Before slinking off to the bottle bank with the evidence of our Christmas excesses, I had fun fishing bottles out of the wheelie bin, reliving the memories of the ones we especially relished and which we’ll buy again if the opportunity arises – and making a a mental note of which ones not to bother with in the future. Here’s my roundup of sparklers and still whites. Reds will follow.
This being Christmas, there was a fair bit of bubbly around. Chez nous this is rarely Champagne – we work on the principle that a decent, well-made sparkler is always preferable to a run-of-the-mill, non-vintage Champagne and we love hunting down interesting bottles from the regions on our doorstep (Alsace and Baden/Germany) as well as from our other favourite stamping ground, Catalunya.
From close to home came two convincing Crémants d’Alsace: Muré’s Cuvée Prestige, a blend of Pinots Blanc/Auxerrois/Gris and Noir plus some Riesling that costs about €11 direct from their cellar door, and Domaine Valentin Zusslin‘s Brut Zero, a new departure of theirs made with no dosage and no sulphur and priced at around €15. Both domaines, situated close to one another at the southern end of Alsace’s Route des Vins in Rouffach and Orschwihr respectively, are biodynamic – but none of yer funky, weird stuff (as in some ‘natural wines’), just sound quality, loads of character and a strong sense of “somewhereness”.
Less expensive but still able to hold their heads high are the various Crémants made by the co-op in Beblenheim – with their considerable volumes, they can keep prices low, and they make about six different Crémants, all around the €6 mark. We liked their Chardonnay (the grape is permitted in Alsace only in Crémant, but not in still wines) and their Blanc de Noirs, finely bubbly with enough body and fruit to make a very drinkable aperitif – perfect sparklers for a crowd.
Across the Rhine in Baden we’ve recently rather fallen for Alexander Laible (have a look at his website and you probably will too), not to mention his wife Corinna, son Louis and the wines of his estate in Durbach up in the Ortenau region, which lies on about the same level as Strasbourg. Their Sekt is a blooming delight, particularly the shell-pink rosé, which (along with the Zusslin Crémant) was a smash hit at my pre-Christmas holiday cooking workshop. Further south in Haltingen, close to the border with Basel, the Haltingen Winzergenossenchaft (co-op) produces an admirable organic Sekt (“Eco-perlend”) – love the label too, an elegantly drawn chair logo evoking the Vitra Design Museum in neighbouring Weil-am-Rhein, which is famous for its designer chair collection. (Expect to pay around €12 for their Sekt at the co-op, or buy it at branches of the ever excellent Hieber supermarket, dotted around the Lorrach neighbourhood.)
Of the many sparklers made in Catalunya, Recaredo‘s come in at the top of the range. This fine old (1924-founded) estate makes only vintage, Brut Nature cava. All are aged unusually long – a minimum of 30 months, compared to ‘regular’ cava, whose gestation period is a mere 9 months – and they use just two of the three distinctive permitted grape varieties, viz Xarel-lo (gives body/structure/acidity) and Maccabeu (flowers and apples). Their most expensive, from the single vineyard Turó d’en Mota, slumbers in their ancient vaulted cellars for a whopping 10 years and 3 months – and sells at around €100. It’s hard to imagine this extraordinary wine being three times as elegant, distinctive and delicious as our Christmas bottle of their Brut de Brut 2003, which retails at (a mere) €30.
Christmas is a great opportunity to go digging in the cellar for hidden treasures – we unearthed some wondrous still whites including (of course) a few from Alsace. There was a collective rolling of eyes at a Rolly-Gassman Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rohrschwihr 1998 (current vintages selling at around €20) – 15 years old and in the pink of condition, combining all the expected Gewurz exuberance with understated elegance and sufficient ripe acidity to balance the wine’s natural sugars. “A-ma-ZING” (as Craig would have enunciated on Strictly) with our Christmas Eve foie gras. A second, blistering Gewurz was a Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Théo 2007, a classy yet curvaceous wine from the redoubtable Faller ladies, which rose to the challenge of a some queenie scallops in a mildly spicy, coconut milk sauce, not to mention a funky Munster from Monsieur Dodin in Lapoutroie.
Alexander Laible’s Chardonnay and Grauburgunder (aka Pinot Gris) were also firm faves, the first with a dish of Piedmontese pasta with smoked salmon, the second – perhaps counter-intuitively, since most folks reach for a red wine with cheese – with a baked Vacherin Mont d’Or. And another good white buy was a Grüner Veltliner from Winzer Krems – fragrant, dry but not too steely, a great appetite sharpener that set us back €10 at Hieber’s.
And one we won’t bother to buy again? An Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru 2011 – confirmed once again my suspicion that any Burgundy that I can afford or want to pay for (it cost around €15 as I recall) isn’t worth drinking – there are too many other interesting bottles out there waiting to be uncorked.
Oooh and PS: nearly overlooked one last gem, a half bottle of Mission Hill ice wine from Canada’s Okanagan Valley, made from grapes frozen on the vine, which are pressed still frozen and transmuted into a deep golden elixir whose firm backbone of acidity is finely balanced by the wine’s natural sweetness – out-of-sight wonderful with our wicked New Year’s Eve feast of foie gras on a creamy parsnip puree.