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The Finnish Flash had done it again. Teemu Selanne, at age 40 came up huge for the Anaheim Ducks in the last couple games. His goal with seconds left in regulation against the Dallas Stars Wednesday evening propelled them to an eventual win in overtime and pushed my already stellar day into the boundaries of excellence. The day continued to get better exponentially, meeting a dynamic wine and business figure, catching a thrilling game and even reviewing a burger I never dreamed would be covered by the Maverick Palate.

My day broke in Claremont McKenna College, in the Pomona area, where I attended a lecture given by the charismatic and exciting figure, Gary “Vay.Ner.Chuk” (Vaynerchuk), to discuss his new book The Thank You Economy.” I was very excited about seeing the man behind the webisodes of WLTV and the Daily Grape because he has been an influential part of developing my interests in Sparkling wine and Rieslings.

The talk was fast-paced and exciting. Although I will not recount the finer points of the presentation, I hope that you check out an episode below to familiarize yourself with such an enthusiastic character.

http://dailygrape.com/videos/9-back-in-new-york-tasting-two-legendary-california-wines

Once I was back at my place I got ready for a burger outing that I had orchestrated a week before. Choosing to dine local, I selected Westwood Village as the canvas because the students of UCLA were on Spring Break and parking would be less of a hassle. I originally had planned to pair Jose Bernsteins—Jose B’s for short— with a bottle of 2009 Les Halos de Jupiter. However I would leave the burger up to the group after it was met with grumbles and moans in my planning process. I waited for the hour and vote to draw near, until then, occupying my time with the Ducks battling a Pacific Division foe for a chance to pull ahead in the playoff standings.

The game was low scoring until the third period, where the Ducks surrendered the lead twice, giving Dallas momentum at two critical points in the game, only to tie it in more dramatic fashion another couple of times. The game looked over at certain point, but Teemu Selanne had not given up—and neither did the Ducks. He potted the game-tying goal with seconds to spare that sent me to the moon with excitement and left me shouting in glee for all my neighbors to hear.

The Ducks capitalized early in the extra session, on a two on one with Bobby Ryan and Cam Fowler splitting the D and putting the circle in the square to seal the fate of the Dallas Stars and silence the hometown fans. It was really fantastic to be on the winning side of that tussle.

On to Burgers, after we congregated near the originally scheduled burger joint, the people in attendance chose Fatburger. I was as surprised as you are. I favor the independent burger joints and did not see that coming… but welcomed the change, corrected our location, and got our ticket for our new destination (apologies to Paul Simon).

We ordered immediately from the menu, most people customizing their orders, except for me, and, unfortunately that may have lead to my demise. What stood out from my last experience with Fatburger years ago was their use of mustard and relish, two condiments I appreciate but feel they have no place on a burger.

When the group of hungry friends made it back to my apartment, I quickly popped the corked of the red Rhone wine from Costières de Nîmes to allow for some breathing time and to check that it was not corked.

We gathered around the table, I gave my talk about the wine, the region and played the what-do-you-guys-smell-and-taste-game with the guests. We decided that there was meatiness, some black pepper and a little fruit on the nose. On the palate, the committee met this wine with dissatisfaction, the fruit had been covered in fresh cracked pepper and the finish of the wine was rather aggressive and hot.

I assured my friends that the wine was typical of the area; the high alcohol was a symptom of the heat the area encounters and can cause a surge in ABV (alcohol by volume). When we paired it with the burger, the edge of the wine was dulled but it still did not catch the fancy of my friends. I decided to pull a bottle of the 2007 The Rebel Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla Washington.

That Cabernet perked up the tasters, it had more muddled blackberries, blueberries and oak nuances that people appreciated without the cloying alcohol that the Rhône wine had. It was agreeable. The burger bothered me a bit for reasons I have already listed, but felt that the patty was considerably heftier than I’d expected (1/2 lb.) and as I surveyed my friends they all told me that they did not have mustard or relish on their burgers and they were all content.

In the end I may have to redo my Fatburger experience and alter my menu driven hamburger by limiting the condiments. Aside from that I was okay with riding the tides of an exciting day all the way to shore and subtracting another pair of bottles from my Countdown-to-500 (335 remain). It was so nice to see Finnish wines were aging so well this time of year.

From Kimmeridgean soils to a second fermentation in the bottle, every facet of Champagne is enrapturing. The perennial celebratory beverage is quickly ditching its association with high price tags of ‘house style’ tête de cuvée, as I found out upon my recent discovery of grower’s Champagne.

Not too long ago I caught an episode of Wine Library TV—a video blog of Gary Vaynerchuk, the director of operations at Wine Library in New Jersey, and his trials-by-palate from super market wines to the cult variety—covering, or rather exposing me to ‘grower’s Champagne.’ In that particular webisode (#891) he compared José Dhondt NV to Moutardier Brut NV, urging his faithful following to drink bubbles more often and to carve out a space in the Champagne ‘n food debate.

After viewing, I quickly performed a quest on wine-searcher.com to see who had the wines advertised and in stock. I stumbled upon Wine Expo, not my preferred wine retailer but a good source for Champagnes that fly low on the radar.

While at Wine Expo I loaded up on a bounty of lesser-known producers, at a fraction of the price of the leading nègoçiants—those Champagnes that dominate the US Market. It was an informative trip and especially eye opening, like I had taken the red pill.

When I got home and tried one of my first bottles of Champagne—the least expensive of the galère— my tongue perked, heart pounded and eyes widened, I immediately felt the veil had been lifted and I realized that the world was much larger than Veuve Clicquot. The flavors were explosive with subtle notes of nutmeg and baked bread rounding out the tightly packed bubbles. This has since been my experience with farmer’s fizz, a truly astonishing experience with each of my selections. Hard to hit a wrong note.

Grower’s Champagne stems from the farmers independent productions, unlike those of the big name Champagne houses that most consumers are aware—Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, Louis Roederer and Moët & Chandon to name a few. They are boutique sparkling wines that possess a lot of character and may yield better expressions of place. Though farmers are a majority in Champagne, accounting for 88% of vineyards, only a select few choose not to sell their grapes to the larger houses. It makes the dauntless few, the proud Gallic farmers worth seeking out because the quality and lower yields of fruit create small batches of Champagne with meticulous oversight in the production from growing the grapes to bottling the wine.

Aside from pushing grower’s Champagne, it is important to become acquainted with Champagne, in all its endearing aspects from color to second fermentation. 

Geography, Soil Composition, Climate and Grapes

Champagne is located east of Paris, and is roughly 84,000 acres in area. The most northern wine-making region in France, it was officially outlined for wine purposes in 1927 by the INAO (a French organization responsible for oversight of agricultural products). It is comprised of only one AOC—one of the largest in the country.

Champagne sits in Kimmeridgean soil—a sub-period of time during the upper Jurassic period where the ocean use to cover Champagne, leaving traces of broken shells and lots of clay deposits behind—that is very chalky. Champagne’s chalky soil is a desirable environment for the vine, allowing good drainage and humidity, an impetus of healthy vines.

The cool continental climate of Champagne—with little influence from large oceans to regulate temperature, makes these areas susceptible to cold winters and warm summers—can barely ripen the grapes, preserving high acidity, which lends itself to the blending of varietals.

The only allowable grapes of Champagne (the region) are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the latter two of which are red varietals, which begs the question: how do they get that golden shimmer from red grapes?

Color

The color of most Champagne is white-golden—unless it’s a Rosé—and the more common straw-hued liquid can be achieved by using only red grapes to produce the wine, as is the case with a variety of producers. If you have ever seen ‘Blanc de Noirs’ tattooed on a label, a consumer is being informed of exactly this sort of combination of varieties, whereas ‘Blanc de Blancs’ indicates Champagne comprised purely of Chardonnay. That title will bear some weight on the buyer’s selection since each grape variety contributes unique features to the wine’s structure or perfume. The color is crafted by applying different winemaking techniques. In the case of red grapes rendering a blonde fizz, the winemaker is limiting the contact of the skins with the wine.

Bubbles

The defining characteristic of Champagne is what looms in the glass, making those gassy pearls? The bitty bubbles are formed under a second fermentation via, most famously, a “traditional method.”  This method sees a base wine combined with another wine, from a previous harvest, with added sugar and yeast—to spark a chemical reaction in the bottle, ergo carbon dioxide bubbles. This painstaking method can be seen here.

Fun Facts

Dom Pérignon did exist, a Benedictine monk in charge of the cellars of the Abbey of Hautvillers.  During his tenure as treasurer he oversaw the collection of grapes, wine making and blending of wines, creating wines that outsold the surrounding abbeys.

Madame Clicqout-Ponsardin did exist! She was the widow of François Clicquot. She was dubbed the inventor of Remuage/ riddling—a process to remove the excess sediment from the neck of an overturned bottle after the second fermentation—after she converted her table into a customized riddling rack to help ease the painstaking process.

Nègoçiants and coopératives—these groups create over three quarters (80%) of Champagne production in the world, and between them, only own a sliver of the vineyards. Instead, they buy the grapes for blending from farmers in the surrounding region.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for Champagne; a coarse daub of paint a la Renoir, but there is no better way to familiarize yourself with the esteemed beverage than to immerse your palate in a good bottle of grower’s Champagne.

If you are looking for more sources, then consider these links:

http://www.champagne.us/

http://www.champagneinfo.net/

Jancis Robinson

Terry Theise

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