Virginia Wine Time

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Tag: Sparkling

The Sparkling Master

Claude Thibaut has earned a reputation for producing excellent sparkling wine. Claude is originally from France, and graduated from the University of Reims located in the Champagne region. He came to Virginia in 2003 to make the sparkling wines for Kluge winery; however, before then he had already sharpened his winemaking skills in California. While there, Claude worked at J, Iron Horse, and Kendall Jackson. The production of Claude’s sparkling wines currently takes place at Veritas winery. During a recent trip to the Monticello area, we were able to chat with Claude about the process of making sparkling wine from start to finish.

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1. Grape varieties, vineyard sites, and preferred climates:
Chardonnay and pinot noir are the grape varietals that Claude uses to make sparkling wines. These are ready for harvest at least three weeks earlier than the same grapes used for still wines. Cooler nights, warm days, and low rainfall is what helps to provide the acid levels needed to produce quality sparkling wines that can age well. Claude considers the environmental challenges in Virginia on par with those he experienced in France.

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2. Vintage versus non-vintage sparkling wines:
Most of the sparkling wine that Claude produces is non-vintage; however, grapes that are harvested during optimal growing seasons are used to produce a vintage sparkling. So does that mean that there will be a 2010 vintage sparkling from Claude? Remember, 2010 was very hot and dry. While those conditions are preferred for age-worthy red wines, they are not welcomed for sparkling wines. So which recent year produced a vintage harvest? 2011—while the year ended up being too wet for most Virginia winemakers, the 2011 growing season up until Hurricane Irene was quite favorable for production of a vintage sparkling wine.

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3. Production:
From the vineyards, the grapes are crushed and then fermented in stainless steel tanks until bottling. However, at least 10% go to French oak barrels to produce a reserve sparkling wine. Once bottled, the tedious process of turning the bottles begins. This is known as remauge and is done so that the lees can eventually settle in the neck of the bottle. This task can be performed manually, but Claude uses a machine that allows for many bottles to be turned at the same time. While in the bottle, a second fermentation process that creates bubbles in the sparkling wines takes place, and this is known as the methode champenoise. Sediment is then removed from the neck of the bottle and the dosage is added. Dosage is the last chance to adjust the wine before labeling, and older wine is usually added to achieve this step; brandy can be added to boost the alcohol level. Once the wines are ready, they are labeled by hand and sent off to the wine shop. Claude’s current production level is about 3000 cases.

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4. Future plans:
Claude continues to set goals for himself. He would like to have an independent facility that would allow him to boost production levels to at least 5000 cases. Thibaut-Jannison sparkling wines are now distributed in New York, and Claude would like to make what he called an “east coast blend” of wines from the best vineyard sites on the east coast. He also mused about making a Chablis-style still wine—-yes, Claude likes to stay busy making excellent wines.

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Be sure to seek out Claude Thibaut’s excellent sparkling wines at your favorite wine shop, and mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

5th Annual Sparkling Tasting

After the Merlot Vertical at Breaux Vineyards on Saturday we headed over to Tarara Winery for the 5th annual sparkling tasting organized by Frank Morgan of Drink What You Like. It is now our tradition to get together each year to do a blind sparkling tasting to rate different sparklings from both Virginia and around the world. This year we tasted eleven different sparklings. This year the attendees were Frank, Kathy, Nancy, Erica, Kimberly and Brandon, Allison and Tarara winemaker, Jordan Harris.
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Of the eleven sparklings, seven were from Virginia, two were from France, one from New York, and one from California.
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We gathered around the tasting table with about a dozen glasses placed in front of each seat. Jordan and his helpers poured the wines so we wouldn’t know which wines were which. We began our tasting, writing notes, and ranking the wines. When all the rankings were compiled, the results were announced. Here are the results:

1. Trump Blanc de Blanc
2. Green Hill Blanc de Blancs
3. Stone Tower 2009 Wild Boar
4. Boneyard Blanc de Blanc
5. Flat Rock Cellars, Niagara (Tie)
5. Roederer Hermitate 2004 (Tie)
7. Trump Reserve
8. Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Blanc
9. FIZZ
10. Piper-Hidseck
11. Grower Champagne – Louis de Sasy
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Our top three picks were:
1. Trump Blanc de Blanc
2. Green Hill Blanc de Blancs
3. Stone Tower 2009 Wild Boar

Warren and I were quite surprised the Thibaut-Janisson ranked lower on the list. We absolutely love this sparkling. I have a bottle in my fridge right now! It might be our favorite. Maybe it was a bad bottle, it was too warm, or some other anomaly. We just can’t be sure. But we were surprised. We are very happy though that Virginia sparklings took the top four spots. Each year the rankings are a bit different but Virginia seems to do well each year.
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A huge THANK YOU to Jordan Harris and the staff at Tarara Winery for hosting the event and providing all the glasses, and the wonderful nibbles at the end of the tasting. We had a wonderful time and met some new wine friends along the way! After our tasting we all went to dinner at Palio in Leesburg for dinner. We had a great time!
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We are getting close to the time when people do a lot of celebrating…graduations, weddings, birthdays…so consider a Virginia Sparkling for your celebrating! When you visit one of the wineries that produces a sparkling, tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!

Bloggers Judge Sparkling Wines

Yes, we are back on track with our regular posts about Virginia wine, and this entry will present the results of a tasting that featured sparkling wines. This has become something of a tradition for Virginia bloggers, and we thank Frank Morgan of Drink What You Like for his continued efforts in putting this contest together. Other Virginia wine bloggers in attendance were VWD and GEG from Swirl Sip Snark, Anthony and Jaymie from Virginia Pour House blog, Megan Headley who writes for CVille Weekly, Allan and Kris from Cellar Blog, and Pia Mara Finkell from The BuzzBin. This year’s tasting was held at Early Mountain Vineyards, and thirteen bubblies were tossed into the ring.
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Of the thirteen, ten were from Virginia, one was from the Finger Lakes, another was from New Mexico, and a final outside entry hailed from Spain.
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The judging was done blind. What were the results? How did Virginia’s sparkling fare? When all was tasted, here is how they ranked:

1. Thibaut-Janisson 2008 Cuvee D’etat: This was also my own personal favorite with nice yeasty notes and elements of apple and pear.
2. Thibaut-Janisson NV Blanc de Chardonnay: This also earned the second spot on my own list.
3. Trump 2008 Blanc de Blanc
4. Thibaut-Janisson NV Fizz: This one earned my third place finish.
5. Veritas NV Scintilla
6. Dr. Frank Winery 2006 Chateau Frank (from the Finger Lakes region)
7. Barboursville NV Brut
8. Prince Michel Winery NV Sparkling Wine
9. Gruet Winery NV: Last year it earned the top spot; I placed this one at #11 on my own scorecard. Off aromas and a flatter palate led to a dramatic fall in the ratings this year.
10. Paradise Springs Winery NV Apres
11. Afton Mountain 2010 Bollicine
12. Horton NV Sparkling Viognier: This one earned my #13 rating. It had no characteristics of a sparkling wine. Not one bubble, and I searched in vain for at least one to dance its way to the top of the glass. It tasted like a flat Viognier, and I do mean flat.
13. Jaume Serra Christalino NV Brut Cava: Off aromas and an odd finish sent this one to the bottom of the rankings. It did bubble, though, and for that reason I gave it an edge over the Horton Sparkling.
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So cheers to Virginia: in particular, kudos to Claude Thibaut-Janisson for his continued excellence in producing premier sparkling wines. Special thanks must be extended to Michelle, Jacob, and the entire Early Mountain team for not only hosting the event at their wonderful facility but also for providing us with the stemware, cheeses, breads and deli meats to nibble as we sipped.
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This is the time of year for graduations, weddings, engagements, and other special events. Celebrate a special occasion with a bottle of sparkling wine from Virginia. The local wine shop may sell the Thibaut-Janisson selections; if not, ask that they do. Mention that Virginia Wine Time recommends them!

Italian Bubbles

I attended a tasting of Lombardy’s version of bubbly from Franciacorta. The tasting was held at the Capital Wine School and conducted by Michael Franz, a local wine writer, educator and consultant.
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Readers may recall that I have tasted sparkling wines from Franciacorta in the past as part of a Taste of Lombardy event in DC. However, this particular tasting focused exclusively on Franciacorta. So what did I think? Well, I’ll first provide some background about Franciacorta and the wines that is produces. Franciacorta is located in northern Italian region of Lombardy; in particular, in the foothills of the Alps. Still wines have been made in this region since the 1500s; sparkling wines, though, have been produced within the past 50 years. Franciacorta sparkling wines are produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Bianco. The styles range from Saten (blanc de blanc), Rose, Vintage, and Reserve. In Virginia, reserve wines are those that the wine maker deems to be deserving of the reserve label. In Italy, though, it is not that simple. Italian laws dictate which wines can classified as reserve wines, and in Franciacorta, reserve wines (labeled Riserva) are those that stay “on its lees for a minimum of 60 months.”

So what did we taste, and what did I like? We sampled five sparkling wines from Franciacorta, and they included the Ricci Curbastro Saten 2007 ($40), Bellavista Cuvee Brut ($40), Ricci Curbastro Brut ($36) Montenisa Brut Rose ($38), and Bellavista Grand Cuvee Rose 2007 ($65). The Saten was described as a consumer category wine and one that would appeal to an American market. I would compare it to the least favorites of the Virginia sparkling tasting—very fruity with limited acidity and a few bubbles. It suggested sweetness, and I thought of Sunday brunch at a non-descript café. However, the NV Bellavista Cuvee Brut stepped forward to show off what this region can produce. This one spent seven months on oak and was crafted from grapes of several vintages. Fruit elements were more delicate and nuanced; yeasty notes, a firmer mid-palate structure, and bright acidity resulted in a more classic sparkling wine. Exceeding this one was the Bellavista Grand Cuvee Rose 2007, reserve made from both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Recall the definition of reserva—it stayed on the lees for a minimum of 60 months; more finesse and better balance were my top descriptors. Not to be outdone, though, was the Montenisa Brut Rose with its strawberry aromas, bready notes, and refreshing acidity. The Ricci Curbastro Brut rated above the Saten but below the other three sparkling wines.

So its NYE and I have a house full of guests. Which Franciacorta sparkling wine do I chill? For $40 it was tough to beat the Bellavista Cuvee Brut. Let’s say it’s a tenth year anniversary or some other very special occasion; then I would vote for the Bellavista Grand Cuvee Rose. At $65, it was on par with Champagne wines (and perhaps a few bucks less.)

This was certainly a nice, intimate tasting with a handful of industry folks who were far more knowledgeable than I. Michael Franz was indeed the expert on the Franciacorta region; in fact, he explained that global warming might be playing a role in that region’s ability to produce quality sparkling wines. This phenomenon has been observed in Champagne, and Franciacorta may be on the verge of adjusting its regulations on where grapes intended for sparkling wines can produced. Franciacorta sparklings are now made from the region’s cooler climates; however, there is a concern that warmer temperatures at these altitudes may produce flabbier wines; therefore, new regulations may require that these grapes be grown at a higher altitude. (Climate change and the impact on wine regions is itself a fascinating topic.)

I also had the pleasure of meeting Jay Youmans, the master sommelier who has revolutionized the judging at the Virginia Governor’s Cup. He is the managing director of the Capital Wine School in Washington DC; in particular, it is near the Friendship Heights Metro. The school offers a number of courses that range from winetasting 101 to master-level, and I may just check out some of these courses for my own enrichment.

Conduct your own tasting of sparkling wines and toss in some samples from Virginia and Italy. Can’t find them at the local wine shop? Ask the manager to stock them. Want to know more about wine tasting? Take a class at the Capital Wine School. Of course, mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

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