The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Rewarding Wines and Fantastic Bubblies on New Year’s

On Vince Lombardi and enjoying good wine

‘I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.’

–       Vince Lombardi, Coach of the Green Bay Packers

In Hong Kong, we work exceptionally hard. Everyone goes full speed all of the time, and we tend to treat ourselves well when we finally stop working. As the year winds down, still at full speed, may I encourage you, dear reader, to reward yourself and in your own style.

Perhaps you’ll surprise yourself by taking a chance on a new Grower Champagne. This year I have enjoyed getting to know the Champagnes of Pierre Peters, and if you haven’t, you must particularly if you enjoy the wonderment that is Salon: pure, mineral elegance from Les Mesnil.

Or maybe you’ll go for a classic, like an older Bordeaux that’s always been a legend.  Surely in HK the 1982 Lafite will make many an appearance. Depending on your New Year’s Eve company, it’s a fine strategy to have a reliable icon on hand to both impress and enjoy as in years past. There’s much to be said for continuity in greatness.

I myself often find myself in very disparate company and enjoy the opportunity keep everyone off-balance. Quality wins in the end and so something like a Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir (old vine from Patagonia, Argentina) will break down even the most passionate Burgundy fans. Or the well-timed injection of Quintarelli’s Alzero, a Cabernet Franc possibly grown on Mars, rocks Cheval Blanc fans to the very core.

No matter your approach, I hope you’ll reward yourself for giving your very best in 2011. Let’s do it again in 2012, and let’s do it even better.

Champagne 101

A thumbnail guide to everyone’s favorite bubbly

Champagne goes down easy—even to those of us who find its labels a bit inscrutable. Champagne has many words and phrases that can feel a little tricky, but everything is there for a reason. Once you grasp a couple of key definitions, you’ll see that it’s easy to be fluent in the language of Champagne. While there’s no need to be a sommelier to enjoy wine, having peripheral knowledge will allow you to appreciate what you are drinking and will also help you find value, choose your favorite styles and discover food pairings.

Firstly, let’s define Champagne. Champagne is the toponym of one of the most northerly wine producing regions in France. The reason why a sparkling wine is produced here is that it’s too cold to produce substantial still wines, although there is an AOC that encompasses still wine production. The cold weather barely ripens the grapes in most vintages and thereby preserves the grapes’ high acidity.  In order for the wine to gain more body and flavor, the still wine is made sparkling. This sparkling character adds complexity, body and deliciousness that would otherwise be reticent in a still wine made from the same grapes. (For a more in-depth look into how Champagne is made check here.)

Blank on Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noirs?

There are three main styles of Champagne, which can theoretically come from six varieties allowed by law; these styles are Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the three primary grapes associated with Champagne, although there are three more that rarely appear: Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, and Petit Meslier.

“Blanc de Blanc” is a term that you will see on a label and is really quite easy to understand. Blanc de Blanc, or “white of whites, “denotes a style of Champagne that is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. This type of wine will be very creamy, elegant, aromatic and slightly light in body.  Opposite of this style is Blanc de Noirs, or “white from blacks.” Though we associate red grapes and red wine, it is possible to make white wine from black grapes because all grape juice is essentially colorless; the color comes from the grape skins. Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the two grapes allowed in this style.  These wines will tend to be more full bodied, richer and slightly less acidic. Rosé is also made by adding still red wine to the final blend or by the saigneé method, which is when the skins and pulp of the black grapes are left to macerate on the juice, thus tingeing the clear juice pink.

Champagne also comes in varying degrees of sweetness. After disgorgement, or the removal of the lees, a dosage is added to the wine. The dosage consists of a sugary liquid created by a specific recipe.

The varying degrees of sweetness:

What all of this information means to you, the wine drinker, is that you can choose the sweetness or dryness of your champagne within a really clear margin of error. If you know you want a very dry wine, you look for Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Nature. And if you want sweeter Champagne, you go to the other end of the spectrum.

A Perfect Pair

This spectrum of choice brings us to our next dilemma, which is what to pair with Champagne. The great thing about this wine is that it’s incredibly flexible and complements a wide variety of foods.  In fact, Champagne’s acidity, aromatics and effervescence allow it to be paired with just about anything.

Sushi and Blanc de Blancs is spectacular combination that melds the freshness and elegance in both items; this pair is one of my favorites.  Look to pair a Blanc de Noirs with mushroom crostini—mushrooms and Champagne are classic together. In general, the dry styles of Champagne (Brut Nature and Brut) pair wonderfully with simply prepared lake or ocean fish, shellfish, mollusks and cheese. Look to pair tangy goat cheese with a bright and crisp Champagne, and aged cheeses like gouda, cheddar and Parmigiano develop nutty and sweet flavors that parallel the nuances in aged Champagne; it’s especially stunning with Langres, a cow’s milk cheese that’s soft, creamy white and slightly crumbly.  Also, it’s worth noting that Champagne is one of the few wines that work well with eggs. There’s a reason why Champagne is served with brunch, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t serve it at night with a soufflé or a quiche.

While Champagne is fabulous with everything from endive soup to macadamia nuts, do be aware of its limitations. For example, don’t pair sweet items with dry styles of Champagne. The sugars of the food will occupy your sweet receptors, thereby killing any of the wine’s sweetness.  Indeed, the acid of the Champagne will take the front seat and be quite overwhelming. Also, the only foods that do not bode well for Champagne are red meats and anything too cold. Ice cream floats, for example, are best saved for root beer. Do enjoy Champagne’s sweet styles with basically any sugary substance that you can conjure up—fruit tarts, fresh fruit, and poached apples make angelic pairings.

Consider yourself a proud graduate of Champagne 101.

Now pick your favorite pairing, pop a cork and enjoy the magic!

Go-To-Wine Tuesday

Maialina Chianti Classico Riserva 2007

Christmas at Italian Wine Merchants is a spectacle to behold. The shipping department, the showroom storefront, and the event spaces bustle with activity; everything converges in a seeming chaotic but actually exquisitely coordinated dance with Portfolio Managers waltzing across a figurative stage like some corps of well-informed dancers.

We were of course open for business on Christmas Eve this year, catering to the flurry of last-minute shoppers in need of a quick gift or the right taste to present at their holiday table.  Quite a few of our Christmas Eve shoppers were simply on their way to a party and wanted something to open immediately, ready to drink, and easy on the wallet.  Brimming with Tuscan charm and just $25, the 2007 Maialina Chianti Classico Riserva was a perfect selection.  Laden with dark fruit and the characteristic “touch of leather” so often associated with Sangiovese, the Maialina is soft, supple and gorgeously balanced.  The ’07 vintage in Toscana is already the stuff of legend, and the elegance of this reserva shows itself with a creamy and long-lasting finish.  The anticipated maturity of this offering began last year and stretches out for the next five years, so there is plenty of life left in this bottle – enough for the next few Christmas seasons at the very least.

Last-Minute Wine Presents

Giving gifts that are easy for the impatient gift-giver

I am an awful, impatient shopper in general. Around the holidays, I am even worse shopper because my patience is close to zero. But I’ve found a shopping secret, at least one that works for those of legal age. Wine is the perfect gift: it is a storied and carefully made living thing of character, sacrifice and very hard work, and it’s designed to be enjoyed socially. Even before I was in the wine industry, I would always give friends and loved ones gifts of wine; it makes the life of a grumpy shopper so much easier.

Here are a few cool last minute options for the people who remain on your gift list. The wines of Bartolo Mascarello are always an excellent gift, specifically for the tough-to-buy-for wine lover. You might give an Italian wine novice the Bartolo Mascarello Barbera 2009, and save the Mascarello Bartolo Barolo 2007 for a more experienced wine-lover.

This choice is no brainer–an enrollment in one of our wine clubs is an incredibly thoughtful gift. It’s an excellent choice as a gift for people who might want to explore Italian wines leisurely in the comfort of their own homes.  We offer several levels to choose from, so you are well equipped to match the needs of your gift recipient.

The wines of Giuseppe Quintarelli offer something special for everyone.  As I have mentioned several times before, I have a passion for these wines since they are unique in their character and profiles.  From the Bianco Secco 2010 to the Recioto 1997, you’ll find something for every different palate.

Lastly, instead of a traditional gift of physical wine, an afternoon in our own Studio del Gusto is a downright awesome gift for anyone who wants to experience the glory of wine. Our Studio Regionale tastings give an in depth guided look at our wines, and the calendar is up for January and February events.  However you decide to spend this holiday season, do so in love, compassion, giving, and gratefulness. I know I will.

Go-To-Wine Tuesday (Holiday Sparkler Edition!)

De Conciliis Selim Spumante Brut NV

The holiday season is a seriously busy time for IWM Portfolio Managers and our event team. Our clients send a multitude of holiday gifts to their business colleagues and friends, so during the holidays our second floor meeting room serves as a holding space for packages ready to ship, while our Studio del Gusto rings in the holiday season with celebrating crowds enjoying antipasti and a sipping vino Italiano. It’s a festive, but fast-paced, time for us. Most of our team saw the season crescendo last week, and now things are slightly tapering until this Sunday arrives and we all can enjoy the luxury of the holiday season.

Last week, to celebrate rounding the corner of the bulk of the holidays, I grabbed a longtime beloved bottle that had somehow slipped out of my roster–a great bottle of sparkling Fiano, Algianico, and Barbera from a producer obsessed with great times and the swing of music. Bruno De Conciliis, the gentleman behind the label, is a lover of jazz, and the wine I picked up was his Selim Spumante Brut NV.

The wine is an interesting blend of grapes, both red and white, that gives the wine a sandstone hue and great minerality. The name of the wine is a veiled tribute to a Jazz master and anagram for “Miles,” as in Miles Davis–the great jazz musician. But this tip of the fedora to Miles Davis is no incidental act, for Bruno De Conciliis believes his wines benefit from front-row seats to music, and Bruno opts to play the tunes of Miles Davis and other musical masters in his cellars for his aging wine.

Whether you believe the energy of the soulful notes translates into the vibes of the wines is almost beside the point: the wine’s flavors naturally entertain your senses. Under $22, De Conciliis Selim Spumante Brut NV is a great bottle to get for the dropping of the Times Square ball, or for any celebration, really. Before we indulge in eggnog, it’s always good to remember to keep a bottle of spirited bubbly on your radar for coming occasions, and I’d heartily suggest this one. From our team to your family, have Happy Holidays.


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