There are two trends NPR readers should know about when it comes to Champagne. First, that French sparkling wine is not just for special occasions anymore. Most people know this, but it’s a worthy and fun reminder that popping some bubbly on a Tuesday night is just as fun as popping it during a wedding celebration. The second, and one I’m a little more excited about, is introducing them to Grower Champagnes (see what I did there with the word “growing” in the headline?).
Grower champagnes are smaller producers who grow their own grapes and produce their own wines, unlike the big Champagne houses (think Dom Perignon, Krug, Veuve Cliquot, etc.) who usually purchase and blend grapes from different vineyards in order to create a consistent product from year to year.
To effectively tell this story, I interviewedDavid White (of Terroirist.com fame) about his new book But First, Champagne. The book pairs the history of Champagne, with easy-to-understand explanations of how its made and how to drink it, while profiling important producers in the region. As he told me about the grower champagnes:
“Most of these growers, who only account for about 5 percent of overall Champagne sales, eschew consistency in favor of singularity.”
That 5 percent statistic astounds me. The way the wine community talks about a lot of these producers, it feels like that number should be bigger. Instead it underscores how niche those of us obsessed with wine can be. And all the more reason, a broader audience should learn about these delicious wines.
Last week I had the honor of meeting and having dinner with a man who leads his family’s 120-year-old winery. Among the highlights was this passing comment:
“Italians don’t drink very much wine,” Andrea Cecchi said in his thick yet soft-spoken Italian accent. “Only at dinner,” he paused for a bit, “and lunch.“
There were three of us sitting at the table with him and it made us chuckle. To Americans, that sounds like a lot of drinking, but we understood what he was trying to say. Wine drinking in Italy is very much a part of the meals and embedded in their routines – whereas here in the U.S.,
we’re more prone to drink before dinner, at dinner and then maybe again after dinner. We’ll find just about any excuse to uncork a bottle.
But it’s probably a good thing that Andrea sees Americans as drinking more wine: It’s his business. Together with his brother, he oversees Cecchi Winery, located in Castillino – one of the four municipalities located entirely within the Chianti region. It started four generations ago in 1893 and since the early 1900s, the winery has focused on bringing their wine to international mass markets.
Some of their finest wines come from the premier Chianti Classico DOCG, which
on Sept. 24 celebrated its 300th anniversary as the world’s first designated wine region. To celebrate, Andrea was here in Washington, D.C., to present a magnum of his family’s Cecchi
Riserva di Famiglia Chianti Classico to the Italian Embassy.
Producing wine from these historic grounds was a visible sense of pride to Andrea, as he pointed to the black rooster – the official designation that the wine is from Chianti – on the label of a few of the bottles he brought for us to try.
During dinner we tasted five of his wines: Two from Chianti and two from Maremma, which is southwest of Tuscany (and Florence) and along the Mediterranean coast. Maremma is its own separate wine region, but it’s a common place for Chianti producers to buy more grapes in the years when their Chianti vines don’t yield enough fruit.
The Cecchi Winery is among the leading producers to recognize Maremma’s value not just as a place for extra grapes and started bottling a line called La Mora, which includes a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. They were bright food-friendly wines with wonderful acidity. The Chianti Classico we tasted had more of the rustic charm I associate with traditional Italian red wines, while the Chianti Riserva improved upon the Classico with a beautiful depth. All four wines I’d certainly seek out again and would want to enjoy with a table full of friends.
The fifth wine, called Coevo, is a blend of both regions and composed of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot. It’sdark and brooding with big fruit and big silky tannins that give you a refined elegance. With only 13.5 percent alcohol, it stays true to its old-world traditions yet takes on a new world appeal. And that’s the reason Andrea and his brother began producing this wine. Coevo, which Andrea said translates to “contemporary,” symbolizes their efforts to be a wine of the present among the international market with an eye to the future.
This modern thinking, however, isn’t just about a single bottle of wine. It’s in the fabric of the
company itself. A quick glance at their website shows off their modern facilities, their sustainability efforts and their work in helping the entire Chianti region innovate.
After four generations, naturally Andrea and his brother’s children are destined to carry the company into the future. Right?! No, said Andrea. Only one of them is currently interested in being in the wine business and Andrea said there’s no pressure for the others to join. He’s satisfied that the fifth generation is secure.
“In Chianti, we have a lot of dust,” he said, motioning a sweeping gesture off his shoulders to emulate how it can settle in one place. To be successful, he explained, they need managers who aren’t part of their family, but can work closely with them to help wipe away that “dust” and keep the business moving in a forward direction.
New blog post alert! I originally started writing this for this blog after a couple friends asked me how I know so much about wine. But then the kind folks at the Pouring Points blog at the the Napa Valley Wine Academy liked the idea – so I expanded it and voila!
The truth is – I’m still learning. But I discovered through reading, being active on social media, finding like-minded friends and ultimately building my confidence levels, it wasn’t too difficult to do. So here are some of the tricks and resources I’ve used to jump start my journey. If you’re just starting out, I hope they’re helpful to you, too!
The Virginia wine experience is most often filled with fun and frolic — as it should be. It’s a chance to flee the city into the rolling green hills that many Washingtonians easily forget exists (I know I nearly did). You can taste, enjoy beautiful views, have a picnic, share a bottle (or two, or three) and often listen to a live music performance. It’s escapism at its finest (especially during an election year).
But nestled about an hour west of D.C., straight out I-66, is one winery that’s operating a little differently. It’s not here to attract the throngs of day-trippers. Instead, it’s courting the serious wine drinker and producing wines to play on the national and international stage.
RdV Vineyards is as much a part of Virginia wine as it’s not. With 16 acres of vines sitting
above the frost line on a hill in Delaplane, Va., overlooking 100-acres of
farmland, the winery takes a mostly hands-off approach to winemaking, letting
the land speak for itself. Their finished bottles have been well integrated
into the Washington region’s dining scene. And just this past year, the
White House served RdV’s 2010 Rendezvous during the Nordic state dinner.
But once you step inside RdV’s white barn-like structure with towering silo, the interior suggests something more likely found in Napa or Europe. Its sleek minimal design elements, including Herman Miller Eames-style wooden chairs and leather couches adorning its tasting room, is almost reminiscent of a contemporary art gallery, leaving visitors with a sense of peace and calm. In the center of the building is a staircase leading down to the wine cellar, the caves, a large fermentation room filled with steel tanks, a glass-enclosed bottling room and a small
laboratory used to determine the blends for each vintage.
When I visited the winery on a warm Wednesday morning in early September, all was quiet. The temperature was a few degrees cooler than when I left Washington, and blue skies intermingled with some clouds and a few droplets of rain. Just a few of the vineyard workers were tending to the vines – all lined in perfect rows covering the green hillside – patiently waiting for
harvest, which RdV begins today (Sept. 15, 2016). They’ll begin picking Merlot, followed by several other Bordeaux varieties, and will end the harvest season with Cabernet.
For several years, RdV has been written up by local, national and international media. The initial excitement about the amount of effort and resources Rutger de Vink was pouring into his winery was something the Virginia wine industry needed to help bring more attention to the emerging region.
After the release of RdV’s first vintage, London-based wine writer Jancis Robinson came to visit and praised the winery: “I sincerely believe [Rutger de Vink’s] considerable efforts stand a good chance of putting the state definitively on the world wine map,” she wrote.
A bottle of the wine reached Eric Boissenot, the famed enologist and winemaker who has worked with many of Bordeaux’s most respected wineries. After tasting it, he reached out to Rutger to volunteer his services for free. So once a year, in exchange for a plane ticket and a place to stay, he joins Rutger, Jarad Slipp, RdV’s estate director,Josh Grainer, RdV’s winemaker, and Jean Philippe Roby, a consulting viticulturist also from Bordeaux, for several days of blending sessions to create the final wines. (Read more about the entire RdV team here.)
Now, about a handful of vintages later, the RdV story remains much the same, but the winery is beginning to show positive signs of maturity. Rutger and Jarad are excited about the upcoming release of their 2013 vintage. They say there’s a much better understanding of the fruit each block of vines is producing. This will also be the first year they expand their offers to purchase beyond the winery’s “Ambassador” program to their mailing list subscribers.
The winery’s caves are lined with filled French oak barrels, and racks of sleeping unlabeled bottles are stacked in cages at least six-feet high. A piece of land behind the vineyards where
Rutger once lived in an Airstream is now the site of a still-under construction contemporary-style home he’s building for his family.
RdV’s wines include Lost Mountain, a Cabernet-dominated Bordeaux blend, and the Rendezvous, a Bordeaux blend that’s dominated by Merlot. There is no recipe for how the wine is blended each year and what percentage of each grape are bottled. It’s all decided by the artistry of tasting and influenced by the subtleties of the vintage. The Rendezvous is created as a lively and energetic fruit-forward wine that’s meant to be drunk young, while the Lost Mountain is a bit more refined and structured with finesse that hints at its aging potential.
RdV creates its wine by fermenting each vineyard block in its own tank. After the blends are decided, they are put together and poured into French oak barrels to rest for two years before being bottled where they are stored an additional year before release.
Deciding when to pick the grapes simply comes down to the taste of the grapes. On my tour of the vineyards, Jarad, who’s also a Master Sommelier, told me there’s no measuring of brix or abiding by a particular formula. Standing about a third of the way up the hill that’s packed with sandy loam layered on top of granite, we sampled Cabernet and Merlot berries that we picked off the vines. He talked me through the state of the grapes by looking at the color of the seeds and accounting for the leathery feel of the skins. While the juices were sweet (the Merlot slightly sweeter with plumper berries than the Cabernet), the berries at
that point were not quite ready.
When Jarad and I returned from the tour of the property and winemaking facility, there were
four bottles in paper bags lined up against the wall in the tasting room. Among the wines were the 2012 vintage of RdV’s Lost Mountain and Rendezvous, a 2012 Plumpjack from Napa Valley and a 2012 Chateau Figeac from Bordeaux. We tasted blind, which served as an interesting exercise in understanding the winery’s motto – “Neither Bordeaux or Napa, but uniquely our own.” The quality across all four wines were about even and proof that RdV’s vision for their well-balanced wines to be on par with the world’s best is coming to fruition.
Rutger could have opened a winery and produced the same high quality wine he makes here in Virginia, in California, or France, or in any other established wine regions where growing conditions are easier. But instead, he’s happy being able to bring something different to the table. Toward the end of my visit, Rutger, Jarad, Josh and I were discussing the wines. I casually asked if being an “outlier” in the wine world is where they like to be. Jarad and Rutger
smiled: Outlier is the name they had chosen for a winery publication they’re putting together.
More about RdV Vineyards: The winery produces 2,000 cases a year mostly sold through its Ambasador program, to winery visitors and to D.C-area restaurants. The 2013 Lost Mountain will sell for $125 and the 2013 Rendezvous for $75. Tours are by appointment only Thursday
through Sunday and cost $50 per person.
It’s a quiet Sunday morning and as I settled into the corner of my couch with a big cup of coffee getting ready to read a new book, a flood of thoughts came rushing forward about all the things wine is bringing into my life. I started jotting a few down and the list kept growing, so here they are. While some of the items are obvious and what wine is meant to do, you’ll see it goes much deeper than that:
it provides cerebral, intelligent and hedonistic pleasure
it takes away stress and quiets some nerves
it awakens my senses
it’s bringing wonderful new friends to my world
it’s introducing me to some fascinating and inspiring people
it’s a stunning reminder of the beauty of nature
it’s teaching me how to pay attention to tiny complexities and nuances
it’s encouraging me to read (for fun) again
it’s encouraging me to write again
it’s encouraging me to seek a happier path
it’s a constant reminder how much fun it is to be passionate about something
it provides moments of pure happiness
it’s teaching me about the importance of our environment
it’s a reminder that science can be very interesting
it’s teaching me new languages, and expanding my own vocabulary
it’s expanding my once very picky palate
it’s making me curious again
it’s helping me increase my self confidence and to trust my instincts
it’s perking up my ambitions
it’s showing me a future with a number of different paths, with a constant reminder how important it is to enjoy the present.
If you look closely at these bottles of wine, you’ll notice the labels don’t look like the ones you’ll find at a retailer. In fact, these bottles aren’t for sale. They were part of a specialized tasting sponsored by Gloria Ferrer featuring five different wine clones. Each of these Pinot Noirs were made from grapes grown in the vineyards planted near each other, but tasted wildly different. It was a perfect study in the importance of the individual vines.
Curious to know more? Or what I’m even talking about? Take a look at my latest piece for the Napa Valley Wine Academy’s Pouring Points blog.
My colleagues know me so well. When a wine-related book lands on our giveaway book shelf, it eventually finds its way to my desk. Some books I already have copies of, some I’ve been hearing about for months prior to publication and then there are the surprises, like this one.
I don’t follow the Champagne world too closely, or buy too much of it, but I have several friends who do. Among their favorites: Krug. There have been at least four gatherings in the last six months where we’ve popped Krug’s corks.
Champagne Uncorked is a fascinating read, interweaving the ancestry of the 170-year-old Krug business with the multi-century history of the region and evolution of the the drink itself from a not-so-bubbly still wine to the glass of foamy vin mousseux we pour today.
From the days of King Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte, to the Nazi occupation of the region during World War II, to Champagne’s popularity among music moguls like Jay Z, Alan Tardi’s account also blends in Champagne’s cultural significance and details of Krug’s success meeting the needs of the changing times and its consumers.
Krug’s modern-day evolution from a tightly-run family business to one that maintains those strict values even though it’s succumbed to modern-day corporate titans, is also the story of a company who once protected its recipe and buried its records to one of increasing transparency.
Today, those who drink Krug’s Grand Cuvee can enter a code in the company’s website and find out exactly what went into that bottle. From this example on the Krug website, a single bottle is only partly described as “a blend of 142 wines from 11 different years, the oldest from 1990 and the youngest from 2006.”
(I almost wonder if Tardi’s unprecedented access to write this book may be part of Krug CEO Margareth Henríquez’s transformative plans – discussed at the end of the book – to ensure the House of Krug stays relevant and prosperous in the modern age.)
Lacing together the different time periods and themes of this book isn’t easy for a writer, but Tardi found a nice balance for most of the book. He excels particularly well in the narrative of how Krug is produced today – and that’s where I found the most joy.
Standing in the vineyards inspecting the parcels, or during the fury of Harvest or standing among the cascading barrels in the cellar, he transports the reader to not just Champagne, but creates a wonderful journey in the details and precision necessary to create the Grand Cuvee. It’s nearly impossible not to be in awe of the House’s ability to consistently make a beautiful and unique glass of Champagne.
If you have a bottle of Champagne (even if it’s not Krug), pop it open as you read this book. You’ll gain a much deeper appreciation for each bubble that rises to the surface and be amazed at the depth of not just it’s structure, but its story.
These days, for better or worse, a lot of my social wine drinking involves multiple bottles of wine. Everyone gets a taste (or two or three) and moves on to try something different. Sometimes wines are revisited. It’s exciting to compare notes on what you’re tasting in between other kinds of chatter and gossip.
But on Memorial Day, I did something I haven’t in a very long time – and it was absolutely wonderful! I shared a single bottle of Red Car rosé with a dear friend over some cheese and an amazing strawberry cake she baked.
We caught up with each others lives, enjoyed the warm air and had a few hours to relax, breathe and just be in the moment. At times, I could even still geek out and talk about the wine. It was the perfect way to spend Memorial Day! Looking forward to more occasions where just a single bottle will do. Cheers!
My wonderful day-job colleague who maintains the @mugsofnpr tumblr featured my most recent addition to my desk decor – although it’s frequently used for much-needed caffeine breaks, too! But if you’re curious about any of the other items in this picture, here’s a quick tour:
For 31 years … Wait a minute. Think about that. 31 YEARS. That’s not even a decade after the Judgment of Paris made California wine significant … MacArthur Beverages has been hosting a barrel tasting of California wines here in Washington, D.C. It’s an opportunity to try (and purchase) the most recent vintages before they’re ready to be sold – and as the name “Barrel Tasting” suggests, even before the wines are bottled.
A fun surprise (for me, at least) was to see so many Pinot Noirs (and some Syrahs and other varieties) from throughout Northern California (and dipping down into Santa Rita Hills). My understanding was this event in the past focused mostly on Napa Cabernets (but maybe I was wrong? or maybe this is a sign of changing tastes?).
But what I really enjoyed about the event was the energy in the room. Unlike other big tastings, many of the wines here have never been poured for consumers before. That made the tasting all about discovery – discovering new tastes and sensations in the new vintages, and for the winemakers, discovering how consumers are reacting for the very first time.