Monday, February 8, 2016

Re-discovering North Coast Pinot Noir with MacPhail Family Wines

The serendipity of a visit to the California North Coast Wine Country triggered another ‘journey of re-discovery’, this time with the phenomenon of Pinot Noir. Having lived there for fifteen wonderful years, I had seen the rise of Sonoma and Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and the establishment of a new darling grape in a new and promising region. Now, with time and distance intervening to create an objectivity I had not had before, I went back to re-assess, re-evaluate, re-discover what North Coast Pinot Noir had become.

With the amazing ability to stand in one place and assess virtually the entire catalog of North Coast Pinot Noir terroir, from Carneros on San Pablo Bay, through Sonoma Valley and the Mayacamas, the expanse of the cool Sonoma Coast, Sebastopol, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, and arching up through the cool, moist, mountain-rimmed Anderson Valley of Mendocino, there could not be a better place to begin my journey than the MacPhail Family Winery Tasting Lounge @ The Barlow.

(The MacPhail Tasting Lounge @ The Barlow is relatively new. The Barlow is a cleverly conceived large mixed-use quasi-industrial park-cum-tourist-magnet on Highway 12 as you enter Sebastopol from the east. It is a place where you can taste, sample the delights of Sonoma and the North Coast, and visit the producers of wine, cider and spirits. There are also specialty food purveyors, coffeshops, cafes, the newest location of the famous Zazu Kitchen and Farm Restaurant, and touristy-specialty shops galore.)

The MacPhail Tasting Lounge
@ The Barlow
In addition I had the lagniappe of tasting with Big Jim Caudill, one of the most respected veterans of the California wine scene, honored both for his encyclopedic knowledge and his finely honed palate. Fine wines, comfortable surroundings, and the guidance of a veteran judge and connoisseur aided and abetted by Gail, the vivacious and savvy Wine Educator in residence (and make sure you try her home-made jams and preserves when you’re there) all watched over by the avuncular Jim Morris, General Manager, provided the best possible one-stop-shopping for my journey.

Few people have been so meticulous and selective as James MacPhail when it comes to sourcing the many different terroirs of Pinot Noir in Sonoma and the Anderson Valley (yes, Mendocino, but many consider it an angular extension of upper Sonoma when it comes to Pinot).

The array of vineyard releases is staggering, and with MacPhail Family Winery at the helm of the winemaking process and James' clear, abiding philosophy of allowing the grapes to speak for themselves, it was an ideal situation for discovery: one winemaker, one variety, one vision, with that vision applied to many different specific examples of terroir!

The vast selection of wines, of Pinot Noir alone and excepting rosé and chardonnay, Oregon and Santa Rita Hills, is imposing. Ranging from 2011 to 2013 vintages, the offerings included

               Sundawg Ridge/Russian River Valley
               Gap’s Crown/Sonoma Coast
               “The Flyer”/Russian River Valley
               Pinot Noir/Sonoma Coast
               Anderson Creek/Anderson Valley
               Pratt/Sonoma Coast-Sebastopol
               Sangiacomo/Sonoma Coast
               Dutton Ranch/Russian River Valley
               Wildcat/Sonoma Coast
               Vine Hill/Russian River Valley
               Lakeview/Russian River Valley
               Toulouse/Anderson Valley
               Wightman House/Anderson Valley
               Vagon/Russian River Valley
               Mardikian/Sonoma Coast-Sebastopol

The two key questions of this re-discovery were 1) are there discernible variations among these different wines that make each distinct, and 2) are these definable primarily by source, or terroir?

The answer for both questions was a resounding yes. Each wine had its own distinct expression of Pinot Noir. With one grape and one winemaker with the overall vision of allowing the source to express itself with minimal intervention, the four single vineyard pinots tasted were a clear expression of the four locations. 

The vineyard-specific bottlings of MacPhail Family Winery.

Furthermore, it was abundantly clear that Carneros, Sonoma Coast, The Russian River Valley, and Anderson Valley had reached a maturity level that was impressive in such a relatively brief time: the five wines were unique but they showed an obvious family affinity,

MacPhail Pratt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2012, was purely delicious, soft and supple, a bit on the light side, soft cherry fruit without great complexity but with just a whiff of alluring, playful spice.  This Sebastopol-area-edging-on-Green Valley wine was joyously fun to sip, and cradle in the hand, and sip again.

MacPhail Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2013, was initially as luscious as the Pratt, but the vineyard, located in the windy and cobblestoned soil of the famous Petaluma Gap as it leads into Carneros, adds a deeper, darker, almost broody and earthy character to the bright red fruit. There’s fat plum, and a sprinkling of black pepper, even a faint whiff of allspice to add dimension and depth and resonance.

MacPhail Wildcat Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2013, stepped up another level. This hilltop vineyard farmed by fellow grower/winemaker Steve MacRostie had the black cherry at core teased with bright strawberry, then kickrd in with added brambly blackberry and dark plum atop surprisingly dense, concentrated earthy foundations, rounded out deliciously with compelling heavy-steeped black tea. A challenging and deeply complex Pinot Noir.

MacPhail Toulouse Vineyard, Anderson Valley, Philo, Mendocino, 2013. Solid and sturdy, shy at first but then emerging with authority, showing dense, meaty black cherry and fresh-scuffed forest floor laced with contrasting tart pomegranate, this wild and slightly savage Pinot is superbly balanced and held in check with sweet oak spice, tender tannins and resolute acidity, It drinks well now but shows promise of rewarding cellar aging with ever-deepening rich flavors and silky smoothness.

MacPhail Vagon Rouge Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2013. Vagon Rouge is a blend of MacPhail’s favorite six barrels of the vintage, selected this vintage from Lakeview, Susanna’s and Mardikian Estate vineyards, all in the Russian River Valley AVA. Stemmed, cold-soaked, natural malolactic, 50% new French oak, lees-stirred for 3 months, bottled unfined and unfiltered, this is about as pure an expression you can get of the convergence of grape, place and process when it comes to Sonoma Pinot Noir. 

The source and the philosophy show through with startling clarity in this black-cherry and tart cranberry/pomegranate fruit-driven pinot lashed with uber-umami tones of fresh-turned earth, dirty mushrooms, peat moss. It is a savory wine in every direction yet somehow manages to show restraint through the balance of big fruit, big spice and big vanilla-oak spice meeting on even terms. The single-vineyard MacPhail pinots unfailingly exhibit unique evocations of a single source transparently displayed; the multi-sourced and carefully curated Vagon blend is more of a display of the MacPhail bold yet balanced style of winemaking.

While not complete, the great re-discovery of North Coast Pinot Noir was a beginning, courtesy of MacPhail’s impressive program of realizing, vineyard by vineyard, the differing evocation of that most tantalizing of all grapes through a trifocal lens of variety, terroir and winemaking philosophy.  It was also a superb afternoon of satisfying and well made wines.

Cassoulet at Kessler's 2016: The Heart of the Matter

BettyLu Kessler's Cassoulet 2016
Cassoulet at the Kessler’s is one of our vino-culinary adventures of the year, our time to get back to Sonoma, Napa and Berkeley, sometimes the City, to spend time with good friends and experience BettyLu’s cassoulet and Lou’s cellar with even more friends, some old, some new.   The centerpiece is always the cassoulet, a work of love and detailed art by BettyLu, who spends months in meticulous planning and execution of the most stylish dinner of the year for us.

When we gather at table, our palates properly soused and doused, heaping plates of glistening rich cassoulet arrive immediately, studded with thick wedges of pork and fat sausages and shimmery slivers of confit on a bed of still-firm-to-the-bite tender white beans. There’s a fringe of crisp blanched green beans adorning the top of the plate for color and contrast, but the focus is on that hearty mound of various meats and beans, salty, rich, glossy with fat, chewy but tender, with every mouthful a variety of flavors.

:Peasant food? Not hardly. Peasants never ate this well. This is the food of a rich and productive farmland, the bounty of crops and husbandry and prosperous hard-working people. This is sustenance for body and soul. This is stick-to-your-ribs heartland.  It is also about as far from vegetarian and vegans as you could possibly get.:

Our companion wine for the evening is Chateauneuf-du-Pape“La Crau,” Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, 2000. The lieu-dit of La Crau provides the epitome of Grenache Noir with supporting roles of nine other varieties in a consummate blend. Still tight, slow yielding, packed with black fruit and taut with tannic grip, there’s a dusting of black pepper, cured tobacco, a trace of smoke and just a hint of sweet cherry in this complex wine. It’s a big wine, high in alcohol but it carries it well. 

Even after the years of aging the Vieux Telegraphe has an initial bright freshness to it, a clarity of expression, a focus that handles the richness of the food perfectly, providing balance and counterpoint. Volatile and exuberant at first, it settles down quickly to opaque density that recalls the memory of home-made pemmican in my childhood, assorted berries pounded together with dried, smoked meat, flavors mingled and inseparably melded.

The wine is perfect for the cassoulet, both sauce and accent. The two bottles, both pristine, are easily drained, with Mark getting the final dregs, gladly, not complaining one bit.

A startling cheese course followed. BettyLu may have used some leverage while shopping at the Oxbow Market Cheese Shop when she described the occasion of the cassoulet dinner, innocently dropping the hint that Janet Fletcher would be there (unfortunately, not at ours, but at a following dinner).

Whatever the motivation, the proferred cheeses were profound, a St. Agur Mont de Velay bleu, aptly nicknamed a "butter cream bleu", of exceeding richness and a well-aged provolone that was the most satisfying I have ever had, similar to, albeit lighter than  a crystallized parmigiana reggiano. 

Both were expansive on the palate, one with copious milkfat and mold, the other with piercing salt and minerality and no milkfat at all, only the austere, dessicated skeletal structure with a lingering ghost of provolone nuttiness. 

Moist, crumbling and rich on one side, grainy and dessicated and sharp on the other, with only the fresh slices of baguette in between, the course demanded a full-blown, hearty and profound wine as a companion.

So, with the cheeses, Lou passed the port around, a lovely, generous Taylor 1985, which increased the umami to amazing levels, almost off the charts. One of the guests did not drink Port, so Lou obligingly produced a pristine half bottle of Sauternes, a  1988 Chateau Suduiraut with its characteristic light, bright sweetness and medium body. The wine was delicious, although light and not yet tipped over into the burnished gold it may attain, and the cheeses needed the weighty heft of the Taylor and its palate cleansing authority to balance out the course.

Neither young nor mature 1988 Chateau Suduiraut
As the evening progressed and the wine flowed, the conversation got livelier. Sumptuous food, great wines, a beautiful table setting and excellent service (Thanks, Kevin!) combined with a lively and talkative group for a fine evening. Classic dinner parties are not as common as they used to be, but Lou and BettyLu manage to carry it off in grand style.

A final dolce of two hand-made chocolate truffles with coffee to wind things down and soon the guests were on their way after a perfect evening.  Thanks again to the boundless generosity of BL and Lou for their hospitality, their friendship, and their orchestration of what will become cherished memories for all. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2016: The Aperitif Wines

It's Cassoulet At The Kesslers 2016!  The year has rolled around again and the long awaited event is here.

Lou meticulously arranges all the bottles of aperitif wine on his bar. After a careful visual inspection he extracts each cork and tastes. Only one wine is rejected, a Fevre Grand Cru Les Clos Chablis, cursed by the foul dead hand of premox. Lou quickly selects another from his capacious cellar and it passes the test.

The lineup is ready. BL and Kevin finish up in the kitchen after two furious days of preparation. BL is primped. Lou and I do our part by reluctantly turning off the Australian Open on tv (we also serve who sit and click). The guests begin to arrive. The wines begin to flow. Delicious appetizers are offered. Lively conversation ensues.

Albert Boxler Grand Cru Sommerberg Riesling, Alsace, 2004
  There’s nothing quite like Alsatian Riesling, and the Grand Cru Sommerberg from Boxler is always a standout. There must have been some significant heat in 2004, though not the furnace of 2003, because this wine was fat and full. Yet that Sommerberg minerality was there, that tight structural center, supporting the rich and silky-fat fruit, a combination of apple and, oddly but goodly, white peach. Consistently impressive wine from this family, this vineyard, this noble variety.

Franz Hirtzberger Honivogl-Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Spitz/Donau-Wachau, 2007
  I love Grüner---but I especially love it when it’s Smaragd. How they manage to get this much ripeness without leaving any residual sugar overlapping is beyond me, but they do. This is like Vendange Tardive without any sweetness: lush and plush, loaded with fresh, tangy herbs, and silky-smooth. Fat, fat, fat.

Chavignol Sancerre “Les Monts Damnés”, Cuvee Buster, Thomas Labaille, 2012
  Solid right to the core; Chavignol seems to be the Alsace of Sauvignon Blanc in the hands of Cotat and Labaille. This is full-on grassy-herbal drizzled with lemon juice backed up with some notable heft and weight of fruit. It’s not really “Sancerre”, and I can see where it would disturb the prim and proper AOC mind-think: this is simply Chavignol. Even better, it’s Monts Damnes.

Meursault-Perrieres 1er Cru, Yves Boyer-Martenot, 1996
  Folks, this was the replacement for the mox-poxed Fevre Chablis Les Clos. Lou has a little depth in his white burgundy lineup, eh? I have always had a fondness for this estate (their Bourgogne Blanc is always a charmer) but of course their forte is Meursault---and this is Meursault verging on Montrachet! That rocky patch of vineyard delivers up some succulent, perfumy floral and marcona almond aromas, a touch of honeyed richness, and bright, lively mineral-laced citrus. And this is a 1996! My white WOTN for the natural breeding, balance and finesse.

Cowhorn Roussanne-Marsanne, Applegate Valley, Oregon, 2013
  Lou discovered this winery about three years ago on one of their sojourns up to Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival in the Rogue. The Applegate is a tiny, narrow valley, cooler than the nearby greater Rogue but warmer than the Umpqua or Willamette to the north. It is an AVA to watch, brethren. And this nifty little organic-biodynamic (Cowhorn? Get it?) boutique producer may be the one to watch the closest: they’re small but they’re fiercely dedicated. This is a 50/50, no malo, full throttle expression of Rhone-y goodness, with abundant acacia flowers and hay and ripe melon and honey and all sorts of other good things. Succulent. Mouth-filling. Pleasure-inducing.  You should get some. This is a cult wine if ever I have seen one (and I have seen a few.)

Now, it's time to repair to the dining room. But that's another post.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 1997

When the inevitable phenomenon of “California Cult Cabs” began it wasn’t all that clear which of the aspirants were self-anointed poseurs or which were worthy members.

There was never any question about Araujo. It entered the elite club early on, a charter member as it were, through the simple expediency of beginning with one of the most recognizable and highly acclaimed vineyards in Napa, a noble-to-legendary property with what was for Napa amongst the two or three most sanctified plots of cabernet sauvignon going back to the genesis of California wine: Eisele Vineyard.

Begin with a fabled vineyard and continue with the utmost attention to the purity of fruit, and you’ve established the basis of what a California Cult Cab is supposed to be. Do that in a particularly impressive vintage and you have one of the most promising wines for long term maturation, and in its youth it received notable critical acclaim.  With this much pedigree and such a promising start, what might it be like after several years of careful cellaring?

On a chilly, misty night at the Silverado Country Club this week, the answer was in: Araujo Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 was gorgeous.

Fully mature and developed, yet still vibrant with fruit and braced with lively acidity, the wine was rich and silky and beautifully restrained, with dried cranberries and dark plums and a whiff of cinnamon and nutmeg. Tannins were gentle and rounded and the wine was harmonious and balanced in all its elements. At 18 years old it is a quiet and elegant charmer.

But this charmer still had sufficient vitality to meet and marry with a Kobe beef burger, a thick grilled pork chop and a triple rack of BBQ Baby Back Ribs. The wine handled all three with consummate ease.

The pedigree held true in this lovely wine; Araujo did justice to the famous Eisele fruit. And for those still holding it, don’t fear: it will keep for several years to come.

(Thanks to hosts extraordinaire Lou and BL Kessler for providing this experience, a timely reminder of how great wine in the company of wonderful people is the root and branch of life.  And yes, Lou, even I will admit that Napa does make great wine.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Channelling Coad's Boatloads: LAN Rioja Crianza 2011

The aforesaid Chris Coad looking surprisingly
boyish and handsome next to Dr. L. E. Allan,
who he clearly hopes to go home with
at the end of the evening.
There once was a legendary wine-blogger called Chris Coad. Well, there still is, although he keeps a low-to-nonexistent profile these days (archived website of The Compleat Winegeek here), depriving us of his undeniably brilliant talents as a critic and Pepysian commentator on the folly of human nature and Brad Kane.

A much more normal picture of Chris Coad
in full wine critic mode. (Ripped from Berserkers)
Amongst the finest moments of Coad’s brilliant career were his serial installment posts of “Boatloads of Cheap Crap,” a lively and irreverent chronicle of *ahem* moderately priced wines. Coad’s boat was invariably filled with what was indeed cheap crap, but there always seemed to be the occasional jewel glimmering amidst the bilgewater.

Were Coad still floating his boatloads, I like to think this one would rise to the top: LAN Rioja Crianza 2011. Picked up for the nowadays lowly sum of $9.60USD, this is what wine people call a “sleeper” (translation: “Whoa. Damn, this is good! Shoulda bought more.). The more sophisticated wine connoisseur might even say, casually and offhand, “nice little food wine”, almost in dismissal (translation: “It’s not an over-the-top blockbuster diva of spoofulation and actually tastes good with food.”).  Coad would simply say “I’d buy it again.”  For him, that was the highest accolade. (Well that, and something called “prongs”, but, seriously, let’s not go there.)

LAN Rioja Crianza 2011 is both a sleeper and a food wine. It’s also a tasty and surprisingly honest and straightforward 100% tempranillo with better-than-it-has-to-be depth and complexity. It somehow manages to suggest youthful and fruity vigor and freshness while at the same time genially indicating there’s more there than you might think and if you were to lay it away for a couple of more years you might have a gorgeously mature little seductress rather than a nubile charmer.  Okay, that was a mixed metaphor, but I hope you get the gist: good now; even better later.

Bright, simple red cherry fruit, tasty and quaffable…but hold on a sec: there’s a leathery, slightly tart and mildly tingling tannic edge, a good balance of acidity and oak, that goes far beyond what this price point usually delivers, and promises even more with patience. 

It turns out LAN uses 100% tempranillo (freshness, brightness), then ages it in a clever combination of both French and American oak (which I do not believe I have seen elsewhere) for twelve months, then allowing it to remain in bottle for several more months to stabilize. That combination of oak gives a balance of the sweet vanilla of the tight-grained French and a touch of the herbal spice from the rougher-grained American, without allowing either to dominate.

The lovely lagniappe is that the vintage is 2011, so you have that currently out of the ordinary experience of enjoying

a balanced, structured, complex red wine that has been allowed to age and mature gracefully.  And all for a remarkably nice price.  Doesn’t get much better than that.

Friday, January 1, 2016

An Italian New Year's Eve at DOC

Bianco Pomice
In the past few years it has somehow unintentionally become a New Year’s Eve tradition to go out to an Italian restaurant.  In Portland one of the best is DOC, an intimate (i.e., tiny) and charming space up in the Concordia area that is about as close to an actual Italian ristorante (think Northern Italian) as you can get on the West Coast.

Since it was New Year’s Eve, there was no a la carte, just the fixed-price eight-course meal.  We discovered when we were seated that since we were at a communal table we qualified for the entire meal, no restrictions, and thus were to receive and share a total of 15 courses!

The sommelier had arranged wine pairings for an extra fee, but we preferred to follow our usual custom of a glass of white to start before sharing a bottle of red.

With the first four courses we shared the paired white, a dry Malvasia/Carricante blend, "Bianco Pomice" from Tenuta de Castellaro, 2012, from the tiny cluster of islands just north of Sicily.

It served admirably as we worked our way through Pacific Oysters with lemon, cayenne and muscat syrup, along with a heaped plate of crusty/chewy thick Italian bread, sweet butter and Castelvetrano olives. The wine was dry, fruity yet earthy, and was totally in synch with the food.

A stunning seafood chowder arrived as our zuppa; it was in a very different style than anticipated, with succulent mussels and white salmon in a bright salty/lemony broth (preserved lemons, I’m thinking) a la Amalfitana.  Again, the Malvasia performed yeoman duties, which makes me once again wish there were more dry Malvasia and Muscat wines available. Wonderful food wines.

What in the world goes on in those
Sicilian vineyards?
Here we reverted to red wine for the rest of the meal.  Out of an enticing list of little jewels, some rarely seen here, we selected a Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria, 2016, also from Sicily, and a 50/50 blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato.
Light-bodied, fragrant with fresh-crushed red berries and blueberries, and with nary a bite of tannin, this was a true Italianate style of table wine; by itself it would have been moderately interesting, but with food, oh how it opened and blossomed, adapting itself to the flavors of the moment, exploding with flavor when needed, stepping into the discreet background advisable.

Our timing was perfect because the antipasti arrived. One was an evanescent burrata, somewhere between fresh mozzarella and churned butter, resting on a bed of field greens, with a half-dried tomato and chewy/nutty fry bread.  I began channeling Stuart Yaniger at this point, then un-channeled him with the accompanying dish, a mound of albacore poke, cherry bomb, ground macadamia nuts and juicy lime.

The primi course was equally impressive, with a Dungeness Crab risotto, perfectly al dente, preserved lemon, green garlic and butter. Alongside a cavatappi with tiny charred squidlets, tomato, Greek oil-cured olives, and capers.

Continuing the adventure, the secondi delivered Steelhead on a bed of chewy barley nuggets, celeriac, kale, hedgehog mushrooms in a light sauce, and alongside it a plate of a multi-ribbed lamb rack, succulent, tender and cooked perfectly (I hate bloody meat), with a whip of ceci beans, broccoli, and marinated Cipollini onions.

After this cavalcade of dishes, we needed the intermezzo. We were a bit surprised, however, at the rich sweetness and viscosity of the nectarine sorbet; it was more a crema or gelato than a sorbet, and lacked the thin, sharp acidic tartness an intermezzo needs to clean the palate.

The following  formaggi was a bit of a surprise as well, not so much a cheese course as a tidbit with cheese on it, and the second slight jarring note of the evening. A hard sesame seed crusted slice of bread had a dab of Le Délice de Bourgogne (French cheese?) on a schmear of tasty fig compote and  graced with a bit of vincotto.  Good, but it didn’t seem like a cheese course as such, and the toasted sesame didn’t fit. The baguette, and thus the entire ensemble, would have been better without the sesame.

For our final course, the dolci, we doubled up again. First a thick, chewy brownie topped with dark maroon marionberry ice cream, ganache and pecan; second, a persimmon trifle with ‘sunshine cake’, lemon whip and house-made vanilla pudding (which I can assure you bears no resemblance to cafeteria ‘vanilla pudding’.  Of the two, I’d have to give the nod to the persimmon trifle, although my wife quickly devoured the chocolate/marionberry.

An Italian feast for New Year’s Eve. And DOC is perfectly on their game right now, executing some truly fine dishes in a miniscule kitchen.  There was no better way to bid goodbye to the old and usher in the new.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Two great sparkling wines for New Year's Eve: Cremant d'Alsace and Franciacorta DOCG

Here are two great sparkling wines for New Year’s Eve. And neither of them is Champagne.

There is nothing like Champagne.  Period.  End of sentence.  

Champagne is a very special sparkling wine made in a particular area and by a particular process.  If it is made anywhere else---regardless of process---it’s not Champagne. Because Champagne is a Protected Geographic Indicator.

There are, however, any number of sparkling wines from diverse areas. Each operates by its own rules and uses its own grapes, which may or may not be different from Champagne.

But if you’re looking for Champagne quality at lower-than-Champagne prices there are two areas that excel in that regard: Alsace in France and Franciacorta in Italy.

Cremant d’Alsace AOC
Alsace, that curious little slice of eastern France tucked between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River, is a wonderful mishmash of French and German culture and cuisine. So are the wines.

You might think of the area as the best possible melding of both cultures.  A wine authority of note once opined it was “German grapes made with a French sensibility”, and there’s a nugget of truth in that.

Sparkling wine---Cremant d’Alsace---is a relatively recent phenomenon, benefiting from the rules which instituted “Cremant” as being the regional designation for bottle-fermented sparkling wines from any French region except Chamapagne---or in other words, Cremant d'Alsace is the “Methode Champenoise” process applied to the Alsace (although they are never, ever allowed to say that.)

So Cremant d’Alsace is like Champagne, without being like it much at all. The processes are similar, but the grapes and terroirs are significantly different.

The thing to know about Cremant d’Alsace is that the quality level is superb and the price points are comparatively low. It is easy to find in the market and invariably represents a great “QPR”---Quality/Price Ratio---for sparkling wine.

Cremant d’Alsace can be made from several varieties, or a singular variety which must be declared on the label. One of the better styles of Cremant d’Alsace is made from Pinot Noir or labeled as ‘blanc de noir’.

Reliable, if not exceptional, cremants can be had from Lucien Albrecht, Pierre Sparr, Domain Allimant-Laugner, Albert Mann, GustavLorentz, and a host of others. And even the finest rarely exceed the thrifty price of $20!

Franciacorta DOCG
Within the northern Italian state of Lombardy there is a denominated region named Franciacorta that has become highly specialized and quite renowned for producing exceptional sparkling wines.  The area is defined by rolling hills, river valleys and glacial moraines that provides perfect conditions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc  grapes to make exquisite sparkling wine.

Again, the process is similar to Champagne in that the second fermentation that produces the bubbles is made within the bottle. Also again, it is not Champagne, for the region, the climate, the soils are all different.

Franciacorta is unusual in that, of all the alternative sparkling wines, it comes closest to the light elegance and precise structure of Champagne.

Look for producers such as Berlucchi, Ca’ del Bosco or Bellavista for consistent excellence, although there are other notable Franciacorta available in the market.  Prices are a bit higher on average than the Cremant d’Alsace, ranging from $19 to around $45 for the superior designations.

Either of these sparkling wines, Cremant d’Alsace AOC or Franciacorta DOCG, would serve as a worthy alternative to Champagne. But remember, they are not the same as Champagne, although similar in process and style. And very much similar in the pleasure they provide.