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December 19, 2017

Name That Chateau

All I ever wanted for Christmas was my own chateau. That's not in the cards this year, so I just opted for the next best thing. I went to the Chateau Souverain website and designed a custom Chateau Whitley label to place on my bottle of Chateau Souverain Chardonnay.

I chose the chardonnay ($13.99 a bottle) because it's my idea of a good white wine for winter and I know winemaker Ed Killian, who's been there two and a half decades and is a master of the balance between fruit and oak.

I plan to use my Chateau Whitley wines as gifts this holiday season. The concept of a customized label is hardly new. Many restaurants, for example, contract with their favorite winery to craft private-label wines with the restaurant's name on the bottle.

Souverain is now delivering the same service to consumers with one difference: When a restaurant orders a private-label wine, the wine typically arrives with the label on the bottle. The Souverain model requires the consumer to purchase the Souverain wine independently and manually affix the label, which will be shipped to the consumer free of charge.

I asked Souverain spokesman Lon Gallagher how easy it would be for me to apply the Chateau Whitley Chardonnay label myself.

"It's as easy as putting a stamp on an envelope," Gallagher said.

Even I can do that. So I can spread plenty of good cheer with my own Chateau Whitley Chardonnay now through the end of the holidays! Note that if you can't find the Souverain wines at your local wine shop, they are available on Amazon.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:46 PM

December 13, 2017

The Champagne Challengers

In the hierarchy of sparkling wine, Champagne clearly occupies the top rung by reputation and merits. That said, Champagne producers are hardly lonely up there.

In the quest to make bubbly that compares favorably to Champagne, producers in Italy — the Franciacorta and Trentino regions, to be precise — and California have made tremendous strides over the past three decades, narrowing the gap between Champagne and its keenest competitors.

The quest began in California by Jack and Jamie Davies, who in 1965 restored an abandoned vineyard on Diamond Mountain in the Napa Valley to become the historic Schramsberg Vineyards. It was founded with the stated intent of producing America's finest sparkling wine, despite the fact that chardonnay and pinot noir grapes — the money grapes of Champagne — were scarce at the time.

The success of Schramsberg inspired a number of top-notch Champagne houses to invest in California so that today, Tattinger (Domaine Carneros), Mumm, Chandon and Louis Roederer are French names that are common in California wine circles. Add to that group Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards and Gloria Ferrer, and together they form a powerhouse nucleus of sparkling wine producers who can give Champagne a run on their best day.

Northern Italy is another excellent source for sparkling wines that compare favorably with Champagne, meaning they are beautifully structured and deliver exceptional depth and complexity with the ability to improve with age. The leaders are Ca' del Bosco and Bellavista in Franciacorta, and Ferrari in Trentino.

While all the wineries mentioned here can knock it out of the park in blind tastings alongside comparable tiers of Champagne, their bubblies are generally less expensive. That doesn't mean they're cheap. Because of the length of aging required to achieve profound complexity, outstanding sparkling wine is costly to produce.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:16 AM

December 1, 2017

The Champagne Difference

Remember that time a friend offered you a glass of Champagne but poured a prosecco instead? It's a common mistake that will often be repeated throughout the holidays.

Champagne is the sparkling wine that is produced in a specific region of France northeast of Paris. There is a huge difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines like prosecco, cava, cremant and the many New World bubblies.

With a few exceptions that were grandfathered in when global commitments were hammered out (Korbel being one example), current trade policies prohibit labeling anything other than Champagne as Champagne. The Champenois guard their Champagne identity jealously, and with good reason.

The Champagne region produces a unique product that is frequently imitated but seldom surpassed. One aspect of that is the terroir: The chalky soils instill a steely firmness in Champagne. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the firm structure of Champagne allows it to age beautifully for decades. Few other sparkling wines can make a similar claim.

Beyond the physical characteristics of the Champagne region that influence the final product, there is the matter of style. The better Champagne houses reserve generous stocks of wine from the best vintages. The so-called reserve wines are then blended with current vintages to maintain quality as well as a specific house style.

Few other wine regions that produce high-quality sparkling wines go to the trouble of building reserve stocks from their finest vintages. The reserve wines add richness and backbone to less successful vintages, allowing Champagne to deliver a consistent product even in less successful vintages.

This sets Champagne apart and is the primary reason to remember that Champagne is Champagne, and everything else is sparkling wine.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:35 AM