Celebrate the season with wine worth savoring (and how to make a champagne tower)
By John Dunham with Alison Blackman
The holiday season is a time for celebration. When planning your next party, whether it’s a simple get together or a formal dinner, one of the first things you’ll want to consider is what wine to serve. There are as many as 5,000 wineries operating in the United States today, and tens of thousands of wineries operating in countries around the world. While some of these are large corporate operations producing millions of gallons of wine, the vast majority are small – often family owned – operations. And while many of the wines produced by a family owned operation are available in a well-stocked package store or on a great wine list in a restaurant, many of the wines available from family owned wineries may not be generally available to consumers.
We recently had the opportunity to sample wines from a large family owned operations that are widely available, and from a smaller operation that can be found only on a few select wine lists. In both cases, the pride and integrity of the family can be seen in both the operation and in the wines themselves. Tattinger is synonymous with high quality champagne, while Palmaz Vineyards serves up excellent, upscale wines (sans sparkle).
Taittinger is one of the last of the Grand Marque Champagne houses, and we had the honor of being hosted by Vitalie Taittinger, Artistic Director of Champagne Taittinger, and heiress to the family winery that began in 1932. Ms. Taittinger, along with Heidi Turzyn, wine director for the Gotham Bar and Grill, presented 6 wines.
According to Ms. Taittinger, while Champagne pairs well with virtually anything, Champagne and friends are always the perfect pairing. The wine presented at the tasting were selected as perfect celebratory Champagnes for Valentine’s Day (and we would argue any occasion).
The first wine that we tasted was Taittinger Brut La Francaise, ($60 per bottle), the house’s traditional Brut. Brut is the most common style of sparkling wine and should taste dry with no perception of sweetness. The La Francaise was light golden in color with a nose that can best be described as creamy. It had a vigorous mousse (bubbles), and was quite dry with a lot of fruit, peaches and some nuttiness. We tasted a citrusy orange zest on the finish. The wine is a blend of 40 percent Chardonnay, 35 percent Pinot Noir and 25 percent Pinot Meunier grapes which is a very traditional champagne blend.
This was followed by Taittinger Prestige Rose ($84 a bottle). The wine was salmon in color with a very slight nose and a light mousse. The wine was very dry and fruity with strawberry, raspberry and peach notes. There was some spice on the finish, suggesting that this would be a great food wine. As with the La Francaise, this wine was heavy in Pinot Munier (20 pecent). When asked, Ms. Taittinger suggested that this varietal adds the “brass” or the body to champagne and was an important attribute.
We moved on to Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus ($95) which is made exclusively from grapes sourced from Grands Crus vineyards. While honestly, the classification is less important when it comes to Champagne than with the neighboring Burgundy still wines, the Prelude was an excellent wine. Clear golden in color, the wine had a light yeasty nose. The light mousse brought out a wine that was very fresh with some citrus notes up front, yeasty notes in the middle and spicy notes at the finish. This wine was very well structured and reflects on a great winemaking tradition.
At this tasting we were lucky enough to have a vintage rose Champagne, the Comtes de Champagne 2005 Rose ($262 a bottle). Champagne is generally produced in a non-vintage version as the winemakers blend wines from different vineyards, and different years to come up with a specific flavor profile. Vintage wines should be purchased with some caution as they reflect their time and place and can be spotty; however, 2005 was one of the best vintages in the region in recent years. This wine was medium salmon in color with a sweet fruity nose. It had a great active mousse, and a very fruit forward palate, featuring cherry, raspberry and whipped cream. The wine had some tannin in it as well suggesting that it will age well past the current 10 years.
While Taittinger is an older, traditional family winery, Palmaz Vineyards, in Napa California, is about as modern as one can find. We attended a recent New York tasting for the winery’s Brasas Society wine club members, as this is a wine that is generally available only from the winery and by subscription. The winery was developed by two generations of the Palmaz family, who have sought to bring innovation and invention to the ancient art of making wine. This has resulted in a unique winery situated inside an 18-story cave that combines cutting-edge technology with a respect for winemaking tradition. In fact this is probably one of the most technologically fantastic winery that we have ever seen, resembling nothing more than the bridge on the Starship Enterprise.
Visit the Tattinger Web Site for an informative, virtual visit and for more information on the wines.
While champagne and sparkling wine are associated with celebrations, excellent wine is a celebration in itself. We sampled three of the Palmaz wines at an event on the rooftop of the Library Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The lovely evening was enhanced by hors-d’oeuvre from the winery’s recent cookbook.
Winemaking at Palmaz Vineyards takes place in a series of 4 caves, using gravity to flow the juice and wine between different parts of the process. This allows grapes, must, and wine to be moved without the agitation of pumping, and the high technology sensors that are used to monitor the wine throughout the process ensures that specific temperatures, alcohol levels and other aspects of the wine are continuously monitored and adjusted throughout the process. This helps to create an incredibly high quality wine.
We began with the winery’s Amalia Chardonnay ($165). This wine was a very traditional California Chardonnay with a lot of oak. Yellow in color, the nose was buttery and oaky with a hint of pine. The palete was very buttery with good acid and some spicy notes. If you like the buttery style of Chardonnay that is produced in many California wineries, this is your style and it’s going to be your wine choice. And, it is an excellent wine.
The second wine that we tasted was the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($240), the wine that Palmaz was releasing to the club at this event and which is available only to wine club members. Dark red in color, with nose was super fruity, with black fruits, black cherry and some cumin. On the palate the tannins were very soft and framed notes of black cherry, black current, and licorice. There were some marine notes on the finish. The wine is designed to age and will show well with a few years in the bottle.
We thought that the belle of the ball at this tasting was the vineyard’s second bottling known as Cedar Knoll. The Cabernet Sauvignon ($48 a bottle) featured a lot of one of the varietals that we really enjoy (Cabernet Franc). Dark red in color, the nose featured green pepper and some cherry. On the palate the wine was similar to its big brother with the addition of the peppery notes from the Cab Franc. This wine is ready to drink now with cherry, black fruits and notes of cumin along with the peppery spicy notes.
Bonus Feature: How to Make a Champagne Tower
Celebrate with wine! Here’s how to make a champagne (or sparkling wine) fountain:
1. use a solid (non wobbly) table with a big tray underneath it for the overflow.
2. Always use coupe (saucer) Champagne glasses. You can’t rent these if you have a lot of guests, or purchase inexpensive ones. All of the glasses must be the same shape and size.
3. Make the tower. Start with the largest circle or square of glasses, and layer in successively smaller layers (e.g. if your bottom layer is 10 glasses by 10 glasses, the layer above that would be nine by nine, the layer above that eight by eight,…).
4. Important, make sure each glass touches the surrounding glasses. You should see a diamond-shaped gap between each glass.
5. When building the next layer, center the stem of the glass over the diamond openings that were created by the layer below. Be careful as you layer the glasses.
6. Repeat this assembly process until there is a single coupe glass on top.
7. Pour your wine! Once your champagne tower is created, you can slowly pour your wine (anything sparkling will do from champagne to sparkling to Prosecco) from the TOP glass and it will trickle downward. If you have a large tower, use larger bottles of wine.
8. Don’t fill the tower until you are ready to serve the wine. No one wants warm wine that’s been sitting out for a while. You might consider personally serving or passing the champagne rather than letting people help themselves, and one clumsy person might set the entire tower, tumbling. If you wish, put a bowl of berries to the side (with toothpicks or a server) and suggest to guests that they add a piece of fruit.