2019 Wine Goals: Now THESE are Resolutions I can Keep!

In addition to being timely – which I still clearly need to work on – I made several resolutions for 2019. Not surprisingly, many are wine related. And while these might be more enjoyable to accomplish than my other annual goals (such as running “x” miles by year end, eating more greens, and limiting my screen time) they are by no means a slam dunk.

Find more daily drinkers. I want to find more (enjoyable!) wines in the $20 and under range.  So, this means purchasing less Champagne, Oregon Pinot and Northern Rhône Syrah – and more from undervalued wine regions like the Loire Valley, Chile and Portugal. It also means exploring some obscure varietals that don’t command the prices of many popular, international varieties – so hello Pinotage, Zweigelt, and Godello!

rosso di montalcinoA producer’s entry level or a region’s “second wine” can also be great daily drinker values.  I recently had a Rosso di Montalcino – considered to be the first example of a “second wine” concept in Italy.  The Rosso di Montalcino zone of production is exactly the same as the more prestigious Brunello di Montalcino.  However, Rosso di Montalcino is released earlier – so these wines are more fruit forward, easygoing and approachable than Brunello.  There is also no mandatory oak aging requirement and the price tag is usually much lower.  This one was full of floral and bright red fruit aromas, paired deliciously with lasagna and was under $20.

Stop waiting for special occasions to open up the good stuff! While I don’t have too many “daily drinkers” in my collection at the moment, I do have a number of bottles that I feel warrant some type of major event in order to justify opening them.  By no means am I bottle-bragging – I’ll never have that type of cellar – but bottles like Gramercy Reserve Cabernets and Syrahs, Quilceda Creek, Tignanello, Sassicaia, and wines from our travels to the Rhône and Burgundy have a more special place in my heart.  Oh yeah, and I would probably add to that list the Pol Roger ‘Winston Churchill’ that I might have just ordered.

These wines aren’t something I usually open on a Tuesday night to pair with my comfort food dishes . . . but – why not? Why not make a mundane Tuesday eve (sorry Tuesdays, I honestly don’t mean to pick on you) a little less so? What exactly am I waiting for?  I plan to change this in the coming year and open some of these “special occasion” wines when it is in fact NOT a special occasion.  Because as Maya said to Miles in the movie Sideways: the day you open a ‘61 Cheval Blanc… that’s the special occasion.

Keep up the Studying.  As I’ve said before, I’m not pursuing wine certifications so that I can end up having an alphabet soup of letters after my name.  I simply love learning about wine and am more disciplined about it if I have some structure .  Otherwise, I tend to dive deep into a series of rabbit holes that I struggle to get out of – such as trying to figure out the 65 soil types of the Ancient Lakes AVA and who are the 80+ owners of Vougeot.  You know, important need-to-know shit.

wset logo
I love that the WSET logo is a female!

In 2019, I’m hoping to obtain my Italian Wine Scholar certification (results expected in February!), get through at least 4 of the 6 Units of the WSET Diploma, and perhaps pursue another Wine Scholar Guild Master Level Course.  I’m leaning towards their Bordeaux course since this region is quickly replacing Italy as my “Achilles’ heel.” (Sidenote: I know that I will be afflicted with this “ailment” throughout my entire wine studying life . . . which is one of the reasons I love doing what I do.  There will ALWAYS be something to learn!)

Improve my tasting notes.  I think of this goal as kind of a “mindful drinking” type of thing. Basically, I need to pay more attention to what’s in my glass.  Sitting down and focusing on a wine’s aromas, structure, and quality helps immensely with the whole study process.  And as I continue to pursue the WSET Diploma, I should get to the level where I’m able to write a tasting note that meets an examiner’s criteria in my sleep.

I’m not a huge fan of publishing tasting notes – I think they’re boring and ubiquitous, so I won’t be doing that (did I just hear a collective sigh of relief?).  But I do have a beautiful tasting notebook for me to keep track of my thoughts.  I just need to bring it out more often – at least a couple times a week.

tasting notebooks
My tasting notebooks over the years

Have FUN with wine.  If I allow it to, studying wine can dominate my life.  It’s currently the focus of my school, upcoming travels, and honestly, quite a bit of my social activity.  I don’t want to get so caught up in the study of wine that I forget to enjoy it. Sometimes, I need to just have a glass and drink it – not analyze it (fortunately, this is Hubs’ strong suit!).

So on THAT note, I’m going to sign off, finish that daily drinker bottle of Rosso di Montalcino and binge watch last season’s Better Call Saul!

Cheers to a delicious 2019!!

 

 

 

 

WSET Diploma Unit 5: That’s a Wrap on Bubbly

Earlier this month I took my second exam in my WSET Diploma pursuit – Sparkling Wines of the World. Now that I’m well past the 48 hour restriction on discussing the exam “using social media or otherwise”, and WSET has actually published the questions asked and revealed the wines poured blind, I think I’m safe to write about my thoughts on Unit 5.

Unit 5 study table

A brief aside before I get started:  On exam day several people (4 or 5) just didn’t show up.  Our instructor waited a few minutes past the 12:30 start time, but no word.  Did they get the time wrong?  Change their mind at the last minute?  Whatever the reason – it’s odd to go that far, pay the course & exam fee, and then not show.  Reminds me of when Hubs took the bar exam 20 years ago and a guy sat down next to him with all his testing materials and asked “how long do we have to take this test?” He then left his stuff at the table next to Hubs, said he was going to the restroom before the start of the exam – and never came back.  We still wonder what the hell happened to that dude.  He’s probably in Congress.

Anyhoo, back to the WSET exam – we were given an hour and five minutes to do both sections: tasting and theory.  We could tackle them in either order, so I opted to do the tasting first – thinking that this would take me less time to get through, therefore leaving me longer for the theory section.  Well, to quote the sage wisdom of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

UNIT 5 – TASTING.

The three wines were bagged up and each student was responsible for pouring into his or her own glasses.  (I’m curious as to the reasoning for this . . . maybe so we can’t claim the instructor mixed up the wines?  So we can pour as much or as little as we want?  Any thoughts on this?)  In any case, when wine #2 was poured, and it was red – I think that threw off a lot of students.  I know it threw ME off.  You just don’t expect to get a sparkling red on the exam.

We weren’t required to specifically identify the wines, but rather discuss possible grape varieties and an assessment of quality.  Surprisingly, we also weren’t asked to write about possible production methods.  These were the three wines on my the exam (posted recently on the WSET website):

Wine 1: Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry NV
Wine 2: Barossa Valley 2012 Sparkling Shiraz
Wine 3: Roederer Quartet NV (Note to self: find this wine – it was delicious!)

After seeing the official reveal of the wines, I feel pretty confident about the tasting portion of the exam.  My notes match up fairly well with the wines above, so I don’t believe I missed anything obvious.  However, I got so wrapped up in writing slowly and legibly and nailing my aromas (was this ripe pear?  Or more of a baked pear?) that I took longer on the tasting then I planned – and then panic started to set in . . .

UNIT 5 – THEORY.

Before starting the tasting portion of the exam, I took a quick peek at the questions for theory – just to make sure there wasn’t anything completely wackadoodle.  When I saw the three topics: Transfer Method, Climate and Weather in Champagne, and Limoux, I relaxed a bit.  I could at least answer each of those with some semblance of intellect.

Unit 5 handwriting

But after spending too much time on tasting, I felt rushed when I started in on theory.  I got nervous about time constraints and then my hand started shaking (I’m not kidding).  This made my handwriting worse than normal – which on a good day is barely legible (see example at left).  At one point, my pencil lead broke four times and I just about lost my shit.

Post-exam, other students lamented about their handwriting too, so at least I’m not alone in hoping that the examiners are able to decipher my essays.  Seriously though – who the hell handwrites these days?!

There’s no point in stewing about this over the next three months.  The exam is done and over with and there’s nothing I can do about it now – except think about how I’ll take what I learned from this Unit and apply it to my next one.

So, to piggyback off my Unit 2 “Dos and Don’ts” here are a few more:

DO use a variety of study materials.  For Unit 5 I continued to use my trusty Outlines (of course) as well as flashcards – which were particularly handy when I was on the road or running.  Going over the finer points of Champagne trade structures definitely helped take my mind off my aching legs.

Unit 5 study topics
My “practice exam” topics – you’ve got 30 minutes: GO!

I also incorporated practice exams for this round of studying – I highly recommend doing this!  A few weeks prior to the exam I made a list of all the topics that I thought could be asked – everything from various pressing methods to Pol Roger to Chilean sparklers.  I put them in our oversized Gonzaga cup (Go Zags!!), had Hubs draw out three, and then I’d write a brief essay on each for 30 minutes.  This helped me get used to writing for a longer period of time as well as get over that immediate mind blank when you see the subject matter you’re supposed to write on:  “Cava?!  WTF is Cava?” (Or am I the only one that this happens to?)

DO budget your time.  Aim to spend no more than 10 minutes per wine or question on the exam.  Each theory question is weighted equally, so it doesn’t make sense to write a lengthy diatribe on one and only a few sentences on another.  Bring a watch in case the room you’re in doesn’t have a clock.  And you won’t be able to use the clock on your phone.

DO make yourself a roadmap. Before writing out my answers to the theory questions, I sketched out my thoughts on a scratch piece of paper.  So instead of jumping right into writing about the Transfer Method – I essentially recreated a very general outline on it: what it was, how it’s different from Traditional Method, where it’s used, what are the pros and cons of it, etc.  This gave me a roadmap to follow when writing out my answer and helped me stay on track.  In reviewing past WSET Diploma exams, one big issue I’ve noticed is that candidates fail to actually answer the question asked.  Making a roadmap helps prevent detours that will only take up precious time and won’t get you any credit.

and finally . . . DON’T PANIC.  Take some deep breaths.  Sip some water (another DO: bring your own water!)  If you’re not getting any aromas from a wine, don’t keep sniffing and swirling – just move on and come back to it later.  If you don’t know where to start with a theory question, try to at least answer the basics: what is it, where is it, how is it made, etc.

After finishing Unit 5 I asked myself – would I study any differently? And I honestly don’t think I would. Even though a LOT of what I studied wasn’t even on the exam: no producers, hardly anything on Italy (other than wine #1 being Prosecco), no Spain or Germany, and besides wines 2 & 3 – nada from the New World. However, you never know what you’re going to get asked on these exams – so I’m glad I was prepared for anything. Bottom line: learning shouldn’t be just about passing the exam (says the girl who broke four pencils taking said exam).

And just in case you get Limoux as one of your theory questions too 😉  . . . here’s the outline.

 

WSET Diploma Unit 5: Let’s Pop the Cork on this Already!

My Unit 5 exam is Wednesday (tomorrow!) and I feel like a bottle of bubbly that’s been aggressively shaken.  The pressure is building and I just want to let all this information about sparkling wine fly out of my brain like CO2 frantically escaping its glass bottle.  I’ve been studying for this exam for three months now – I am ready to be DONE.

Champagne corks

I’ll admit it – I’ve hit a wall.  But I’m not overly worried about it because the exact same thing happened back in June near the end of my Unit 2 studies (which I ended up passing with Distinction – woot!).  I’m not hitting a wall because I’m disinterested in studying wine (God forbid) – it’s just that my brain is full and I cannot cram in any more information.  However, what DOES worry me a bit, is that my upcoming Unit 5 exam is maybe 1/10th the size of the ginormous Unit 3 (which covers all wines of the world – except for sparkling and fortified) which I’ll tackle in early 2020.  So, before that time, either my brain has to get bigger or I’ve got to study smarter.  I’m hoping for the brain enlargement, but I’ll table officially panicking on that until a later date . . .

Asti outlineI realized that even Hubs is done with my Unit 5 studies when he begged me this past weekend “can we please have something to drink besides bubbles?”  This coming from a guy who used to frequently complain that we didn’t have enough sparkling wine in the house.  And I know he’s tired of me saying “studying” when he asks “what’s the plan for tonight”?  Plus, he’s probably as sick as I am of my outlines laying all over the house – Argentina in the kitchen, Vouvray in the office, Asti in the bathroom (I swear this isn’t an implication of its quality!)

For those of you readers who are interested – I’ve added Unit 5 specific outlines on Asti, Champagne – Subregions  and South Africa to the Outlines pages.

Last Sunday, Hubs & I took a break and went over to a friend’s house to watch our beloved Seahawks.  I brought some “leftover” sparkling wines with me (read: ones that I’d opened the night before to study/taste).  When the host commented that he didn’t usually like Champagne, but he liked the Champagne that I brought, I promptly informed him that what we were drinking was in fact NOT Champagne, it was sparkling wine from New Zealand – a completely different beast due to climate, varieties used and production method.  I’m sure we’ll be getting an invite back to his house soon.  Perhaps I should revisit the lesson I JUST learned at my MW tasting regarding humility and how nobody likes a know-it-all.

So – what am I going to do after my exam on Wednesday?  Well, for starters, I’m looking forward to catching up on some non-wine reading.  You know I’m buried when I let something as pertinent as my subscription to People magazine lapse!  I’d also like to finish “nesting” (Hubs’ endearing term for my habit) in our new home . . . which we moved into seven months ago.  And I can’t wait to get that fucking “Martini & Rossi – Asti Spumante” jingle out of my head.  I’m just excited to look up from my laptop, put away my outlines, and get outside of the house and into this beautiful Southern California weather.

But before I get to all that, I need to go see what the UPS driver just left on my doorstep.  It might be my Unit 2 materials for the Italian Wine Scholar exam I’ll be taking in a few months . . .

 

 

Lessons Learned from Tasting with a MW: Part 1

I recently attended my first in a series of blind tasting classes with Lindsay Pomeroy – newly minted Master of Wine (MW).  With the recent cheating scandal surrounding the blind tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam (a completely separate organization from the Institute of Masters of Wine), some people outside – and even inside – the wine industry might wonder why this is even a part of certain higher level certifications.  I get it. Blind tasting seems like a rather amusing party trick: here’s a random wine – now guess its varietal, region and vintage!  But there’s more to blind tasting . . . at least, there should be.

From my (albeit limited) understanding – the tasting portion of the MW exam focuses a lot on the WHY as opposed to the WHAT.  For example – if you believe the wine in your glass is a Barolo – why do you think this?  What is it about the color, aromas, structure, complexity, etc. that leads to you Barolo?

With wine certification exams, getting the wine “right” certainly helps – but you also need to be able to explain your answer (remember this with math tests?  Show your work!)  So when I saw that Lindsay was offering these classes through her business, Wine Smarties, I signed up immediately because I wanted to get an MW’s perspective on blind tasting. WineSellar and Brasserie

The classes are held in The WineSellar and Brasserie in San Diego – the epitome of a “hidden gem” as it’s tucked away in the back of a very non-descript industrial/business park.  Lindsay herself was warm, welcoming and wearing her trademark pink fanny pack (which she claims is coming back in fashion).  I liked her right away. 🙂

Our first class focused on identifying the “Classics” – wines such as Burgundy, Brunello, Bordeaux (and no, they don’t all need to start with the letter B – although Hubs did offer up Budweiser and Bud Light to help out further).  Although this was only a two hour long class, I can already tell that I am going to learn a ton of invaluable information from this lady.  Here’s what I came away with just after the first session:

Make sure ALL your evidence backs up your conclusion.  As mentioned earlier – show your work.  If the wine in front of me is red with lots of cherry and red berry aromas, some white pepper notes and heat on the finish – does this support a conclusion of Pinot Noir?  The berry flavors might, but that white pepper and heat doesn’t.  The totality of evidence (good grief, I feel like I’m back in law school!) is more indicative of Grenache.

Put your blinders on and don’t second guess yourself.  I have a horrible habit of doing this!  In class, we were poured two white wines blind and when the gentleman next to me started to read his notes on the first wine – “lighter bodied, higher acidity, herbal notes, white pepper – I’m guessing it’s a Grüner” . . . I panicked.  Because this is what I had written for the SECOND wine.

I immediately assumed that I was in error, or that I must have mixed up my wines.  So when I was asked my thoughts on wine #1, I read my description for wine #2 (including “it reminds me of a green salad”) which garnered some odd looks.   Because as it turns out,  I HADN’T mixed up my wines, my neighbor was just off base.  And I didn’t trust myself enough to stick to my own notes – where I had called the second wine a Grüner (which it was).  The first was a village level Chablis – which should not remind anyone of a green salad. :-/

Blind Tasting with an MW

Don’t jump to conclusions based on one (or even two) facts.  I took a deep inhale of the last red wine and got aromas of tar and asphalt.  Right away this led me to Pinotage.  I hung onto that assumption and didn’t let go.  Despite other evidence to the contrary – like extreme depth and complexity and higher than normal tannins.  I also ignored the fact that to put Pinotage in a blind tasting flight of Classic wines that Lindsay would have to be a complete psychopath.

The wine ended up being a 2013 Brunello – which made a lot more sense.

Humility.  I’m getting to the point in my wine education where more and more obnoxious know-it-alls are rearing their ugly heads.  And this is coming from someone who went to law school – so I’m incredibly well versed in this particular species of jackass.  I’m looking right at you, guy on Facebook who called the WSET Level 3 “ridiculously easy” and claimed to have passed with distinction after not studying for it at all! (Perhaps I need to put my blinders from above on when it comes to these sorts of people as well).

Lindsay is one of 380 people in the world to have achieved the MW certification(!!!).  Her depth and breadth of wine knowledge could run circles around us students.  Yet during our class, she never spoke above us and she barely mentioned her MW achievement.  She has a quiet air of confidence about her, but there was no ego or bragging.  I think the wine world could use a few more Lindsays.

More lessons to follow . . . my next class is later this month!

 

 

 

 

WSET Diploma Unit 5: Opting for the Sparkly Object

After successfully completing Unit 2, I started thinking about the next Unit I was going to tackle in my WSET Diploma pursuit.  (Ok, let’s be honest, I started thinking about this months before actually completing Unit 2).   So without further ado, here were my options, my thought process, and my decision (Spoiler Alert:  Bubbles.  Always Bubbles).

Unit 1 – Global Business of Alcoholic Beverages.

There are two parts to Unit 1: a 3,000 word research paper and an in-class case study exam.  Candidates can do either of these at any time during the Diploma process.  Both involve a fair amount of research and writing, which as a former lawyer, I was actually pretty damn good at once upon a time.  So, I’m looking forward to tackling these writing assignments – assuming I’m assigned a topic that I enjoy writing about.

The research paper topics are established by WSET and are released each academic year.  This year’s were released in early August, and neither one particularly spoke to me: “The short and long term implications of the 2017 vintage“, or “The Rum Revival.”  The 2017 vintage question seems incredibly broad and I’m not all that excited about spending a lot of time researching spirits – particularly since spirits will no longer be a required Unit of the Diploma beginning in August, 2019.  I’m optimistic that when I get around to doing the paper that both options will be more wine related . . . and hopefully one will be “why Washington state is the future for the United States wine industry.”  A gal can dream, can’t she?

The case study exam is offered three times a year. This is a complete grab bag of alcohol business topics – past case studies have ranged from “social media and the wine industry” to “the négotiant system in Burgundy” to “the wines of South Africa.” I think any of these would’ve been fascinating to explore in detail, which of course means that when I register for the case study (likely in March 2019) my topic will be something like “what sulfur dioxide means to me” or “why mass produced New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the most awesomest wine in the world.”

Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World.

This is the behemoth of the Diploma – covering all wines of the world that don’t fit into the Fortified or Sparkling categories.  I don’t know if the tales of its difficulty are greatly exaggerated or not, but I’m not planning to find out any sooner than I need to.  Unit 3 will be my last Diploma Unit.

Unit 4 – Spirits of the World.

My wine school is doing one last offering of the Spirits Unit and exam. I originally had this all worked out before we moved down to SoCal – my father-in-law (the infamous T-Bone) was going to be my spirits study-buddy and Hubs and Mom-in-Law (aka Authorista) were going to foot the (bar) bill. T-bone and I would frequent local watering holes to sip and study and then head back to our respective homes for our daily nap.  Win-win for everyone. Well, two of us anyways.

However, since Spirits soon won’t be part of the Diploma program, I struggled with whether to try and tackle this Unit or not. I eventually opted for not.  Sorry, T-Bone. Sidenote: don’t actually feel sorry for him.  I’ve been stocking his wine “cabinet” (underneath his bathroom sink) with Oregon Pinot and Washington Syrah since we moved down here.  He’s fine.

Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World.

See Below.

Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World.

Unit 6 is being offered in early September and the exam is on the same date as Unit 5.  I know several candidates that are tackling both Units together – and I considered this for about 5 seconds . . .

Bottom line is – I’m not in a huge rush to finish the Diploma.  And, like much of what I do in life, would prefer to methodically and systematically go through my studies as opposed to frantically cramming it all in.  I am a true ISTJ.  So, I opted for the Unit that interested me the most – the shiny object of the Diploma – Sparkling Wines of the World!

Champagne books
Unit 5 – In-Class Experience.

After registering for Unit 5 the day after my Unit 2 exam (seriously – I am Tracy Frickin’ Flick!) I did a little prep work by starting in on some of the suggested readings.  Class itself was one very intensive, very full day in early August.  Other WSET providers spread Unit 5 in-class time over two days (Napa Valley Wine Academy), or three weeks plus a practice exam (Capital Wine School).  WSET Unit 5 manual

My class was a broad overview of sparkling wines – from different production methods, to Champagne sub-regions, to common labeling terminology.  We also tasted through 11 different sparkling wines in class.  Although, unlike Unit 2, this wasn’t blind and there was quite a bit less class discussion on them as well.  Maybe this was because there were more students in class (10 compared to my 3 in my Unit 2).  Or because it was a sunny summer Saturday and people wanted to skedaddle. Although, this is SoCal, almost every Saturday is sunny.

Whatever the case, to me – this portion felt rushed.  Actually – the entire day did.  Covering all sparkling wines of the world in one day is not my ideal way to learn. It’s just way too much information all at once. But on the bright side, I suppose this is good practice for the MW if I’m able to pursue that in the future since that program is practically all self-study. So until Unit 5 exam day – November 7th – I’m on my own.

Unit 5 – My Study Plan.

I started out with a detailed study plan (I realize this is not shocking).  But then with all my travel in August – I quickly had to revise it. I got wrapped up with visiting my beloved Washington state and attending the fabulous Auction of Washington Wines.  And then visiting my awesome Bestie and travelling to New York’s Finger Lakes region.  In my defense – both were wine related travels, so some degree of “research” was done.

So – here’s my revised Unit 5 study schedule.  As I did with Unit 2 – I’m aiming to do some degree of studying daily.  I think of my brain like a balloon – I’ll add a little bit more information each day, not too much so that it explodes, and not too little (or too much time off) so it deflates.

Unit 5 – Exam.

Unlike Unit 2, the Unit 5 exam is not multiple choice.  It consists of a tasting portion and a theory portion.  Both of which must be completed within 65 minutes.  I think it’s 30 minutes per section, and then a 5 minute freak out session in between.

Tasting.  Candidates are poured three sparkling wines from anywhere in the world and have to write tasting notes on each one in the approved WSET format.  Past exams have included a trio of Cava/Vintage Champagne/Prosecco and a NV Champagne/Sekt/Vintage Champagne.  After describing the wines, candidates are then asked a “conclusion” question like “discuss the quality/readiness for drinking/country of origin” of the wines.

Theory.  Here candidates are asked to write about 3 topics related to sparkling wine.  These questions can be ANYTHING!  Past exam topics have been: Tank Method, Franciacorta, Pinot Noir, Côtes des Blancs and Prestige Cuvées.  So, basically, you’re asked to regurgitate everything you know about these subjects.  And quickly – you’ve got about 10 minutes per question.  I’m going to need to work on my timing here because at times I can be a bit verbose.  True story.

And on that note – I’ll quit writing about the exam and get to studying! 😉

Italian Bubbles: Moving Beyond Prosecco

When it comes to Prosecco, I believe there are three types of people: those who love it, those who turn their noses up at it, and those who will drink it . . . but only if Champagne isn’t available. I fall pretty firmly into the last category.  Given a choice, I’d almost always opt for Champagne – unless I’m mixing my sparkling wine with orange juice (Helllooooo Boozy Brunch!!)

For many, sparkling wine is a commodity – completely interchangeable.   And that’s totally fine.  Others (present company included) are a bit more selective about their bubbles.  For me, I really like what autolysis* brings to the party so, if Champagne isn’t available I’ll look for a label that says “methode traditionalle” or “methode champenoise” – which indicates that the wine was made in the traditional method* – in other words, the same way that Champagne is made.  Prosecco, on the other hand, is produced by what is referred to as the tank method.*

*I realize that these terms are total winespeak for any relative newbies who might be reading this, so if you’re not exactly sure what those corkdorky terms mean – here’s a (very) quick debrief:

Traditional Method.  Once the base wine is finished, it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.  To accomplish this, a bit of yeast and sugar are mixed together, added to the base wine, and then the bottle is sealed up.  As in the first fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol and CO2 – but since this is happening within a sealed bottle, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to escape to.  So it remains in the bottle – creating the sparkle.

After the sugar is consumed, the yeast dies 😦 but its work is not yet done!  Dead yeast cells are referred to in winespeak as “lees.”  The wine “rests on the lees” for a period of time after the second fermentation is complete and this is where autolysis occurs.  Autolysis is essentially the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells . . . and if your eyes just glazed over by reading that sentence you’re not alone!  I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this myself.  Yet another scientific concept that I’m struggling with. :-/  The duration of autolysis can be anywhere from a few months to several years – the more time spent, the more yeasty/bready characteristics in the resulting wine.  Usually, lees aging needs to be at least 18 months in order for the wine to show any autolytic characteristics.

Tank Method (aka Charmat Method).  With this method, the second fermentation takes place in a large pressurized tank as opposed to inside the bottle.  The tank method is cheaper, faster and requires less labor than the traditional method.  It’s also used with more aromatic grape varieties like Glera (the primary grape of Prosecco) and Riesling (used in German Sekt) since there isn’t the degree of lees contact – which can overwhelm the delicate fruitiness of these varietals.  While you still get bubbles with the tank method, the resulting wine is much more fruity and fresh.  You don’t get as much (or any) of those yummy bread dough, brioche aromas that you do with the traditional method.

While Prosecco is Italy’s best-known sparkling wine (and best-selling at over 220 million bottles a year!), the country also produces a handful of sparklers made in the same method as Champagne.  And, typically, at a fraction of the cost.  Here are three traditional method Italian sparkling wines that are great alternatives (NOT substitutes, because in my opinion – there is none!) for Champagne:

Franciacorta DOCG.  This region released its first traditional method sparkling wine relatively recently – 1961.  Since then, Franciacorta has enjoyed immense success with their wines and is currently producing over 17 million bottles annually (with the bulk of this being consumed by locals – only around 20% is exported).  In 1995, Franciacorta became the first DOCG in Italy exclusively for traditional method sparkling wine.

Franciacorta is located in Lombardia and has a significantly warmer climate than Champagne.  This translates to riper fruit flavors in the glass and a lower overall acidity.  (Tip: look for “brut nature” or “zero dosage” versions of Franciacorta if you want to maximize acidity).  Interestingly though (to me anyways!), non-vintage Franciacorta is required to spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees – which is 3 months longer than Champagne’s minimum requirement!

The grapes used in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir), and Pinot Bianco.  The latter is being used less frequently as it doesn’t add much longevity or energy to the wine.

For more info – here’s my outline on Franciacorta.

Trento DOC.  These wines hail from the Trentino region located in northeastern Italy.  Sparkling wine production started here in the early 1900s here thanks to Giulio Ferrari who believed the area had the potential to compete with the wines from Champagne.  And while these wines are produced in the same method and use the same grapes as Champagne (the holy trifecta of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) they taste incredibly different.  You’re likely to get aromas of peach, apricot, candied lemon and orange peel from Trento sparkling wines – with maybe a hint of biscuit character if they’ve been aged longer than 3 years. They tend to be fuller bodied with a level of richness to them.

Compared to Prosecco and Franciacorta, Trento DOC has a rather small production – 8.5 million bottles in 2010 (of which the Ferrari house produced nearly 60%) and the bulk of it is consumed locally.  Which might help explain why I haven’t been able to get my hands on one of these . . . yet. 😉

Alta LangaAlta Langa DOCG.  This area is becoming increasingly important for traditional method sparkling wines produced in southern Piemonte.  Although it is a large appellation overall, the actual area under vine is just over 250 acres (roughly 1/3 the size of Central Park).  And Alta Langa production is quite small – just over 600,000 bottles per year. Both planted acreage and production are expected to increase, however, as popularity of this region’s wines has soared in recent years.  And with good reason – they have some pretty strict requirements as far as what goes into the bottle and, as a result, are producing some delicious bubbles! 

Alta Langa vintageAlta Langa DOCG wines are made from a minimum 90% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  And, unlike Champagne and the other regions mentioned above, there is no “non-vintage” production here.  All Alta Langa wines must be vintage dated and spend a minimum of 30 months on their lees.  So you’ll definitely find more of those yummy bready aromatics in wines from this region. 

I hope next time you’re thinking bubbles you’ll give one of these a try.  If you do, please let me know what you think! 🙂   Want to learn more about wine and bubbles?    Click the link to the right and subscribe to this blog!!!