Pop! Go The Bubbles: What To Pour For Your Most Sparkly Occasions

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment

Whether it’s New Years Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter brunch – or any festive holiday – sparkling wines are a wonderful way to celebrate. In fact, a good bubbly can turn even a regular ol’ Wednesday night into a special occasion.

So go on, indulge a little! This list features fizzies from $15 and up, so no matter what your budget, you’re sure to find something to sip.

La Marca Prosecco

La Marca Prosecco: ($15) Prosecco is to Italy as Crémant is to France. Except not exactly. But kinda. Sound confusing? I’ll make it easy: Just pick up a bottle of these bubbles – soft mousse, a little sweeter than traditional Champagne, with flavors of apple and honeysuckle and maybe the slightest bit of brioche. In fact, pick up two bottles, especially if you’re lucky enough to find this stuff for $11 or $12 (which you can, and I have). The pretty blue label makes it perfect for bridal and baby showers. The price makes it perfect for all of those little life celebrations, like birthdays, anniversaries, Saturday night… (100% Glera)



Von Buhl Riesling Sekt Brut

Von Buhl Riesling Sekt Brut: ($22) In case it isn’t immediately obvious, this sparkler hails from Germany. Wait, what? Yep. Deutschland is actually known for more than beer and clunky, communist architecture; in fact, there was a time when the country rivaled France as producers of the world’s most wonderful wein. If that comes as a shock, you might be equally surprised to learn that its most famous grape – Riesling – is responsible for far more than syrupy sweet Blue Nun. There are Riesling wines across the entire spectrum of sweetness levels. The one I reference here is actually bone-dry, with lots of bright, mouth-watering acidity. Although this is a vintage bubbly, it’s standard to find lots of stony minerality in the Rieslings from this region, as well as varying levels of apricot and citrus and right-out-of-the-oven baked bread. In general, this sparkler presents as light, lively and should be pretty much guaranteed to start conversations with less wine-savvy neophytes and to win major points with your more geeky companions. (100% Riesling)


J Brut Rose, Russian River Valley

NV J Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley: ($28) This soft pink bubbly out of Sonoma starts with an essence of strawberry seed and fizzes over the tongue with candied strawberry fruit, a bit of mineral and some citrus. The mousse is firm and frothy, there’s a peppy acidity, and the whole thing ends in a slow finish that almost seems too elegant for something so fun. (56% Pinot Noir, 44% Chardonnay)






Lanson Brut Black Label

Lanson Black Label Brut NV: ($30) My first experience with Lanson was at a super swanky wine tasting, where they were pouring over twenty Grand Marques Champagnes (that’s French for really fancy sparkling wine). I’d sipped Krug and Cristal, Pommery, Perrier-Jouet, Piper Heidsieck and Pol Roger, but I have a very clear memory of stopping dead in my tracks when I tasted the Lanson. The house style at Lanson Pere et Fils is tight, and I don’t mean that in the same way the kids today do. Unlike most bubblies, Lanson does not put their wines through malolactic fermentation, which means, simply, they’re very high in acid. These are great Champagnes to cellar, but the fresh green apple and citrus is so vibrant and refreshing, the bubbles so festive, the yeasty finish so long, that – provided you enjoy the style – there’s plenty of reason to just pop and pour. (35% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier)


Champagne Thienot Brut

NV Champagne Thienot Brut:($40) From a very old wine-producing region comes a very new Champagne house – Champagne Thienot. Yet despite being the new kid on the block at just 25 years young, their non-vintage blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier gives many of the competing, established sparklers a run for the money, especially in terms of QPR. Creamy and elegant with consistent, a delicate bead, this has flavors of peach and apple and a touch of toast. While the finish doesn’t go on forever, at that price, what you sacrifice in terms of length, you make up for in ability to actually afford a bottle (or two) in the first place (quite rare for quality Champagne). Group Thienot also owns the Grand Marques Champagne houses Laurent-Perrier (another personal favorite) and Canard-Duchêne.


NV Pierre Peters, Champagne Cuveé de Réserve Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs

NV Pierre Peters, Cuveé de Réserve Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru: ($50) Mineral and grapefruit and apples and yeasty biscuits and a million tiny bubbles that go on forever. Pierre Peters is a “grower Champagne” estate, which means they grow and make their own juice, unlike many of the region’s bigger houses, which sometimes source fruit from all over the area. They’re a family-run production from the early 1900s, and as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a bad bottle since they started. OK, that’s probably an exaggeration, but these Champagnes – made with Grand Cru grapes – are light and crisp, focused and bursting with bright acidity. Every wine geek I know is mad for them. $50 is an indulgence, but these chalky, light-golden sparklers, with slight hints of mushroom and a dry, elegant finish, are just the thing when you’re looking to take it to the next level. (100% Chardonnay)


NV Camille Savès Champagne Brut Grand Cru Rosé

NV Camille Savès Champagne Brut Grand Cru Rosé: ($60) I recently read a review that said this Camille Savès is the perfect thing to pour for non-Champagne drinkers, because it’s such a universal crowd pleaser. That’s probably true, but this robust, red-fruit-and-sour-cherry delight, with soft bead and hints of mineral and zesty acid, is so fruity and so fun to drink, it almost seems like a shame to share it with anyone but your closest, most Champagne-loving friends. (60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir)





Bollinger Brut Rose

NV Bollinger Brut Rosé: ($90) At a recent tasting, I sniffed this and immediately thought of French toast with strawberry jam. The brioche and berry carry across the palate, with the addition of cherry and raspberry and a hint of nuttiness on the back end. This is a full, round rosé, with good acidity, soft mousse and a wonderfully long, dry finish. It’s unbelievably precise for a non-vintage Champagne. The Bolli Rosé is a treat, and goes down almost too easily – a $90 decadence, gone in an instant. But carpe diem, as they say…




Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Brut Rosé

Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Brut Rosé: ($100) One of the magical properties of wine is that it can transform itself to fit the environment in which it’s being enjoyed. For example, if you ask Miles about the ~ $3000 1961 Château Cheval Blanc he gulped (along with his pride), out of a paper cup at a burger joint, the swigging, sullen Sideways character probably wouldn’t give it a very high score. But I have personal memories of sitting on a dorm room floor, drinking the finest bottle of $5 plonk in my price range, basking in the love of good friends and laughing ’til dawn. I challenge any bottle on earth to taste as good. My first experience with Egly-Ouriet happened under similar cicumstances: It was my birthday, and my best friend and I had finished an incredible dinner at one of Chicago’s top restaurants. We were ending the evening at a Champagne bar, and as a fire popped and hissed in the fireplace behind us, we gossiped and giggled our way through an entire bottle of this. Is this sparkler, with flavors of rose and red fruit and bits of spice and mineral, really that good – or was it the experience that was so delicious? Treat yourself to this distinctive grower Champagne, and see for yourself… (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and Ambonnay Rouge)


Ruinart Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blanc

Dom Ruinart Blanc De Blanc: ($150+) Ruinart is the “first established Champagne house.” And although no one was intentionally producing sparkling wines way back in 1729, rumor has it that this is where the cork started to pop, so to speak. These vintage Champagnes, produced with 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes, are delicious young, but have the potential to get even better with age. Typically, these wines show amazing depth, with unfolding flavors of honey and orchard fruit, cashew nuts and brioche (although each vintage shows its own colors). The mousse is typically soft and creamy, with firm acid and the kind of finish that leaves you smiling for days.

No matter what you pour to celebrate your sweetest occasions, here’s a toast to many, many more…


Orvieto, Vinho Verde and Pinot Blanc – Oh Dear…

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment

wine_corkI recently had the pleasure of trying several types of wine that – prior to my drinking them – I had never even heard of before. They were an Orvieto from Italy, Vinho Verde (a slightly effervescent wine) from Portugal and Pinot Blanc from Austria and the Alsace region in France.

Orvieto is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) located in Umbria and Lazio, Italy, centered specifically around the commune of Orvieto. Wine has been made here since the Medieval days of yore, although the actual wine making has changed a bit; while Orvieto whites were once known for their golden sweetness, now similar sweet wines are only produced in small quantities, and the majority of whites are made dry and delicious.

Most Orvieto whites are crafted from a blend consisting primarily of Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes (often called Procanico in this area, and referred to as Ugni Blanc, St. Émilion, Thalia and White Hermitage in other parts of the world). Eight blended red varietals are sold under the Rosso Orvietano DOC.

The beautiful Italian town of Orvieto

The beautiful Italian town of Orvieto

The Orvieto I tried – a 2008 Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco (try saying that ten times fast) – is comprised of all five of the standard varietals from this Italian region: Procanico, Grechetto, Verdello, Malvasia and Drupeggio.

Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco, as you might have guessed from the name, is a white wine. In the glass, it has the color of light golden sunlight and a nose of dried honey, apricot, pineapple and hay. The consistency is almost creamy; it’s smooth and somewhat thick. It has a lovely balance and flavor of apples and honey and stone fruit. Not sweet, but not overly sharp and acidic, either – even though this wine is aged in steel tanks. And at around $15 a bottle, it isn’t just the color that seems like sunshine in a glass.

Vinho Verde is my most exciting new alcoholic discovery, next to Jess’ La Finca Chardonnay find and adult Arnold Palmers. Vinho Verde, or “green wine,” is a popular Portuguese wine, from the Minho region in the north – a rainy and protected designation of origin (in Portuguese: Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC)). The name doesn’t refer to its color, but rather its youthfulness: Vinho Verde is best enjoyed within a year of bottling.

Green, green wine...stay close to me...

Green, green wine…stay close to me…

While available in both white and red varietals, white is exported far more than red and is rumored to be the tastier of the two (although not, perhaps, for the Portuguese, who tend to drink more of the red stuff). For the purposes of this piece, I will be referring to white Verde.

Although these wines do not qualify as sparkling or even semi-sparkling, they do contain a lovely, light effervescence. The Portuguese actually play this up by pouring one’s glass of Vinho Verde from a dramatic height. This sets all those tiny bubbles to frothing, and enhances the overall experience of the drink. But even poured from a more normal altitude, it’s still super yum.

Vinho Verde is less alcoholic than most of the wines we’re used to here. The most potent ones, made from the Alvarinho grape, top out at 11% alcohol by volume. This makes Vinho Verde great for lunch and picnics and not people who’re looking to get totally wasted – although, especially in the hot summer sun – this wine can pack a more powerful punch than you might expect.

Vinho Verde is light and crisp and refreshing and cheap. There is great stuff to be had between $5 and $10, although some go all the way to $20. I just finished a bottle of Trajarinho Vinho Verde, a blend of Trajadura and Alvarinho grapes, for about $10. It was the color of light straw with a nose of green apple and honeysuckle and peach. In the mouth it was fruity and lively and magically delicious, with flavors of honey and peach and citrus and green apple and the slightest touch of yeast. It bears repeating that Vinho Verde should not be cellared – but at these prices it’s worth it to drink up!

Pinot Blanc, like its fiery cousin, Pinot Noir (genetically mutated sibling, actually), is mysterious, seductive and – apparently – kind of hard to get to know.

Not Chardonnay

Not Chardonnay

Pinot Noir is genetically unstable, and sometimes a vine will produce all black fruit, but for one cane that grows all white. These freakish grapes (which are grown in their own right) are used to make still Pinot Blanc and bubbly Cremant d’Alsace in France (although buying a bottle of “Pinot Blanc” does not necessarily mean you’re getting Pinot Blanc if it comes from the Alsace AOC (speaking of freakish…). Pinot Blanc from that region only means it was made from Pinot varieties).

The most full-bodied and well-known Pinot Blanc wines (whether you’re looking for Pinot Blanc or “Pinot Blanc”) hail from Alsace. Sometimes Pinot Blanc grapes are used in the making of Champagne, although in the Champagne region, Pinot Blanc is usually called Blanc Vrai. Pinot Blanc is most widely grown in Italy, where it is known as Pinot Bianco; it is also grown abundantly in Slovenia and Croatia, where it’s called Beli Pinot. In the United States, what we tend to label Pinot Blanc is actually a variety called Melon de Bourgogne or Muscadet, but looks a lot like Chardonnay on the vine.

I’ll give you a minute to catch up.

Actually don’t bother, let’s just get right to the tastings!

Hop on over to Tasca and try a glass

Hop on over to Tasca and try a glass

I first tried Pinot Blanc while at Tasca wine bar with my friend, Jordana. It was her pour, and she picked a good one: Light straw color in the glass, with a lively nose and taste of green apple and a little citrus. An almost effervescent crispness. It was delicious, refreshing and – frankly – quite a surprise! Great balance and a nice, firm body. Went incredibly well with our ridiculously flavorful braised short ribs with spinach and goat cheese agnolotti with brown butter and sage sauce, and Tasca’s succulent wild mushroom linguine (with five types of mushrooms!) that made both of us sigh with pure contentment.

To recreate the joy of that experience, I went straight away to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle of my very own.

Much to my significant disappointment, they did not carry the 2008 Hopler Pinot Blanc from Burgenland, Austria. Instead they sold me a 2006 Domaine Stirn Pinot Blanc, from the Alsace AOC (and what did we learn about Pinot Blanc from the Alsace AOC, kids? Right. Could be any ol’ Pinot.) It was Pin-ew, in fact. Not impressed. I found it thicker and sweeter than the light, crisp Hopler. A bit flabby, without a lot of character. I guess one could describe it as the Billy Baldwin of beverages…


Whatever your taste or interest in adventure, I encourage you to try something new in 2010. In fact, I’d recommend you do it with an open heart and a glass of Vinho Verde.


The name does not refer to the color of the wine,

BevMo! Mega Tasting Notes!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 4 Comments
The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

BevMo!, a beverage superstore local to California and Arizona, recently opened its 100th store, and Jess, Mitch and I trekked all the way to Rolling Hills Estates to help them celebrate (see Bordeaux Wines That Won’t Break The Bank). The expansive wine, beer and spirits “mega-tasting” was probably an incentive…

Armed with vinoculture literature and a solid breakfast, we descended on the event – determined to taste as much as possible before passing out. Or until they closed up shop at 5pm. So we started at the most likely place: The ticket booth.

Our $15 tax-deductible entrance fee went straight to Boys and Girls Clubs of the South Bay, and gave us 10 tasting tickets. Jess and I looked at our notes, looked at each other and promptly decided to buy 10 more tickets to split between us. We were handed a reusable 6-bottle wine carrier, a commemorative BevMo! glass and a shiny new wine key, then headed into the fray.

Before I talk about our tastings, I thought I’d share some important bits of info we quickly learned about these types of events:

1) Don’t buy extra tickets in advance. At this tasting there were several wineries at each tasting station but only one ticket was requested per table. So one ticket could buy as many as 10 tastings, depending on who was crowding into the area. And by the time the place was packed, tables weren’t even taking tickets anymore. Go back and buy extras as needed, but don’t stock up in the beginning.

2) Wear a hat.

3) Come sober.

(The last one is probably a given, but I thought I’d throw it out there, just in case)

And now that that’s out of the way, here is a list of our favorite pours and the ones we would’ve preferred to pass up:


Silver is golden

Silver is golden

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay 2007: This unwooded Chardonnay is made from grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County and is aged in concrete tanks (which are made in Burgundy). It contains no malolactic fermentation and never touches oak. A beautiful light straw color in the glass, it has a lovely nose of grass, stone fruit (peaches, apples), and bright flavors of pineapple and citrus. It comes with a screw top!

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2007: Rated as #47 of the “Top 100 Wines” in Wine Spectator, this Argentinian delight is a rich, dark purple in the glass, with a nose of grapes (!), oak, cherry and earthiness. On the palate it’s big and lush and oaky, with flavors of bright, dark fruit. This was definitely one of the stand-outs of the day. I should note, however, that it was only the Reserva that blew us away. The Ano Cero and Desnudos Malbecs didn’t do much to impress.

Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel 2006: This old clone Zinfandel is rich and robust and bursting with flavors of blackberry, black cherry, raspberry and vanilla. I’m already a big fan of Rosenblum’s more value-priced vinos, but this one really stands out and I think it’s worth the steeper price. Grown in Lake Sonoma in the upper Dry Creek Valley.

Trefethen Chardonnay 2006: Bright, light yellow in the glass, with aromas of pear, lemon and honeysuckle. Great balanced flavors of pear, lemon and vanilla. This is a nice, full, creamy white and has become one of our favorites in this price range.

Le yum!

Le yum!

Joseph Perrier Cuvee Josephine: Have you ever taken a sip of champagne that was so delicious it made you smile? The perfect amount of tiny bubbles tickling your tongue through the perfect balance of aroma and taste and mouth feel? Apple-y, citrus-y, peachy, vanilla and caramel deliciousness cascading over every tastebud and gracefully slipping down your throat? If you answered “no” to any of the above, than you need to find an occasion to try this remarkable champagne. Those French really know what they’re doing.


Roth Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: You know how we’ve said that Alexander Valley Cabernet is across-the-board delicious? Yeah…well…we can also admit when we’re wrong. This is a blend of 76% Cab Sav, 19% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc. The color is 100% gorgeous. The nose is scrumptious chocolate cherry. The flavor is…well…bland. Slightly tannic. Unimpressive. And at $30 – $40 a bottle, I need more for my money.

Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: Hailing from Healdsburg, California, Lancaster is a family-owned winery and was at the same tasting table as Roth. In the glass, this wine is gorgeous and dark, with a nose of cherry and coffee. Smooth, rich mouthfeel. Coffee flavors. Very tannic. Fussy. However, in their defense, I learned in my research that Wine Enthusiast doesn’t feel this wine will reach its full potential until 10 years of bottle aging. Currently between $55 – $70 per bottle, that’s the chance you’d have to take.



Renwood Grandmere Zinfandel 2006: Boy, I really wanted to like this wine. The owner was at the tasting. He was incredibly enthusiastic. His winery is “Green Friendly,” which is a term he coined to describe the beautiful environmental protections he practices in his business. The grapes for this Zin are grown in the “oldest known Zinfandel vineyards in America.” Honest-to-blog, I really, really wanted to like this wine. But I didn’t. The color was super light. The scent and taste were very strawberry. It was incredibly tannic. It wasn’t very good. In fact, I couldn’t even drink it. Maybe that makes me a bad person. I’m sorry. I tried.

Parcel Thirty-One Zinfandel 2007: The Wine Whore has an interest in the topic of why some varietals don’t work for him, but he just keeps tasting them anyway because you never know when your palate will change or you’ll find one you DO like. There are three wine-growing areas that I feel this way about… Monterey, Lodi, and Mendocino County. And this Zinfandel, from Victory, was yet another example of how the wines from those areas don’t work for me. This was thin and light (Zinfandels should have body and finish!) with no appreciable flavor qualities beyond “red wine.” {Sad face goes here}

To wrap up… Wine Tasting Events are fun! Bring a friend and come prepared. And don’t forget to take notes or you’ll forget EVERYTHING. Oh, and don’t go shopping at a wine store while you’re drunk… the next day Jess looked in the wine box and the following conversation ensued:

Jess: “I bought those?!”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No, actually, those are wines I either like or have wanted to try.”
Mitch: “I guess it’s a good thing that even when you’re drunk you know what you like!”