Just since January of ’21, FIFTY-ONE emails with variations on, “I liked your holiday wine recommendations but it’s too many choices! I don’t know which one to buy! Can’t you…boil it down a bit?“
Before this year, I suspect I have had twice, three times that many, over 15 years. I have a literal mental block about this. I, personally, LOVE too many choices. It’s probably my #1 beverage article of faith.
But, as I’ve known for years and my family has known since I was about six, I am not normal. At all. I’m compulsively contrary and restless and always seeking out new thrills, sensations, experiences. How this is even possible for someone as generally repressed as me (I won’t even change clothes in a store changing room, unless threatened. By my wife. Who scares the beJesus out of me.) to be that experimental but I really am.
Most people are not. My wife and her kids say, “Too many choices!“, all the damned time. And then there are the Fifty-One…
Along with the complaints, the question of what sparkling wines to buy is one of the top five most common subjects of my email content. EVERY year, about now.
Even I am not quite oblivious enough not to suss out a connection here. So, I sat down to think about this and could hear my step-daughter’s voice: “Give me THREE names of sparkling wines or Proseccos or Champagnes or whatever that I can buy for our office holiday party. Just THREE, please, Mister Hyperverbal.” This is an actual request that I have heard and, in that weak moment, I tried to give her that three, with the stipulation that they are A) generally and widely available, and B) under about $25.
The NEXT DAY, I panicked. “Oh, God! I forgot that __________ stuff!” But her coworkers were tickled with the wines, so I unclenched. But to include three here, where – theoretically – anybody on Planet Earth can read it, I need not to forget that _________ stuff.
So, after six solid weeks of making lists, tearing them up, making more lists, deleting those, I finally have three I can recommend with no misgivings and – maybe, I fuggen pray! – no second-guessing…’cause if I wake up tomorrow and think, “Oh, God, I forgot…”, somebody is going to have to talk me off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Three genuinely GREAT, consistent, readily available sparking wines, in no particular order, all under $30. As close as I will probably ever come to making a guarantee that you will like them as much as I do.
LUCIEN ALBRECHT CREMANT d’ALSACE BRUT
I wish I could say I vividly remember my first sip of this wine but the fact is, I’ve had it, bought it, poured it, shared it, enjoyed it so many times that I’ve lost track of where and when. But this is one of the few wines of any type that I can say all that about. I have an almost pathological aversion to drinking the same beverage over and over again…and yet if I had a bottle of this here, at 11:38 in the freakin’ Thursday morning, with no occasion at all, I would pop the cork and pour a glass and quite likely stop writing this for as long as it lasted.
This is elegant wine. And the word “elegant” does not often attach convincingly to a $22 bottle of sparkling. I’ma tell you about two more sparklings and neither of those reviews will contain “elegant“. But that is inescapable, here.
In 1425(!), Romanus Albrecht settled in Alsace and started planting vines and making wine from indigenous grapes. In 1698, Balthazar Albrecht helped define Alsatian wine and expanded the family’s land holdings. In the 1970s, Lucien Albrecht pioneered the Cremant d’Alsace sparkling as a codified French style of wine. In 2004, the wines gained massive international attention, taking an unprecedented four Gold Medals at the prestigious 14° Concours National des Cremants de France. Nutshell: five hundred and ninety-seven years of grape growing and winemaking experience and anyone who thinks that means nothing to the wine they taste now is kidding themselves.
This is all tiny, persistent bubbles, a cool lambent gold in the glass, beautifully and subtly aromatic, complex, and sporting a creamy texture that is shocking in light of its food-friendly crispness and fresh appeal. Apricot and pear on the nose seem to waft slowly from the glass. Those carry over to the palate, underlying fresh brioche/pie crust, white flowers, yellow apples, over-ripe pears, and fresh peaches. The blend changes year to year but involves Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Auxerrois, always dominated by the Pinot Blanc. It wins literal fistfuls of international wine awards and deserves to. If you’ve never tried this and you want to really pour something undeniably delicious, this is as good a value as exists in the world of bubblies. 96 Points $22(ish)
GRUET BLANC de NOIRS (New Mexico)
New Mexico? Yep. I know: shocked the hell outta me, too. But in 1981, a young Frenchman named Laurent Gruet heard from friends in his native Brethon that French people were planting grapes in New Mexico. Intrigued, he bought 250 acres in Lordsburg and Elephant Butte, NM. (Laurent was flush, even then) In 1986, he moved to the property and had his first harvest the next fall. Their first wine was released two years later and word began to trickle out: this French winery in the desert is Onto Something. In 1992 Robert Parker chose the Gruet Blanc de Noir as the best sparkling wine in this country, which was like a bomb going off in California sparkling wine circles. Later on, Gruet won a London award as the best US winery. And the cornerstone of their wine roster, from the git-go, was this astonishing white sparkling made from red Pinot Noir grapes. In 2014, Laurent Gruet sold the winery to Seattle’s Precept Wines and all of a sudden, this wine that I had perennial trouble finding was everywhere, which tickled me no end.
The Gruet Blanc de Noirs has never changed a millimeter since my first tasting of it in 1998, even under Precept’s ownership. It shows amazingly undiluted Pinot Noir flavors of red berries, dried fruit, sultanas, honeydew, apricots, and soft Bosc pears. A dash of honeysuckle around the edges, some faint and flattering mineral character and BOOM: seductive, lusty, complete sparkling wine. The bubbles hang around quite a while and even if they’re maybe a skinny hair short of the ultra-tiny tongue ticklers of the Lucian Albrecht, they’re soft and ample and explosively active in the mouth.
Given the rather splashy track record of the winery and Precept’s enthusiastic support of the brand, it baffles me why anybody still has not heard of and tasted Gruet but I actually run into very few who have. This bottle of truly exceptional sparkling wine – still among the two or three best Blanc de Noirs ever made in the US – is going to run ya just about $15, almost anywhere you find it. On my screen right now are seven visible Google shopping links and none over $15.99. This is a seriously consistent, delicious bottle of finely-crafted, grown-up bubbly and an absolute treat for your holiday guests. 94 Points
JUVE y CAMPS “RESERVA de la FAMILIA” Gran Reserva Brut Nature (Spain)
Unlike our virtual cluster-f**k of US wine “laws” (many of which are really more conventions and handshake agreements than actual laws) Spain has some pretty rigid regs about what a winery can call their stuff on labels. Here, Joe Smith’s Winery and Brake Shop can bottle up a saucy young Merlot and call it a “Grand Reserve” if they feel like it and wine weenies like me can scream, “FOUL!”, loudly and often, but the winery is under zero obligation to change the label to appease us. So, what you see on the stuff, in your store, is “Grand Reserve”, which sounds Mighty Important but is probably not.
This Juve y Camps Gran Reserva de Familia Brut Nature has earned every whisker of its Gran Reserva and Brut Nature designations and that is quite the checklist of requirements. By law, Gran Reserva Cavas MUST spend at least 30 months in the bottle. Check. Cava is the only sparkling wine on the planet which even has a legit Gran Reserva category and the Spanish government, along with the Cava Authority, have teeth in the rules. So this wine has spent an actual 36 months in bottle, which is why the current vintage (yes, Gran Reserva Cava is, by law, a vintage wine) is the 2017. Check. …AND, as if this was not already a monkey puzzle of regulations, Cava houses make them only in exceptional vintages. There is not a Juve y Camps Gran Reserva Brut Nature in every past year.
Now, Brut Nature. (NAH-TOOR) Also by law, to declare a Brut Nature, the wine cannot contain more than 3% residual sugar. Many are under 1%. It is the driest type of Cava and of any Spanish bubbly. Be horrified if you like but MOST forms of sparkling wine have added sugar in their must. The three species of grapes used in most Cava – Macabeu, Xarel-lo, and Parellada – are perfect for sparkling wine as they are slightly sweet and can hang to actual ripeness (as opposed to the under-ripe picking that’s required for MOST Chard and Pinot based sparklings) without overdriving the sugar content. This Juve y Camps, also, is 100% produced from free-run juice – Check. – meaning that it is pressed very gently, if at all, the most juice-friendly and easily the most co$tly way to make wine. (Trust me, if you see “free-run juice” on a bottle, unless the winemaker is a dolt, you really want that wine.) This also spends that 36 months sur lie, “on the lees“, meaning the spent yeasts, which adds a distinct creaminess and body. Check. The flavors include some which ONLY come from extended bottle time and sur lie aging: grilled bread, mild baking spices, almonds, and sugar cookies. Citrus flavors are seamless and varied. White stone fruit – peaches, pears, apples – are throughout the profile, and white flowers, gooseberries, and star fruit show up as you sip.
So…all this obsessive and state-enforced care and attention, free-run juice, extended aging…gonna cost ya, right? I mean, how the hell can all this – and a flat-damned delicious wine, at that, by any standard – be affordable for the average American wine fan?
The answer: Yeah. It’s gonna cost ya. Hang onto something…!
That’s an actual screengrab from google, snipped as I write this, a week before Thanksgiving. That’s right: this shit is UNDER $20? How is this possible? Well, the answer is in two parts…
1. I dunno.
2. I don’t care.
I prefer to just leave the economics to Juve Y Camps – who, it should be noted, seem to be doin’ ah-ight, even with Covid – and enjoy a truly extravagant, no shortcuts, serious bottle of wine that even has an uber-cool label which makes people think you ransacked your best cellar stock, just for their enjoyment. (Pro Tip: if you take a steel wool pad and scrub gently at the label and bottle and maybe scratch off part of the vintage date, you can make people think this is really old! Not that I would do that, of course. And if I did, I wouldn’t admit it. If you tell anybody I said that, I’ll deny it.)(Hey, you’re not my Mom.)
I have to point out that, while the first two are very readily available, the Juve Y Camps may take some looking. If you want it quickly, like before Thanksgiving, you might want to click over to my friends at vivino.com, who own the great bottle shots above. They are rock solid at shipping, have the wine, and you get it pronto. You pay a bit more but shipping? Now? Covid ‘n’ all? Be flexible. And it would be a complete STEAL at twice the price. Try your local wine shops first but it IS gettable. 94 Points
There. Three recommendations for your holiday bubble consumption that are affordable, gorgeous, and made by serious artisans who actually give a shit about what you wind up drinking.
And to my step-daughter…there ya go. Have a great company party and bring me left-overs.