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Contents of this issue of
The Poor Man's Guide to Fine Wine

  • New Year's Wines
  • The Poor Man's Guide's Wine Reviews

New Year's Wines

OK, so I got down on Thanksgiving wines a bit in the last issue, but I'm actually quite enthusiastic about discussing wines for New Year's celebrations. For the last 15 odd years New Year's Eve has been nothing more than an excuse to partake in a lineup of great sparkling wines for me.

I'll be the first to tell you that Champagne, and other sparkling wines, are not just celebration wines. They aren't show off wines. They aren't snooty wines. They are wines. They just happen to be bubbly and traditionally, in this country at least, have been used for celebrating. But in Champagne, they drink it with their breakfast. They drink it with dinner. They drink it just about whenever. Consider the famous quote by Madame Lilly Bollinger, "I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

So I encourage you, don't just save bubbly for special occasions or celebrations. Great sparkling wine makes an occasion. And I can think of no better food wine, pairing beautifully with diverse foods from shellfish to spicy lamb vindaloo.

Now, all that soapbox preaching aside, New Year's is a great excuse to explore sparkling wines. You may be thinking, Champagne is so darn expensive. How can anyone afford to serve a huge lineup of them on New Year's? Well, money is tight for everyone, myself included. That doesn't mean I can't have a wonderful night of sparkling wines on New Year's. How? Well, this year I am going to have one special bottle of Champagne surrounded by other great bottles of bubbly that don't break the bank.

While Champagne is the most famous sparkling wine, and, at its peak, arguably the best, it is by no means the only sparkling wine you should pay attention to! There are dozens of other regions around the world that make sparklers and their quality has skyrocketed. Don't ignore these wines! Some can be every bit as sublime as great Champagne. Others can simply be great values, costing an order of magnitude less than their Champagne counterparts and yet are still very drinkable, refreshing, fun and delicious. No, you might not get the finesse and complexity of the best Champagne in every example, but many of them are definitely worth your time.

Some examples of regions and producers who make great sparkling wine outside of Champagne:

Prosecco: No one seemed to be talking about Prosecco a few years ago and now its all the rage. For good reason. It can be refreshing, pure and simply fun. A lighter sparkling wine, the fun easiness of Prosecco is one of its virtues. Great as an aperitif or with many dishes, the bright acidity and fruit of a good Prosecco makes it a great food wine as well. And even better, they are rarely over $30, often less than $20.

The Loire Valley: The Loire River runs through much of Western France and is surrounded by a vast, diverse wine growing region. Many producers in this region produce sparkling wines, most notably from the village of Vouvray. Vouvray is perhaps best known for its dry to sweet still wines made from Chenin Blanc, but the sparkling wines here can be stunning. Lithe and silky, these often do not have the power of Champagne but make up for it with their seductive, soft texture and fruitiness. While there are several excellent examples costing in the $10 to $20 range, the best by far is, no surprise, Domaine Huet. Their Vouvray Petillant is a silky and refined wine that can rival the best Champagne for finesse and aroma. Even these are rarely more than about $25.

Bourgogne: Burgundy, or Bourgogne, makes several sparkling wines (often called Crémant de Bourgogne) and they have become more common in the marketplace. Usually made from either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or some combination, just like Champagne, these have more in common with Champagne, with a fuller body and rich minerality. Again, these can be great values, rarely tipping the scales at $20.

California: Sometimes I get down on "New World" wines and they are admittedly not my "go to" wines for most occasions. However, California sparkling wines have really come a long way. Producers like Gloria Ferrer (particularly the Royal Cuvée), Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg, Roederer Estate and many others now make outstanding sparkling wines that, while somewhat different in character, can be a very suitable and affordable alternative to Champagne.

Cava: Cava is a sparkling wine made in Spain. These too have improved in quality dramatically in recent years. One amazing value is that of Cristalino. These wines are widely available and cheap (usually under $10!), yet they are delicious. My favorites are the Extra Brut and the Rosé but the regular Brut is good too. Other examples of Cava can be hit or miss, but many are quite good.

Others: There are far too many examples of regions producing interesting sparkling wines to mention them all. However, bubbly from France's Jura and Alsace, Germany, Italy (such as Bruno Giacosa's stunning Spumante) and elsewhere can all be excellent options, none of which are very expensive.

So don't let lack of funds be an excuse to not have a good time this New Year's. Stock up on an assortment of inexpensive sparkling wines from around the world and have a fun tasting while you celebrate the New Year.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

The Poor Man's Guide's
Wine Reviews

Wine Ratings Explained:
Zero Stars A wine I don't particularly recommend.

One Star
Well made, simple and tasty wines that I recommend.

Two Stars
Excellent quality. Worth an extra effort to search out and enjoy.

Three Stars
Outstanding wine of the highest caliber.
Either a wine that is close to deserving a higher score or a wine that may not be showing that much but with the potential to move up in quality with further aging. A young wine that may be closed up or shows potential for significant improvement. Assuming it opens and improves with additional age, it may merit a higher rating.
??? Flawed bottles or wines that are difficult to assess for any number of reasons. Judgement reserved.

Sparkling Wines:

Domaine Huet
Vouvray Pétillant Brut
Drink Now-2015 $25
Huet Petillant is often one of my favorite non-Champagne sparkling wines. The best vintages can be super silky and refined with a beautiful, aromatic personality that is very seductive. While they do tend toward a lighter, more finesse driven style, this vintage hasn't yet impressed me as much as some. Thats not to say that it isn't good or worthy of buying and drinking. It does have that classic chalky, super silky texture to it but it lacks some of the depth and complexity it usually has. Almost a bit insipid in comparison. It may just be its age and this will improve with time but for now I'd give it One Star Plus.

Domaine Labet
Crémant du Jura Rosé
Drink Now- $17
From the Jura region in eastern France, this is a great example of an inexpensive sparkling wine from outside Champagne to start off with. This has that typical Rosé strawberry fruit in the nose but also an almost umami type richness and complexity. While I'm sure it is not aged sous voile it has a familiar Jura aroma to it that is quite interesting and unique. Maybe there is some aged Savagnin in there? I don't know. Whatever it is, I like it. Crisp yet quite rich, full and ripe compared to many Jura sparkling wines. This is very satisfying. I like it. One Star Plus.

La Marca Prosecco Drink Now-2011 $15
This Prosecco has an almost ripe fruit in the nose, like tropical fruit, but also a vibrant spearmint accent that opens your eyes. Bright and with a subtle hint of soft sweetness to it. Pretty white fruit and stones, this is very easy to drink and tasty but not complex by a long shot. One Star.

Parés Baltà Cava Brut Zero Stars Drink Now-2012 $14
Good Cava can be quite a value for sparkling wine, but this disappointed me. It does start off with a nice doughy hint of fruit on the nose but what follows is somewhat hollow. Not as rich and flavorful as a good Cava can be, this is not off-putting in anyway but is simply rather insipid and uninspiring. Nothing wrong with it, you can drink it easily. But it doesn't particularly bring much pleasure. As it warms up a bit it shows a bit more depth of sweet, honeyed fruit and snappy apple and pear flavors. But for me it was too little too late. For the price I'd rather have practically 2 bottles of Cristalino! Zero Stars.

White Wines:

Hervé Azo
Chablis Premier Cru
Vau de Vey 2008
Zero Stars Drink Now-2013 $24
As premier cru Chablis goes, I'm not a big fan of this. It smells remotely like Chablis with just a hint of that oyster shell minerality but otherwise is on the more innocuous side that is not very interesting. There is a rich mouthfeel with a bit more of that minerality but the flavors just fall flat. Its drinkable. Its not flawed per se. Its just not where it should be for a Chablis Premier Cru and I wouldn't buy it again. Zero Stars.

Chateau Chalon 2002
Drink Now-2102 $65
I've expounded on the wonder that is Vin Jaune from the Jura in the past. Berthet-Bondet is one of the best producers of Chateau Chalon and this is from a great vintage, arguably the best in recent memory.

This is just magic. A stunning wine. It takes everything up a notch both in terms of complexity and finesse over the Puffeney Savagnin below. A classic nose that is complex, both meaty and truffley with bouillon and spices. Even more silky, refined and complete, deeper and more dark and complex. On the second night this was even deeper and rich complexity blossomed even more. A silky smooth, lingering, smokey aftertaste. You can drink this now if you decant it for an extended period but ideally I'd wait 10 years or 100 to try another. Three Stars!

Manzanilla Papirusa
Solera Reserve
Drink Now-2012 $16
A pretty nose that is simple but has an ocean briney minerally with hints of citrus, peanut and hazelnut. Granite and brine minerality are the primary flavors on the bright, light and refreshing frame. A bit of waxiness gives it some roundness. This is a simple Manzanilla that is right up the middle. Not the best I've had but if you have to grab something easy, cheap and drinkable, this suits the bill. Nice for washing down simple fish dishes. One Star.

Der Pollerhof
Grüner Veltliner
Drink Now-2013 $10
Who can think of a better value? Ten dollars, a big liter bottle AND its very food friendly! Despite the almost silly price for a big bottle, this walks like a GruVee, it quacks like a GruVee… It must be a GruVee! It has the classic spicy nose, the piney, spicy flavors. No, its not particularly complex. It doesn't have as much depth and complexity of the Salomon Grüner reviewed below, for example. But what can you expect for a liter at $10!? A great food wine and right up the middle, nothing off-putting or out of place, its a tasty treat for close to nothing. One Star.

Jean-Charles Pivot
Mâcon-Village 2009
Drink Now-2012 $10
The Macon is a region in the south of Burgundy which makes many excellent value wines. Made from Chardonnay like their northern cousins, these tend to be much more affordable and more approachable young.

A nice but simple nose of minerals, hay and a hint of apple/melon fruit. A full body, dry and crisp with very little oak influence, this remains fresh and simple. A good everyday simple Chardonnay that lets the pure fruit do the talking. One Star.

J. Puffeney Arbois
Savagnin 2005
Drink Now-2020 $32
Puffeney makes great wines from France's Jura region, his Vin Jaune right up there with the best of them. His Savagnin can be a great value, although not cheap. It is produced by the traditional method, getting some oxidation as it ages. It spends a lot less time in barrel than the Vin Jaune, however.

A rich sous voile nose of celery seed, pine, bouillon and pistachio nut. This is young and tight, with a mineral and citrus seed austerity and bitterness that takes extended aeration to mellow. It does develop that mellow umami, lingering smokiness on the backend and its quite pretty and heady. I'd ideally wait 5 years to drink this again and it could last 10 to 20 years after that. If you drink it now I'd consider decanting and enjoy it slowly over a long evening to watch its evolution. Two Stars.

Salomon Undhof
Hochterrassen Grüner Veltliner
Drink Now-2014 $14
Salomon is an outstanding producer in Austria. His single vineyard Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners can be stunning. This inexpensive example should not be ignored either. It gives off a pure, spicy GruVee nose of pepper, spice and ripe fruit. It then jumps into your palate and makes you happy immediately. Somehow both vibrant and intensely flavored yet accepting of most other spices and flavors, making it about the best food wine you could imagine for a diverse array of dishes. This is a great value white wine. If you are not used to GruVees, they are a bit off the beaten path of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but it is worth the detour! One Star Plus.

Paul Thomas Sancerre
Chavignol "Les Comtesses"
Grande Reserve de Notre Vignoble
Drink Now-2012 $18
This Sancerre definitely smells like Sancerre. Gooseberry, flint and hay adorn the nose quite predictably. A creamy texture but still crisp and flinty. This is well balanced but not very complex. It is correct for Sancerre and very drinkable but not a Sancerre to write home about. Worth buying and drinking, but not gonna blow your mind. A nice, basic Sancerre. Have I said Sancerre enough? One Star.

Rosé Wines:

Mas Carlot
Costières de Nîmes Rosé
Tradition 2009
Drink Now-2012 $12
This Languedoc Rose is made from 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah.

A flirtatious and aromatic rosé with a gooseberry nose and fresh strawberry. A chalky minerality accents the ripe fruit in the mouth. Ripe strawberry with a good acidity and a fine minerality keep this refined and focused. Simple in flavors but refreshing and easy. One Star.

Red Wines:

Sicilia Rosso
Drink Now-2012 $10
This Sicilian wine is made from the Nero de Avola grape. It has an earthy, very Italian nose with red fruits. It has a dusty, earthy, dried red fruit character with tangy blueberry and raspberry flavors. The tannins on the back end are a bit dusty and drying. It isn't terribly complex or deep but the red fruit brightness was very good with food and makes a nice pizza and pasta wine. One Star.

Domaine de Cristia
Côtes du Rhône 2009
Zero Stars Drink Now-2013 $12
This is a 100% Grenache CdR from a southern Rhône producer.

This has a pretty jammy, ripe nose that is almost a bit more New World than I like from my Rhone wines. Very hot weather Grenache in its simple, jammy red fruits. The flavors are also quite ripe and lacking some umph on the midpalate, maybe even showing a bit too much alcoholic heat. Even for the money I think you can do better. This also lacks the acid or other structure to help it hold up to food very well. If you like 'em hot, ripe and jammy, you might like this but for me, I wouldn't buy it again. Zero Stars.

G. DeBoeuf Beaujolais Morgon
Domaine de la Chaponne 2009
Drink Now-2015 $15
DeBoeuf is one of the biggest producers in Beaujolais and literally oceans of their Beaujolais Nouveau can be found everywhere late each year. The Nouveau can be quite insipid. In fact, DeBoeuf generally is not one of the top few producers in the region. However, these single vineyard wines from select Grand Cru sites had me interested. Especially in a great Beaujolais vintage like 2009, I thought I'd give them a chance.

The meaty nose has a ground igneous rock minerality. This is rich and quite dark with a melange of red and black fruits. It is earthy and meaty and has ample minerality on the finish. A bit sharp on the finish but this is a serious Beaujolais, full and rich. It isn't the most complex or elegant Cru Beaujolais I've had, but it is a great value and gives you a glimpse of what real Beaujolais is like before you move up to the big boys. One Star Plus.

G. DeBeouf Beaujolais Fleurie
Domaine des Quatre Vents 2009
Drink Now-2015 $16
This is similar to the Morgon above but it is higher toned and more floral. It still has some of the iron minerality and igneous rock, but not as meaty, chunky and dense. More on the austere side with firmer minerality and acid. This comes off as more refined, less brute sauvage character. For the price, this is excellent and quite good for DeBeouf in this vintage. One Star Plus.

Beatrice et Pascal Lambert
Chinon "Les Terrasses"
Domaine Les Chesnaies
Drink Now-2015 $15
Chinon is a region in France's Loire Valley which makes primarily red wines from Cabernet Franc. This one is 100% Cab Franc and has a classic Cab Franc nose of dark plumy fruits as well as hints of herbs and vegetables. It is not green or under-ripe, just verdant and aromatic. In the mouth it is juicy and fruity like a Cru Beaujolais, yet with a mineral streak and acid spice that is rich and structures. This isn't a super complex and age-worthy Chinon, as some can be, but it has both young, fruity exuberance and a meaty, spicy richness. One Star Plus.

Piccolo Fiore
Rosso di Sicilia
Drink Now-2012 $6
This is super cheap at Whole Foods and I bought a bottle on a whim just to see if it didn't suck. This Sicilian red actually has a nice fruity, red and black fruit nose that is simple but pure and pleasant. In the mouth it is ripe and medium body without any noticeable flaw or holes. It actually has nice fresh fruit flavor that is simple but drinkable. Yes, its one dimensional but at $6 if you can even palate a wine you are doing well so this is a good value. Another easy pizza or pasta wine. One Star.

Lodi Old Vines
Zinfandel 2007
Drink Now-2012 $10
Ravenswood was one of the first vineyards I visited way back when I first got into wine and visited Sonoma. For that reason, I have a soft spot in my heart for them and like to check back every once and a while and see how they are doing, even though I don't drink much Zinfandel anymore.

This Zin from Lodi has a distinct nose of juicy blueberry and cherry fruit with accents of pepper spice and leafy, brambly herbs. This is not an overripe, jammy or syrupy Zin, the flavors remaining bright and cheerful despite the ripeness. Pepper spice and acidity help contribute to that balance and brightness. One Star.

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