New Year’s Eve Bubbles

This was originally sent in our newsletter on 12.30.2021. You can sign up for our email list here.

It’s been about a decade since I made New Year’s Eve plans. Mostly I was requesting to work the service: the adrenaline of a crunchy night, a quick champagne toast grabbed in the back with the team at 12:05am. The money was good, and you didn’t need a reservation.

If for some reason I wasn’t on the schedule, well: it was my couch, a bottle of something special, some caviar bought retail on potato chips.

The world’s been coming over to my way of thinking, lately.

I know some of you are probably going out, and I know for sure that some of you are working that service. But as our latest variant spikes, I’m more and more thankful for the kinds of low-stakes luxury we can create for ourselves and a couple of people close to us, in our own spaces. For someone who was in restaurants as long as I was, it feels less like retreat than a way to reclaim the concept of hospitality.

This year, I wanted to think about a few different bottles of bubbly that give me comfort and hope, and that are perfect for drinking with a small group over the course of an evening rather than pouring out in spoonfuls to a crowded room just looking for something to toast with when the countdown hits. (I have recommendations for that, too. Maybe next year.) 

Recaredo, “Terres”, Corpinnat Brut Nature, Penedès, Cayalunya 2015
Champagne means two very different things: a region, and a beverage technology. There was wine in Champagne before it had bubbles, and the technique for making wine from Champagne with bubbles, once invented and refined (by a combination of English shipping agents and German-owned merchant houses) was exported everywhere in the 19th century: Ukraine, Georgia, Burgundy, Catalunya, Ohio. (There’s an essay about this history coming, I just haven’t written it yet.)

So take Recaredo, a century-old estate in a river valley just over the coastal range from Barcelona called Penedès, where champagne’s methods arrived in 1872 and where its sparkling wines for decades were called xampan (the ‘x’ is a ‘ch’). The bottle is from biodynamically farmed varieties local to the area, from a single vintage, aged under cork during its second fermentation and riddled and disgorged by hand. 

In other words, a bunch of details that, if found in Champagne (region), would take you very quickly to $70-100 retail. Here it’s around $33: opulent, powerful, with a secondary yeasty brioche/sourdough/marmalade richness that screams class. Also excellent as a door gift. [buy it in Brooklyn, if you’d like]

ALTERNATIVES; a Vouvray pétillant from Huet, François Pinon, or Michel Autran; crémant from Tripoz or Julien Guillot in the Mâcon, or Stéphane Tissot in the Jura; “Perles du Mont Blanc” from Belluard in the Savoie; in Penedès, Mas Candí, Julía Bernet, or Raventos. 

Chëpìka, pét-nat, “Delaware”, Finger Lakes, New York 2020
Not all sparkling wine has to taste like champagne! This bottling, a collaboration between my former boss and mentor Pascaline Lepeltier and Finger Lakes winemaker Nathan Kendall, is both a look at the deep history of New York’s winemaking and a view of its future.

Delaware is a hybrid variety that, like catawba or concord, was the foundation of New York’s wine industry and still makes up the majority of vines in the Finger Lakes. Creamier than the spiky, high-acid catawaba (a cross, in a North Carolina forest, between a sémillon seed and a native wild vine that was responsible for North America’s first champagne-method sparkling wines), it’s also farmed organically: nearly impossible for riesling or cabernet franc in Keuka Lake, no sweat for a native adapted to its local conditions.

Pascaline and Nathan are evolving their work little by little as they get to know the varieties and refine their approach, and this vintage of the delaware, zero sulfur added and with a little longer on the lees, reminds me of nothing so much as their first release ever, in 2016. It’s surprisingly luxurious and classically styled for a pét-nat, but it still might not taste like anything you’ve had before. [buy it in Brooklyn, if you’d like]

ALTERNATIVES: Hybrid pét-nats in the Northeast from La Garagista, Kalche Wine Co, and La Montañuela (Vermont); Todd & Crystal Cavallo at Wild Arc (Hudson Valley); and Oyster River Winegrowers (Maine); Craig Haarmeyer’s chenin pèt-nat in the Sacramento Delta, and Bloomer Creek’s in the Finger Lakes; the new vintage of Bichi in Tecate (Mexico) is really good. I also tasted some amazing brianna sparkling from the American Wine Project in Wisconsin at Wild World.

Lelarge-Pugeot, Brut, “Tradition”, Petit Montaigne, Champagne N.V.
Ok so at a certain point someone’s going to insist you bring a bottle of champagne to a party and tell you “it’s only champagne if it’s from the Champagne region of France” which is true enough but also see that essay I haven’t written about the Champagne-as-region versus champagne-as-technology problem.

Your budget is going to be $50-60, and your first instinct is going to be to buy a bottle of Veuve Cliquot “Yellow Label”, because it’s one of the most recognizable beverage brands in the world and people will know how much you spent. Please don’t do that. 

Instead, consider taking the same amount of money and thinking about what you can get in your glass if you spend it on the kind of work that’s still exceedingly rare in Champagne: a grower bottling their own wine and farming organically.

I could have picked a lot of farmers to highlight here, but I want to give the spotlight to a small estate who I think is still a little under the radar and pushing things forward in ways I find really exciting.

They’ve gone from the father giving up herbicides twenty years ago to achieving organic and biodynamic certification and bottling still wines and single-parcel and non-dosage cuvées and all sorts of things. And while their higher-end cuvées get more specific and experimental (and incidentally champion one of my favorite underdog grapes) their non-vintage tradition is a reasonably priced, honestly made alternative to house champagnes that delivers what people expect while carrying all of that boundary-pushing and hard work hidden inside. It’s a wonderful calling card. [buy it in Brooklyn, if you’d like]

ALTERNATIVES: Bérêche “Brut Réserve”, Pouillon “Grand Vallée”, or Lassaigne “Vignes de Montguieux” if you’re in a blanc de blancs mood.

Etienne Calsac, “Les Revenants”, Sezanne, Champagne [2016]
If I’m really treating myself at Champagne’s high end, it’s for wines that give an analogous thrill to what people go to bat for in Burgundy: not straight luxury branding, but wine as a specific expression of place and time, idiosyncratic and probably something to be drunk in a group of 4 or smaller so that you can spend some time with it. (Especially since you already spent some money.)

I opened one of the 800 bottles Etienne made of this for my in-person underdog grapes tasting a couple of weeks ago, just before Omicron bucked. It’s from a few rows in a plot Etienne inherited from his grandparents and replanted to Champagne’s ancestral varieties the first year he began to make wine, in 2010: arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc. Arbanne and meslier in particular had fallen out of favor for centuries because they were late-ripening and high acid: in other words, well-adapted to a changing climate. In 2016, he got a full harvest and made a single barrel out of the new plants, and he kept the wine on the lees of the second fermentation until 2019 before disgorging. It came into my hands two years later.

It’s the first stab at the fruit of a decade’s work and thought, and a pretty extraordinary thing to drink and think about as the clock ticks out. Not all wine has to be (or should be) like this all the time, but it’s a bottle I wouldn’t mind paying attention to again. [buy it in Brooklyn, if you’d like]

ALTERNATIVES: Flavien Nowack, Emmanuel Brochet, Marie Courtin, Vouette & Sorbée, Marguet, Georges Laval…

That’s more than enough out of me for tonight. If you end up at home drinking a bottle of one of these wines, I made you a playlist.

Cheers,
James

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