John Paul Kaminga
Bubbles and the Big Bitter One
Sparkling wine might be something enjoyed every day, if you ask me, but I do understand that it is fun to pop a cork and pour a round of frothy libations on special occasions. Perhaps no day of the year demands sparkling wine more than New Year's Eve, and though I propose just a few options below, we have a lot more to choose from. Please do ask if you're looking for something specific.
Kientzler Crémant d'Alsace 'Cuvée Millésimée Non Dosée' 2015 - $27
Made from 100% Auxerrois, a spicy little number that does not usually figure so prominently in the sparkling wines of Alsace, this wine is an oddity well worth examination (and delectation). Made in the traditional method (carefully controlled secondary fermentation in the bottle, like Champagne) and aged 36 months sur lie before disgorgement, with no dosage added, this wine shows a lot of the toasty and nutty nuance that one would expect from a fine Champagne, but it is lighter and less textured than the best from that much more famous region. Aromas of apples, lemon, brown spice and toast are followed by a fresh and vivacious palate with delicate bubbles and a tart mineral finish.
Roses de Jeanne Champagne 'Côte de Val de Vilaine' 2018 - $79
Sparkling or not, this is one of the most exciting wines to arrive each year. Everything made by Cédric Bouchard, the inspired human behind the Roses de Jeanne label, is the product of a single vintage, as opposed to the vast majority of Champagne, which is blended from at least a couple, if not a great many, vintages. The current Val de Vilaine is from the 2018 growing season, and it is brilliant, though perhaps a bit softer than usual. Defined by its energy and freshness; focused on pure fruit, delicate flowers and herbs, and resonant minerality; it is simply gorgeous. One of the icons of contemporary Champagne, Cédric Bouchard is dedicated to clear expressions of his land in his wines, and every bottling is the product of the biodynamic farming of a single grape variety, a single small vineyard parcel, and a single vintage. The conceptual nature of his work is engaging on its own, but his wines are exquisite and some of the most sought after on the planet. He bottles at only 4 to 5 atmospheres of pressure and recommends decanting his wines to remove the bubbles, as he believes strong effervescence gets in the way of a clear sense of place. I love the bubbles, and it seems to me that they say "Champagne" quite clearly, so I would advise pouring this wine right into your glass and consuming it with considered swiftness.
Pierre Gerbais Champagne 'Grains de Celles' NV - $47
The Gerbais family farms their 18 hectares organically, and have been certified sustainable since 1996. The vineyards are planted to Pinot Noir (10 hectares), Chardonnay (4 hectares) and Pinot Blanc (4 hectares, a rare planting in Champagne). Their entry-level wine, Grains de Celles, is a blend of 50% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 25% Pinot Blanc. It is always an Extra Brut, but never brutal, instead quite tender, with a creamy mousse and vibrant fruitiness guiding the way to the bone dry finish one should expect from the style. The current release is based on the 2017 vintage, and was disgorged in July of 2020, having spent 2.5 years on the lees. Bright and lively, it exhibits delicate toasty notes alongside pure orchard fruit, citrus, flowers and herbs.
Maybe bubbles are not your thing. Maybe you want to brood with a glass of full dark red, contemplating whatever depths such a libation may bring to you... or maybe you just want a big red... in any case, there are few better wines for slow sipping than a fine Amarone.
Translating to something like "the big bitter one" or "the great bitter", its name may imply a terribly bitter style of wine, but Amarone actually tends to be redolent of sweet things, as it is produced from carefully dried grapes. The reason Amarone is referred to as bitter probably has something to do with the other traditional red styles of the region, which are either very sweet (Recioto della Valpolicella), fresh and fruity (regular old Valpolicella), or fuller but not as serious as Amarone (Ripasso della Valpolicella). Amarone is the powerful dry red of Valpolicella, and it can certainly be bitter, but these days the best Amarone are balanced and smooth, with layers upon layers of rich flavor.
Organic farming, low yields, and a focus on terroir and freshness; the philosophy of Ca' la Bionda, and its resulting wines, makes them one of the leaders in Valpolicella. They make my favorite Amarone*. Their 2013 Amarone Vigneti di Ravazzol comes from one of the region's historic crus (Ravazzol) and it is a delicious testament to their work in the vineyard and devotion to a classical style of Amarone: opulent and rich, yet tense and elegant, with notions of fresh fruit alongside typical dried and cooked fruit flavors, as well as a wealth of spicy, earthy and savory nuances. Firmly dry, as opposed to its many slightly sweet contemporaries, it features powerful tannins and sprightly acids on the warm and spicy finish. You could pair this (meats braised with dried fruits, or an aged hard cheese would work) but it may be best on its own after a big meal.
Ca' la Bionda made about 1000 cases of this wine. A lot of more expensive Amarone is made on a much larger scale. Ca' la Bionda's Ravazzol is a gem and a deal at once.
Ca' La Bionda Amarone delle Valpolicella 'Vigneti di Ravazzol' 2013 - $60
*ok, ok, Quintarelli is the Amarone that I dream about, and it is arguably my fave, but it is impossibly expensive and rare
I want to wish you a happy new year and give you a heartfelt thanks for your support and encouragement. If you're curious what inspired me most this year, I'm pretty sure it wasn't a wine, it was probably an episode of 99% Invisible about the Freedom House Ambulance Service. I hope you have some time to listen to it. I do so love wine and I love talking to everyone about it, but there are more important things in the world, and wine doesn't make me cry and huff. Thank you for reading. Hope to see you soon. -JP