Sparkling Wine: Too Good For Just New Year’s Eve
Reviews of the kosher Louis de Sacy Brut Champagne and the Lagavulin 16 Year Old and Distiller’s Edition 1996 Islay Single Malt Scotch Whiskies.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week December 26, 2012
New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a Champagne toast. This is likely because the bubbles are considered festive, or perhaps in the belief that drinking something expensive will bring good fortune for the coming year. Whatever the reason, more Champagne will be consumed during the hours after midnight on Jan 1 than during any other time of the year.
We find this distressing to contemplate. Champagne and other sparkling wines are really too good to be saved for only special occasions. Their variable flavor profiles range from sweet to bone dry, from light to full-bodied, and from fruit forward to more restrained – all of which make sparklers some of the world’s most food-friendly wines. A medium-bodied “blanc de blancs” served beside an omelette is one of life’s greatest pleasures while a nonvintage brut works amazingly well with lox. Serve a rose sparkling wine with the roasted turkey next Thanksgiving and consider opening a blanc de noirs with mushroom risotto or pasta.
While Champagne is the quintessential bubbly, very attractive and often more reasonably priced, sparkling wines are made in other regions including California, Spain, Italy, Israel and even other locations within France. Some use the traditional Méthode Champenoise (secondary fermentation within the bottle), while others prefer tank fermentation (Charmat) to create the carbon dioxide that gives the wines their characteristic fizz.
The process begins with the selection and fermentation of a base wine, usually composed of high-acidity varietals such as pinot noir or chardonnay although nearly every grape can be made into a sparkling wine. Then a small amount of sugar and yeast is added to induce a second fermentation during which the carbon dioxide normally produced is trapped within the liquid. The resulting sweetness is determined by the amount of residual sugar left after this second fermentation, and the color can range from a deep pink to pale yellow depending upon the varietal chosen as the base wine. Most producers blend different vineyards and varietals and even sometimes add wine from earlier years to achieve a consistent “house” style.
One of the finest kosher sparkling wines is the Louis de Sacy Brut Champagne ($64). A family-run producer that has farmed grapes since the 1600s, the winery is named after a distant renowned relative whose bewigged portrait serves as their logo. This nonvintage, very dry delight is a blend of 60 percent pinot noir, 35 percent chardonnay and 5 percent pinot meunier that opens with scents of lemons, apples and pastry. Creamy but with bracing acidity for balance, it shows red berry, citrus and slight honey flavors that lead to a mineral infused, toasty finish.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d continue with Islay single malt Scotch whisky for a bit. Last week we discussed a new variant of one of the greatest and most distinct of scotch whiskies. We would be greatly remiss, however, if we left Islay without at least mentioning the mighty Lagavulin.
Lagavulin (pronounced Lahgah-voolin) was founded in 1816 and from its earliest history developed a reputation for quality among Islay Scotch whiskies. Owned by DIAGEO, the world’s largest drinks company, Lagavulin was first introduced to the contemporary single malt market in the late 1980s as one of their “Classic Malts” series. This marketing campaign was so successful that Lagavulin 16, the expression offered in the “classic malts” range, quickly became the world’s most popular Islay Scotch whisky. Due to intermittent production in the 1970s and 80s however, DIAGEO ran out of aged Lagavulin around 1998.
Prices went through the roof, assuming you could even find a bottle. Since then, DIAGEO has maintained round-the-clock production at the distillery, producing just as much Lagavulin as possible. Of course, waiting for whisky to age is not without consequence. Even though they introduced a 12-year-old expression, the whisky drinkers of the world largely moved on until their beloved 16-year-old Lagavulin returned. Instead of being the most popular Islay Scotch whisky, Lagavulin fell into third place behind Bowmore and Laphroaig.
As much as we enjoy all three, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Lagavulin return to the top slot. Lagavulin isn’t a whisky you simply sip, rather the whisky, once invited, grabs you and envelopes you in its sumptuous and complex, dry smokiness. But don’t take our word for it, run out and try some.
Lagavulin 16 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $90): This stunning whisky opens with massive smoky Islay peat, but with a dryness unlike any other Islay whisky. The aromatic complexity only deepens from there, with additional beautifully integrated notes of Lapsang Souchong and Earl Grey teas, iodine, brine, orange marmalade, toffee, figs, vanilla and sweet spices – and all with intermittent charcoal and smoked meat notes dancing in and out of focus.
The flavors follow suit, but with added heft and an oily, almost velvety delivery. This powerful, hugely concentrated whisky demonstrates better than any other Islay malt that peat smoke doesn’t simply dominate and smother every other flavor but, rather, serves as an artist’s canvas upon which the usual distillation and maturation flavors can be brilliantly showcased and even elevated. This is a stunning whisky!
Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition 1996 Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $108): This limited edition expression of Lagavulin has undergone additional maturation, or finishing, in casks that previously held super sweet Pedro Ximénez sherry. Imagine your favorite Lagavulin whisky with a sweet overlay and you’ll have an idea of what this expression offers – but try it anyway. For as improbably as it sounds, the sweetness here actually works. This whisky is rich and dessert-like, with bursts of raisiny sherry, butterscotch and chocolate fudge up-front with those Lagavulin smoke and brine notes punching through on the back end, but all in a lovely, harmonious balance. This is a delicious, even fabulous, play on Lagavulin. L’Chaim!