOCG, DOC, or IGT.
Me enjoying a Cinque Terre DOC by the Ligurian Sea

Cinque Terra DOC

Recognized in 1973, the Cinque Terre DOC is a small white wine region in Liguria. The wine is made with at least 40% of Bosco and may contain up to 40% of Albarola and/or Vermentino and up to 20% of other approved white grape varieties. The wine is typically straw yellow in color, aromatic, lively and yet delicate in palate. With a lower alcohol content that runs around 11 to 12.5%, it is perfect when enjoyed with seafood or cheeses. You can find a bottle of Cinque Terra DOC at 15 Euros a bottle.

Seafood appetizer platter

Sciacchetrà DOC

The second DOC is Sciacchetrà, which is a dessert wine made in the passito style. It shares the same grape varieties restriction as Cinque Terre DOC. In the making of a Sciacchetrà DOC, the highest-quality grapes are selected for harvest and dried often using straw mats. (Passito wine is also sometimes called straw wine.) When the sugar content in the dehydrated raisined grapes reaches the equivalent of 17% potential alcohol, then the grapes are vinified. The entire process has to be done in the DOC designated area.

View of vineyards on terraces from Corniglia to Vernazza

Because of the higher concentration of grapes to juice ratio in Sciacchetrà, the color of the wine is deeper and often ranges from golden yellow to amber. Like all passito wine, the aroma is intense with honey and raisin. On the palate, it is sweet, lively with a good structure and body. Its viscosity coats the mouth and lingers with a long nutty finish. Because of both the quantity and quality of grapes used to make a Sciacchetrà as well as the labor-intensive process involved, the DOC can run around 50 to 90 Euros for a half bottle.

My Verdict: Cinque Terre is not only a check on my bucket list, but its breathtaking beauty also nourishes my soul. Imagine my delight when I found not one but two DOC’s in the region that further elevate the local cuisine. If you are traveling to Italy, I hope Cinque Terre is in your itinerary and its DOC’s are part of your meal. Salut!

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Hospice du Rhône in Walla Walla

Last December, my girlfriends and I were sipping Champagne when we learned that Hospice du Rhône was coming to Walla Walla in 2024. Tickets had just gone on sale. In our happy tipsy space, we proceeded to purchase a few for the Grand Tasting. And just like that, plans were made for our next trip to back to wine country.

Beautiful Abeja Winery in Walla Walla

So What Exactly is Hospice du Rhône?

Hospice du Rhône is a non-profit business league with the goal of promoting Rhône variety wine growers and producers. Its catchy tagline reads “Twenty-Two Varieties. One Vision.” But the organization had a humble starting with only one variety - Viognier. It all began in 1991 when wine shop owner Mat Geretson showcased 35 Viogniers to about 20 tasters near Atlanta, Georgia. It was called Viognier Guild. 

Rhône River by Txllxt TxllxT via Wikimedia Commons

The next year, John Alban offered to host the event in his winery and expanded it to include other Rhône variety wines. Renamed Raisin’ Rhône’s, the event was moved to the Alban Vineyards in Edna Valley, California. Over the years, the celebration of Rhône variety wines grew into a multi-day affair. 

In 1998/99, the event was rebranded again as Hospice du Rhône (HdR). Vicki Carroll was hired as the Director, and Paso Robles became the new venue. Under Vickie’s leadership, HdR became the largest international vintners association that focused on Rhône grape varieties. Its event brings over 120 Rhône variety wine producers all over the world. 

In 2010, HdR added luxury resort Blackberry Farm in Willard, Tennessee as a second venue for the celebration of Rhône variety wines. The format there was smaller and more intimate. After a brief pause, Paso Robles continued to be the venue for its biennial flagship events starting in 2016. There were two exceptions. The event was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and it came to Walla Walla in 2024!

HdR, Walla Walla Edition

Four to five years in the making, Walla Walla became the third destination to host HdR in 2024. The three-day affair that ran from April 25 to 27 consisted of a dozen Rhône Around Dinners, two Master Classes, two seminars, two focus tastings, and a Grand Tasting. 

Walla Walla has a few things going to make it HdR-worthy. First, the region has over time built its cred in producing high-quality Rhône variety wines starting with the likes of Christoph Baron and Charles Smith as well as the more recent recognition of the Rocks District AVA. 

Force Majeure winemaker dinner

Second, the culinary landscape and hospitality industry continued to excel in showcasing the wine offerings and making Walla Walla a wine destination. But HdR could not have happened without the support of the wine community, and in particular, Carrie Alexander of Atelier Freewater and Force Majeure Vineyard.

My Grand Tasting Experience

The Grand Tasting featured over 130 international and domestic Rhône variety wine producers and importers. The biggest showing came from California, followed by France and Washington. Since I am not blessed with an unlimited alcohol tolerance, I went prepared with a dozen “must try” wineries circled in my copy of the exhibitor map. (I deliberately skipped my French favorites like Vieux Télégraphe and Beatus as well as Walla Walla gems such as Reynvaan and Latta because I either already own or have access to those wines.)

The clear winners at the tasting for me were Cave Yves Cuilleron and M. Chapoutier. Yves Cuilleron (the man himself) was at the event pouring a selection of wines that included an unclassified Syrah, three classified Northern Rhône wines, and a collaboration project with Sonoma’s Jeff Cohn Cellars. I particularly enjoyed his 2020 Labaya Crozes-Hermitage and 2020 Madinière Côte Rôtie.

Cave Yves Cuilleron 

As for M. Chapoutier, you could spot the stall a mile away. It was the one with the longest line, but the wait was worth the while. The pour included one Hermitage (2018 Sizeranne) and three Chateauneuf de Papes (2021 La Bernardino, 2015 Croix de Bois, and 2015 Barbe Rac). There was not a miss among them!

M. Chapoutier

While it was no chump change at $175 per ticket, the HdR Grand Tasting experience was phenomenal given the quality of wines that were poured. There were a couple of things that would have elevated the experience for me. One, the space was tight for the number of participants. I had moments of pandemic PTSD. Two, plain demi baguettes were a paltry offering for a tasting that ran around dinner time. I would have happily paid $25 more per ticket to have hors d'oeuvres instead to pair with the wine.

My Verdict: Despite an initial buyer's remorse (especially after I found out about the demi baguettes), the answer was a resounding YES! I wish I had given more thoughts about other HdR activities such as the focused tastings, seminars, Master classes, or wine dinners; each of which ran the gamut of $50 to $500. For a Rhône lover with a deep pocket and a palate to match, participating in multiple HdR activities could run into thousands of dollars. But if the Grand Tasting is any indication, they may be worth every penny for the right person.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Where Did the Prohibitionists Go?

Spoiler alert: Not far.

If you have visited your doctor recently, you may have gotten a new advice about drinking; that is, no amount of alcohol is safe.

Wait, what?! What happened to doing all things in moderation or the Mediterranean diet?

Mediterranean diet by Kamil Kalbarczyk on Unsplash

But before that, let’s delve into the history of wine and prohibitionism.

When Wine Was Good

It is believed that wine has been a part of the human civilization since the Neolithic Period (Late Stone Age). There were evidence of winemaking and grape storage from the Caucasus to the Zagros Mountains as far back as 6000 BCE. By 3500 BCE, the first wine trade started in the Mesopotamia, and wine consumption expanded to Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

The Bible also records the partaking of wine, which was often associated with celebrations. Noah was notably the first winemaker in the Old Testament. After the great flood, he cultivated a vineyard, made wine, and even got drunk. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In today’s church, Christians partake the sacraments of bread and wine during Eucharist, although some denominations have substituted wine with non-alcoholic grape juice.

Eucharist by James Coleman on Unsplash

The appeal of wine to early human civilizations is two-fold: First, it removed inhibition and alleviated the stress of day-to-day living in a world sans the safety and creature comforts that we enjoy today. Second, alcohol held medicinal value as a natural antiseptic for tending wounds and certain ailments. Moreover, the lack of proper sanitation in the old days made wine the safer beverage of choice than water.

From Moderation to Prohibition

Fast forward to the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution brought forth huge manufacturing facilities with heavy machinery. Sobriety in the workforce became important to ensure workplace safety. The distribution of wealth started to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. By the 19th Century, excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the working class, became a social problem. Alcohol abuse was also linked to disease and death. This led to the early temperance movement, that consisted mostly of middle class church goers, urging moderation in alcohol consumption.

 Spilled Wine by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

Over time, the temperance movement became more radical and political, advocating for legal prohibition of alcohol consumption. In 1838, Massachusetts set the precedent by banning certain sales of spirits. Over the next few decades, other states started enforcing prohibition as well. By 1920, the Prohibition Era began at the federal level with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the National Prohibition Act. The legislation banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors.

Unintended Consequences

Enforcing the Prohibition proved to be challenging. Following an initial decline in alcohol consumption, illegal production and sale of liquor began to rise as people sought alcohol in the black market. Speakeasies flourished and multiplied, fueled by the consumer culture and social revolution of the Roaring ’20s.

The high demand of bootleg alcohol also meant that quality access was limited to the upper and middle classes. The working class was left with cheap moonshine that, when tainted with toxins, took away thousands of lives every year. Gang violence and organized crime associated with illegal bootlegging skyrocketed, and the support for the Prohibition began to diminish.

Roaring ’20s by Phil Robson on Unsplash

In 1929, the stock market bubble started to burst, plunging the country into the Great Depression. The costs associated with enforcing the Prohibition could not be sustained. On the contrary, legalizing the liquor industry had an economic appeal of creating new jobs and sources of revenue. By 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified to end the Prohibition. While a handful of states continued to prohibit alcohol thereafter, these too removed the ban by 1966.

What About Now?

Since the end of the Prohibition Era, the temperance movement kept a relatively low profile. It generally focused its effort on communicating research findings on alcohol and health. While that might seem innocuous, the wine industry was taken by surprise when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 2023 that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. This is in contradiction to its prior claim that drinking in moderation has health benefits.

WHO’s published “Reporting about alcohol: guide for journalists” was heavily critiqued as half of its contributors came from temperance groups, such as Movendi International, NCD Alliance as well as the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance and its regional subsidiaries. In fact, these temperance groups have been partnering with WHO since the 2018 launch of the SAFER initiative, which seeks to reduce alcohol-related harms.

The most impactful research around alcohol and health to date is the one led by John Hopkins biologist Raymond Pearl in 1926. Pearl observed the famous J-curve, which suggested that alcohol has a protective effect on cardiovascular health when consumed in moderate amount. This amount translated to no more than one drink for women or two drinks for men per day. While subsequent studies mostly supported the J-curve and a few claimed to “debunk” it, no scientific consensus has been reached.

My Verdict: Obviously, one has to make one’s choice regarding alcohol consumption. For me, the long history of wine association with celebrations and medicinal value far outweighs the relatively brief and recent anti-alcohol sentiments of the temperance movement. While I don’t support alcohol abuse, I certainly believe that life is more than disease prevention. On that note, let me raise my glass to your good health. Santé!

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Surely, This Wine is Aged Sur Lie

Have you had a white wine or a sparkling wine and thought to yourself, This is a bread bomb!

It smells yeasty and lands on your palate like a liquified brioche - bready and nutty with a creamy mouth feel. If so, there is every chance that the wine you just had has been aged sur lie

Bread by Anton on Unsplash

The Lie in Sur Lie

Sur lie (pronounced sewr-h lee) is French for “on lees.” Lees are basically solid remnants from the winemaking process. There are generally two kinds of lees - gross lees and fine lees. Gross lees are mostly made up of grape debris. They are larger and tend to settle easily to the bottom of the wine. Fine lees refer to the sedimentary residue that consists primarily of dead yeast cells. They are smaller and can be easily stirred into a cloudy swirl before being drawn downwards by gravity.

Gross lees are often removed (or racked off) during the winemaking process. Prolonged contact with gross lees can contribute to off-flavors in wine. The funk may come from decomposing grapes, spoilage organisms, or excess sulfur found on the harvested grapes.

Lees left after racking

Fine lees, on the other hand, bring about desirable texture, flavors, and complexity to the wine. As yeast cells break down, they release mannoproteins, polysaccharides, fatty acids, and amino acids. Together these compounds contribute to the aromas and flavors of brioche, honey, and nut. They also create a buttery creamy mouthfeel while softening the tannins. As a bonus, fine lees are also reductive in nature and protect the wine from oxidation.

Bâtonnage, Stirring Up the Lie

There are two different methods for aging wine on lees: 1) keeping the lees at the bottom of the barrel, or 2) stirring the lees periodically to ensure homogenous and consistent contact with the wine. The latter approach is known as bâtonnage (pronounced bah-too-naj). It is believed that both processes give pretty much the same result with some stylistic differences. See the video on bâtonnage below.

When considering whether to practice bâtonnage, the winemaker has to determine how much lees contact is needed to bring out the desired characteristics in the wine. Major Burgundy house Maison Louis Latour uses little to no bâtonnage on their Chardonnay, believing that the lees-to-wine ratio in the barrel does not always require it. For wineries that choose to practice bâtonnage, they vary in how frequent and how long to stir the lees, walking the fine line between over and under-stirring.

Famous Sur Lie Wines

Sur lie wine aging is believed to date back to the Roman Republic era, as documented by Cato the Elder. In modern winemaking, the two regions famous for aging their wines on lees are Burgundy and Champagne. White grape varieties that benefit from aging on the lees are Chardonnay, Muscadet, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and other crisp white wines with high acidity.

White Burgundy - Made with 100% Chardonnay grapes, white Burgundy is often credited as the originator of sur lie aging in modern winemaking. After harvest, the grapes are pressed, and the juice goes into the barrels without solid grape debris. Alcoholic fermentation starts in the barrels, followed by malolactic fermentation. Since there are no gross lees, the wine does not need to be racked till the next spring. After racking, some amount of lees is retained in the wine for another 10 to 18 months of barrel aging. Bâtonnage is optional.

2022 Maison Castel Chablis, a white Burgundy
Champagne - There are three main grape varieties in a Champagne - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. With the exception of making a rosé Champagne, the harvested grapes are pressed and clarified to obtain a clear juice. The juice then goes into stainless steel vats to start alcoholic fermentation. The use of oak and malolactic fermentation is optional.
NV Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut
When fermentation is complete, the wine is bottled with the addition of liqueur de tirage, which consists of still wine, sugar, and yeast. This starts off a secondary fermentation to create carbonation. Thereafter, the wine goes through sur lie aging in the bottle for a minimum of one year for a non-vintage Champagne and three years for a vintage Champagne. Bâtonnage is non-existent.

Aging on Lees in Barrel vs. Bottle

Wine aged on lees in the barrel benefits from the aroma compounds that are extracted from the oak. These add notes of caramel, vanilla, and spice. Additionally, there is space to maneuver a baton or any long metal tool to stir up the lees if bâtonnage is so desired.

As for aging wine on lees in the bottle, bâtonnage is virtually impossible. Also, there is also the challenge of removing the lees when aging is complete. This is achieved through a process called riddling, where wine bottles with lees are first placed at 35° angle on a wooden rack. The bottles are then gradually shaken and rotated at an increasing angle, with gravity pulling the lees to the lowest part of the bottles. When the bottles are virtually upside down, the lees that have settled in the bottlenecks are then frozen and removed. Voila!

Riddling rack
Now you have learned about a few things about lees - gross versus fine lees, to stir or not to stir lees, to age on lees in a barrel or a bottle. The next time you encounter a yeasty, bready wine, you may proclaim with confidence, “Surely, this wine is aged sur lie!” 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Sparklers for Valentine’s Day and Super Bowl

Since the winter holidays, one doesn’t have to look far for a reason to pop open a bottle of sparkling wine. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, there is yet another occasion for a sparkler. Let’s also not forget that Super Bowl beer bros and Swifties may enjoy some bubblies too. With that, here’s a primer on the different types of sparkling wine and my take on what to drink for the occasion.

Sparkling Wine by Michelle McEwen on Unsplash

From the Rustic Pét-Nat

Let’s start with how sparkling wine came about. Wine is produced from the alcoholic fermentation of grapes or grape juice (called the must). During the process, yeast in the must converts sugar into alcohol and produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. When making a still (as opposed to a sparkling) wine, the yeast will consume virtually all the sugar and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When that happens, fermentation is considered complete. The wine is then racked to remove grape debris and remaining yeast (called the lees) and bottled.

If residual sugar is left in the wine and the lees are not thoroughly removed prior to bottling, then fermentation may continue in the bottle. Carbon dioxide that is released in the process is then trapped in the bottle, resulting in a bubbly. This was probably how sparkling wine was first discovered, and the process is known as the ancestral method or méthode ancestrale. This class of sparkling wine is called pétillant-naturel or pét-nat for short.

I have made pét-nat before, and it is a really fun wine. (My friend in the video was opening a bottle of my pét-nat.) While it may be the father of all sparkling wines, pét-nat has only returned into vogue in recent years. This, not surprisingly, coincides with the natural wine movement. Unconstrained by conventions and rules, the lightly fizzy wine may be made with any grape varieties and may be filtered or not. The main requirement is that the wine is made in a single fermentation that lasts through the bottle. Many pét-nats have playful labels and are sometimes enclosed with a crown cork, like a beer bottle.

Best for Super Bowl party or any casual get-together with pub grub. A little lower in alcohol content (around 10-12% ABV) and with a friendly price point (around $20/bottle), pét-nats may deliver a range of fun and funky flavors depending on the grape variety and the length of lees contact. In fact, many would compare a pét-nat with a craft beer. So drink up, Super Bowl beer bros.

To the Ritzy Champagne

If pét-nat is the wine of the people, then Champagne is the wine of royalty. Besides being made in the region of Champagne, the namesake wine is also highly regulated in terms of grape varieties (primarily Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), viticulture practice, viniculture method, and the length of maturation on the lees; all of which run contrary to the making of a pét-nat.

Champagne tasting at Möet et Chandon
Unlike pét-nat, Champagne goes through an elaborate winemaking process to deliver a floral, bready, nutty wine with a creamy and full texture, crisp acidity, and a steady stream of bubbles. The steps in making a Champagne, known as méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionalle, include:
  • First alcoholic fermentation: A still wine is first made and bottled.
  • Second (or secondary depending on your perspective) alcoholic fermentation: Add more yeast, sugar, and wine (the mixture is called liqueur de triage) in bottles of still wine.
  • Aging: The bottles are then aged for at least 15 months on the remaining lees.
  • Riddling or remuage: The bottles are placed on special wooden racks called pupitres or the machinery-equivalent at 35° angle and then gradually shaken and rotated in the rack at an increasing angle.
  • Dégorgement: When the bottles are virtually upside down, the remaining lees that have now settled in the bottleneck will then be frozen and removed.
  • Final Touch: The bottles are then topped up with base wine, sucrose, and sulfur dioxide (the mixture is called liqueur d’expédition) to balance and stabilize the wine before being secured with a cork and a wire cage (muselet). The amount of sweetness added is also known as the dosage.
Best for Valentine’s Day or any special occasion. Champagne, the gold standard for sparkling wine, can be a splurge with a starting price of $50/bottle. However, the sparkler is super versatile and can pair with a wide range of cuisine from fried chicken to fresh oysters. But nothing says luxury better than Champagne and caviar.

And Everywhere in Between

Traditional Method, but not Champagne - Do you like a Champagne but not the price? Thankfully, there are many wallet-friendly bubblies available outside of Champagne that are made in the traditional method. These include French crémant, Spanish cava, and sparkling wines all over the world with Traditional or Champagne Method stated on the label.

There are eight French crémant regions, each with its own regulations around grape varieties and style. The same goes to Spanish cava. However, these regulations are less stringent than those in Champagne, allowing the producers to keep the cost down while delivering quality sparklers.

While New World bubbly producers are not restricted in how they make their wine, they tend to go beyond méthode Champenoise. This includes the use of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sometimes Pinot Meunier grapes. Many even follow the Champagne labelling of Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir clear juice) in their offerings.

Best for a Valentine’s Day celebration on a budget or casual brunch. The price range varies, but a bottle of Cava may start with $10/bottle. At that price, you can even use it to make mimosa or Champagne float guilt-free. (Side note - Please do not use real Champagne in your Champagne float.)

Charmat Method - If you remove the labor-intensive steps of second (or secondary) fermentation in the bottle as well as the subsequent riddling and dégorgement, you may end up with the Charmat method. In this method, the liquer de triage is added to still wine in a pressurized tank instead of a bottle. The wine then goes through second fermentation is in the tank for 1 to 6 weeks. After this, the wine is clarified, and dosage is added during bottling.

While commonly known by its French name, the Charmat Method was invented and patented in 1895 by Italian winemaker in Asti named Federico Martinotti. A couple of decades after that, French oenologist Eugène Charmat improved on the process and patented it. In Italy, this process is sometimes known as the Martinotti method.
Prosecco by Lisanne van Elsen on Unsplash
In terms of flavor profile, bubbly made in the Charmat method tends to be more aromatic (mostly due to the grape varieties used) but lacks the nutty, bready, multi-dimensional flavor found in Champagne. As one might expect given its origin, many Italian sparklers are made in the Charmat method; the most famous of which is Prosecco. This low-labor low-cost approach is also adopted around the world. If the label on a New World sparkling wine does not indicate the traditional method, it is probably made using the Charmat method.

Best for Super Bowl party, a casual get-together, or brunch. Starting at a price of less than $10/bottle, sparkling wine made in the Charmat method can be enjoyed as-is or be used to make fun sparkling cocktails. Peach Bellini, my Swiftie friends?

Now that you know about the different types of sparkling wine, what will be your pick for Valentine’s Day or Super Bowl party? I’d love to hear what you think.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Tokaji, a Sweet Finish

If sparkling wine is for ringing in the new year, then dessert wine is for wrapping up the current one. For 2023, my sweet finish of choice is Tokaji. Tokaji is made with grapes that are infected with noble rot. Noble rot is caused by a beneficial fungus, Botrytis cinerea. Famous dessert wines made from botrytized grapes include the French Sauternes and German Trockenbeerenauslese. However, Tokaji is a botrytized wine of another level and is known as the king of wines and the wine of kings. Here are a few things you want to know about Tokaji.

Tokaji by Takato Marui
How do you pronounce Tokaji?

No matter what Google tells you, Tokaji is not pronounced toe-kah-jee. The dragged out pronunciation is toe-kah-yee, but most wine connoisseurs simply shorten it toe-kai

Where is Tokaji from?

Tokaji comes from the Tokaj wine region that is actually shared by two countries; Hungary and Slovakia. In Hungary, the region is called Tokaji borvidék while in Slovakia, it is called Vinohradnícka oblast’ Tokaj.
Licencnazmluvac.87-11-3899/2015	© Igor Vizner 201
Tokaj Wine Region adapted from Igor Vizner’s map
The majority of the wine region, which consists of 28 communes and 5,500 hectares, resides within Hungary. The Slovakian side of the wine region is a fraction of its Hungarian counterpart with 7 communes and over 900 hectares of vineyards. Under the current EU legislation, the name Tokaj (and other variations of the spelling) has been given the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status and may be used by either country. As of March 2007, French and Italian producers who had previously used Tokay or Tocai on their wine labels are no longer allowed to do so.

What kind of grapes go into a Tokaji?

As mentioned, grapes used to make a Tokaji are infected with Botrytis cinerea. The grey fungus infects ripe grapes in misty mornings and punctures the skins. As the temperature rises in the afternoons, water evaporates through the ruptured skin. Over time, the loss of water concentrates the sugar content in the partially raisined grapes.

Noble rot by John Yesberg
As for grape varieties, whether in Hungary or Slovakia, the three main ones are Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Sárgamuskotály (or Yellow Muscat). Furmint is the most dominant grape. Other grapes allowed in a Tokaji are Zéta, Kövészőlő, and Kabar. This is not to be confused with grape varieties that are or were named Tokay or Tocai. In the EU, these grapes are now required to use different names. For instance, Tocai Friulano in Italy is renamed to Sauvignonasse, and Tokay d’Alsace has gone with its international name, Pinot gris.

Are there different types of Tokaji?

Yes, there are different types of Tokaji wine, but the two most famous ones are Aszú and Eszencia.
Aszú means dried in Hungarian. The grapes are individually picked, collected in large vats, and mashed into a paste or aszú dough. Must (unfermented grape juice) or wine is poured on the aszú dough and stirred periodically for 24-48 hours. The juice is then racked (or transferred without the solid debris) into wooden vats to complete fermentation and maturation. 

Tokaji Aszú by Naotake Murayama
What’s new with Aszú? Previously, the sugar content of an aszú was measured in puttonyos, ranging from 3 to 6 puttonyos (or 60 to 150 grams of sugar per liter). Puttonyos were based on the use of 22-23 kg basket of the botrytized grapes, known as a puttony. Since 2013, Hungarian wine law has declassified wines with 3 or 4 puttonyos from the Aszú designation. These are now labeled as Late Harvest. Aszús today are required to have at least 120 grams of sugar per liter, previously known as 5 and 6 puttonyos.

Eszencia, one of the most expensive dessert wines in the world, is made from the free run of aszú grapes after harvest. Free run refers to the juice that is extracted using gravity and the weight of the grapes alone. This juice may be added to aszú wine to ferment or just ferments on its own. Eszencia takes at least four years to ferment into a thick syrupy wine. Called the nectar, Eszencia is enjoyed in small sips using specially made glass spoons. Watch British wine journalist, Jamie Goode, taste different vintages of Eszencia in the YouTube below.

To be classified as an Eszencia, the wine needs to have over 450 grams of sugar per liter. In some years, Eszencia may even exceed 900 grams of sugar per liter. Because of the high sugar content, the alcohol level rarely rises above 5%. Eszencia is known to cellar for 200 years.

Why is Tokaji famous?

Tokaji gained popularity among European royalties since the 18th Century. In 1703, Prince Francis Rákóczi II of Transylvania gifted King Louis XIV of France Tokaji from his estate. During a feast in Versailles where Tokaji was served, the menu read, C’est le roi des vins, et le vin des rois (translated to “It is the king of wines, and the wine of kings). The list of Tokaji fans among monarchs included Louis XV, Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Josef, Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, and others. In fact, prior to the end of World War I, the best Eszencia was not sold but exclusively reserved for the Imperial cellars of the Habsburg monarchy.

King Louis XIV, a Tokaji fan
Tokaji wine was also the among first to be receive appellation classification. Vineyard classification started in 1730 based on soil, sun exposure, and the potential to develop noble rot. In 1757, a closed production district in Tokaj was established. The Tokaji classification predated that of port and even Bordeaux wine.

What is my take on Tokaji?

After enjoying Tokaji in restaurants on several occasions, my husband bought me a bottle of 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú for Christmas. We coravin’ed a serving for each of us, and here are our tasting notes.

2017 Royal Tojaki 5 Puttonyos Aszú 

Remarkably pale amber in color, the Aszú smells of a blend of honeycomb and straw. On the palate, it is Meyer lemon-esque with a tinge of bread crust. It is sweet but not cloyingly so. It is rich, unctuous and well-balanced with high acidity. The finish goes on and on, coating the mouth and delighting the palate.

If there is a wine that provides a sweet finish to a year, this 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú makes a fine choice. If you do see a Tokaji in a restaurant (and it doesn’t come by often), try it. It’s an exceptional sweet finish to a meal too.