12/13/06 – California Fun

By Jesse on December 12, 2006

This week’s meeting is gonna be fun.  First of all, Erik’s apartment is always fun, and perhaps even more importantly, the wine in question is really fun.  As we’ve pillaged our way through California from south to north, tasting region after region, acquainting ourselves extremely well with the history and trends of California winemaking, we’ve undeniably focused primarily on red and white still (non-sparkling) wines, which are the bread-and-butter of most wine tastings anyway.  But as we occasionally saw when we did certain regions — and also when we visited the tasting rooms on our field trips — there’s more to California than just reds and whites.  Tomorrow night, we’re going to focus on those wines, and they are definitely some of the most fun wines — from a tasting standpoint — that we’re going to experience.  Specifically:

Sparkling wine:  Those who were with us in August will recall that we did a sparkling wine night at Jason’s house before we even began California in earnest.  Now that we’ve travelled the whole state, lets revisit sparkling wine in a festive, celebratory, holiday kind of way.  Bring any bottle of sparkling wine that you’d like to, as long as it’s from California.  The only exceptions I’d like to suggest are the mass-produced offerings from Andre, Cook’s, and Tott’s.  These are made for quantity, not quality, and really don’t reflect the character of California champagne.  If possible, try to avoid those — you should still be very able to find some good bargains that aren’t so generic, either at your local wine shop or perhaps at a supermarket with good selection (my local Sav-on, which is now CVS, has been having huge alcohol sales lately, including sparkling wine).  Look on the bottle and see if you can find any that mention “methode champagnoise,” or “methode traditionelle.”  This means that the wine was produced with in-bottle fermentation, the traditional Champagne method that goes back hundreds of years.

Most California sparkling wine is made from the three Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, the latter two of which are red grapes.  Who can forget the scene in Sideways in which Jack incurs Miles’ ire by tasting a glass of white 100%-Pinot Noir sparkling wine and saying, “I thought Pinot grapes were red.”  The wine in question was a blanc de noirs — literally, a “white of blacks,” a white wine made from red grapes.  You may also see the phrase blanc de blancs — a white wine made entirely of white grapes.  If the label carries no designation, it’s a simply “golden,” which suggests a blend of both white and red.  If the wine is a rose (pink), that means that some red grapes were included, and the skins were left on a little longer in order to enhance flavor.  Also, look on the bottle for terms pertaining to the sweetness of the wine, and get whatever sounds best to you.  The sweetest level is doux (literally “sweet” in French), proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry), brut (almost completely dry), and extra brut (no additional sugar added during fermentation, meaning it’s gonna be drier than a straight-edge nun during Prohibition).  So if you’re trying to decide between “brut” and “extra dry,” keep in mind that “extra dry” is actually less dry than brut!

Rose:  Also called “blush,” the term refers to pink-colored red wines in which the grape juice is left in contact with the red skins for only a short amount of time; consequently, very little tannin is absorbed from the skins, and the wine is therefore chilled and drank like a white.  While many of California‘s pink wines are inexpensive, unremarkable sweetish bottles with very little going on (i.e. the $6.99 White Zinfandels you find at Ralph’s), there are a few good ones that can be found in wine shops.  Also, rose from Europe tends to be less tediously sweet and often more complex, so if you’d prefer to bring a French or Spanish rose for comparison purposes, that’s fine as well.

Sweet / Dessert Wine:  Over the past few decades, California has quietly become a world-class producer of excellent dessert wines.  There are four basic types to look for: Sauternes-Style wines are formed via the presence of “noble rot” on the grapes (we’ll discuss this if anyone brings one), and are usually made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.  They are modeled after the intensely sweet French dessert wines from Sauternes.  Late harvest Rieslings are made by letting the Riesling grapes hang on the vine for an extended period of time, as they do in Germany to make their dessert wines.  The Navarro Vineyards Cluster Select Late Harvest White Riesling is supposed to be one of the best.  Muscat is a grape family from France and Italy that is made into lighter-style, sweet and fruity dessert wines in California.  When I was in Temecula, I bought a bottle of the Keyways Muscat Canelli, and it was delicious.  Finally, Port-style wines in California are made from either traditional Portuguese grape varieties, or, increasingly, from Zinfandel and Petite Syrah.  Remember when we tasted that amazing Zinfandel Port at the private tasting in Stuart Cellars?  So good…..

So yeah, please feel free to bring either a sparkling wine, a rose, or a dessert wine.  Also, as always, definitely feel free to pair up and bring a bottle together, because it’s especially true in these categories that the quality improves significantly with price.  Spending less than $10 on any of the above wines is probably a recipe for a simple, uninteresting wine.  It is the end of the year however, and we all want to kick back and have fun in Erik’s tub of holiday cheer, so bring whatever you’d like.

Guys, California has been really good to us, and it’s time to go out with a bang.  Please chill your wines, bring an article or some tasting notes, and we’ll see you all on Wednesday night at 9:00.