11/21/07 – “California Fun” version 2

By Jesse on November 18, 2007


Just under a year ago, as we wrapped up a three-month exploration of California’s diverse wine regions, we held a tasting at Erik’s Venice apartment in which we sampled a number of the state’s sparkling and dessert wines under the heading California Fun. So what better way to help welcome Erik to his new home in the hills than to revisit the California Fun theme? That’s not all — it’s also Erik’s birthday this week, so between the celebratory requirements of that event and his recent move, the mood will be festive and debaucherous. Erik’s making us a delicious dessert to pair with the dessert wines, and we’ll wrap up the evening with a dipsy into the pool and hot tub! One thing you can say about the winos is that they definitely know how to kick off a long weekend.

Here’s what we should look for in the wine department:

Sparkling wine: 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. 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 the driest of the dry). So if you’re trying to decide between “brut” and “extra dry,” keep in mind that “extra dry” is actually less dry than brut!

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…..

Please bring either a sparkling wine 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. Of course, you can always bring a $10 donation.

Erik encourages us to leave a little extra time for “getting lost in the hills,” so please factor that into your plans. We’d like to start at 9pm sharp so that we can complete our drinking and head to the hot tub within a reasonable amount of time so as not to disturb his four housemates. In that spirit, chill your bottle, bring something scandalous to swim in (I know I will), throw a towel in the car for good measure, and be there on time. See you all Wednesday night—