Selections for a Sparkling New Year!

Whether you have decided to stay in or go out this New Year's Eve, you will definitely need something frothy and bubbly in your glass come midnight. Buying sparkling wines can get real expensive really fast especially if you are entertaining with it - after all, who ever says no to a glass of bubbly? The trick to finding a tasty yet affordable bottle is to select the unexpected and go for the unadvertised. I'd rather have a producer spend the cash in the vineyards and not in magazines. You also don't have to stick to just Champagne - there's plenty of sparkle to be found in Spain, Italy and here in the US. Here are my picks to help you ring in the New Year in style without spending the equivalent of your mortgage payment. And in the event you are serving Krug or Salon this year, I'm more than happy to stop by for a toast.

If you want more hands on attention, then I would suggest paying a visit to Mr. Champagne - Sir Charles Stanfield, the Champagne buyer at Sam's Wine and Spirits. He is one of the most knowledgeable experts I know when it comes to all things bubbly. Sir Charles was inducted into the prestigious L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, the guild formed during the reign of King Louis XIV in the 17th century. He usually works out of the Marcy Street store on North and Clybourn but I would call ahead to make sure he is working.

Best Sparkler Under $10

Segura Viudas Brut Cava - Spain $8
Cava is Spain's answer to Champagne and Segura Viudas is our go to sparkler for entertaining larger groups as it is an easy and affordable way to add a touch of class to the evening before things get ugly and the doorman calls about the noise. Many of our friends mistake it for something far pricier.

Other Notable Selections Under $15

Charles de Fere Sparkling $8
Cristalino Blanc de Blancs or Rose $7
Francois Montand Blanc de Blancs or Rose $12

The Best of the French from California
Roederer Estate Brut - Anderson Valley $22

This is the California outpost of famed French Champagne house, Louis Roederer - makers of the uber luxe Cristal. They set up shop in Mendocino in 1988 and I have often preferred their California wines over their French selections. If you are looking for a splurge, the vintage Roederer L'Ermitage for around $47 is well worth price.

The Best of the French from New Mexico - yes New Mexico
Gruet Blanc de Noirs, Brut, Rose & Demi Sec - New Mexico $14

I just love Gruet for several reasons - it tastes great, it's affordable and it's from New Mexico. The property was founded in 1984 by French Champagne house Gruet after a family vacation to the Southwest. The vineyards, located 170 miles south of Albuquerque are some of the highest in the US at an elevation of 4,300 feet above sea level. That's dedication! Gruet comes in several varieties. The Blanc de Noirs is a touch more fruity and earthy than the Brut which is more toasty and nutty. They also make a dry rose as well as a Demi-Sec.

If Prosecco is your pleasure
Nino Franco Rustico $15

There was a nifty article about Prosecco taking over the bubbly market in the NY Times on Sunday. It's a bit of a long ready but perfectly illustrates the growing popularity of Prosecco especially in this difficult economy. Prosecco is less expensive to produce than Champagne since the second fermentation takes place in large vats and not time consuming single bottles. The resulting wine is fresher, lower in alcohol and fruity. Prosecco also lacks the toasty and nutty flavors of Champagne so it's perfect for making a Bellini. I'm highlighting the Nino Franco here but be sure to look out for Col Vetoraz, Villa Sandi and Bisol - especially their high end selection from the very much prized area of Cartizze.

Sparkling Wine from South Africa? Yes We Can!
Graham Beck NV Brut - $16

In 1994 Graham Beck Brut NV was chosen as the celebratory drink at the inauguration of South Africa's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. More recently, after declaring his intention to run for president in February this year, Barack Obama took his wife, Michelle, to one of their favourite restaurants in Chicago. The sommelier recommended two glasses of Graham Beck Brut NV. The Obamas were so impressed with this bubbly that they ordered six bottles for election day. The corks were then ceremoniously popped to celebrate the election of the 44th American president before Barack Obama addressed the world at Grant Park.

The Best Value in Champagne
Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Cuvee de Reserve $50
When it comes to Champagne houses, not all producers grow the fruit that is used to make their wines. Pierre Peters is part of a growing (no pun intended) movement of producers who grow AND produce everything they make. They don't have the budget to advertise and hip hop stars don't sing about their products but this is what keeps the price down. This is 100% Chardonnay from vineyards located in the grand cru village of Les Mesnil Sur Oger - an area which is a source of fruit for high ticket producers including Krug and Salon, both of which sell for hundreds of dollars. It is crisp and toasty with notes of hazelnuts and brioche. A real bargain for the price when you consider the pedigree of the vineyards. If you are looking for a real splurge, check out the Vintage 99 Pierre Peters for $70.

Don't forget the Rose

Rose wine may not have the best image but in Champagne, the best and most highly prized wines are pink. Regular Dom Perignon sells for $120 a bottle but their rose costs over $450 a bottle. I love Rose Sparkling wine and the two that I would recommend are Louis de Grenelle Saumur Rose from the Loire Valley for $20 a bottle and if you would like a splurge try the Rene Geoffroy Rose de Saignee Champagne from grower-producer Rene Geoffroy.

For Dessert
Banfi Brachetto d'Acqui $20

This is a sparkling wine made from Brachetto grapes grow in the Piedmont region of Italy. The fermentation is arrested around 5% alcohol leaving the wine partially fermented and sweet with residual sugar. The flavors of strawberries, raspberries and black cherries make this an ideal wine for chocolate desserts. It's one of my favorite dessert wines.

A Guide to Sparkling Terms:

NV or MV - Non vintage or multi vintage. Made from a blend of wines from different years or harvests. Does not mean the wine is inferior. Producers will often blend with wines from back vintages to create a consistent, house style.

Brut - refers to a dry sparkling wine even though some sugar was added before final corking to balance the acidity. Most of what we drink is Brut. The label Sauvage means no sugar was added. Confusingly, extra brut has more sugar than brut, don't ask me why this is.

Cuvee - a French term that means blend

Blanc de Noirs - a white wine made from red grapes (no skin contact)

Blanc de Blancs - a white wine made entirely from white grapes

Rose - rose or pink in color - does not mean the wine is sweet

Vintage - all the grapes came from one harvest or year - often a good one. Year will be indicated on the bottle.

Demi-Sec - a sweet sparkling wine. Again with the confusion as demi-sec means half dry. Often served as an aperitif or with cheese and light, golden desserts. The term Moelleux is definite dessert category.

Methode Champenoise - only wines that come from the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne - everything else is a sparkling wine or other given term based on the region. This term means the wine was made using the Champagne method meaning the second fermentation which creates the bubbles, took place in the bottle - just like it is done in Champagne.


Chivito - The National Dish of Uruguay


If I have not convinced you of how great Uruguay is by now then let me introduce you to their national dish, a sandwich called a chivito. Legend and Wikipedia has it the word chivito can be translated as "little goat" or "baby goat". The reason for this name is because one night, during a blackout, an Argentine patron who was visiting a restaurant in Uruguay ordered baby goat meat like the one normally served in her region. But since the restaurant owner did not have this specialty, he served her toasted bread with ham, sliced filet mignon, seasoned it with different ingredients and the chivito was born! Today, you can find chivito stands throughout Uruguay and each will offer their own version. A typical chivito will include toasted bread, mayonnaise, filet mignon, tomatoes, mozarella cheese, bacon, ham, lettuce, olives, onions, a fried egg on top and french fries for a garnish. IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!

Eat one of these and you will certainly need to spend extra time in the gym. As a suggestion, you may want to check out this old school workout video from Greer Childers. I unfortunately remember her from my childhood as my mother used to buy all kinds of workout tapes and exercise gadgets in the 80's in order to keep slim, glamorous and fit like her Dynasty hero Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan. Being a bit of a pudgy child she would often make me exercise along side with her. Oh, there were hours spent infront of the TV grape-vining, hopping and plies-ing with Jane Fonda and Denise Austin. Here's another fond childhood memory: one time, I was playing around with my mother's Gut Buster (remember that?) and it slipped from my feet and hit me in the head. It's no surprise, I still hate exercising to this day but unfortunately it's a necessary evil in this business, especially if you want to include things like chivitos in your diet.


Cocktail Time with Peter Vestinos

Peter Vestinos, besides being an all around fantastic and charming guy, is the award winning resident mixologist at Sepia Restaurant in Chicago. Peter got his start in wine, working as a sommelier at The Tasting Room on Randolph. His background and experience in wine is one of the main reasons why I love Peter's cocktails as they are always perfectly balanced without being too sweet, tart or boozy. In other words, you can drink several in a row without feeling the burn! He is known for his seasonal approach to cocktails and often blurs the line between kitchen and bar as he makes his own bitters, infused liquors and liqueurs. Cocktail competitions have become a serious business in the US and Peter has become a formidable fixture on the circuit, most recently placing first in a national search for Bombay Sapphire's most inspired bartender. When he is not busy shaking up a cocktail, you can watch Peter perform with his three man sketch comedy group 37 Foxtrot or read his frequent contributions in Time Out Chicago. Despite his busy schedule, he was kind enough to share a holiday cocktail recipe with us.

Flippin' Holidays

A flip is a class of drinks similar to an egg nog but doesn't have any cream. This is Peter's modern take on a flip made with walnut liqueur.

1 oz Walnut Liqueur, such as Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur
1 oz dark rum (Peter uses 15 year El Dorado Dark Rum from Guyana)
1/2 oz Benedictine
3/4 oz simple syrup
1/4 oz Cynar (an italian amaro made from artichokes)
1 whole egg

*If you can't find Nux Alpina try Nocello

Add all to cocktail shaker and shake without ice for 15 seconds, add ice and shake for another fifteen. Strain into rocks glass and grate nutmeg over the top.

The walnut liqueur plays center stage in this drink while the rum is a great dark foil for the walnut. The Benedictine adds spice while the sugar rounds out the rough edges. The Egg provides texture and holds everything together. The bitterness of the Cynar comes right at the finish and clears the palate. It cuts through everything and allows you to take the next sip without feeling you are drinking something sickly sweet.


Sandra Lee's Cocktail Christmas Tree

Wow! I'm absolutely speechless. How do you even come up with an idea like this? Next year, I'm going to decorate our holiday tree with corks, wine openers, screw caps and empty wine bottles.


Pablo Fallabrino - The Rock Star of Uruguay

What I love most about being in the wine business is you get to meet some of the most fascinating and thought provoking people in the world. Meeting Pablo Fallabrino from Vinedo de Los Vientos Winery in Uruguay reminded me exactly of why I do what I do. If anyone is capable of launching Uruguay onto the fine wine scene, Pablo is the one to do it. His Alcyone is quite possibly one of the best dessert wines I have ever had in my life! It tastes exactly like Hershey's chocolate kisses!! Pablo is the son of Italian immigrants and he inherited the winery after the passing of his father in 1995. This good natured surfer, Bob Marley loving and philosophy quoting man can best be described as the Randall Graham or Didier Dagueneau of Uruguay. Pablo confessed to me he often goes through the old family wine making logs and books for wine making inspiration. He does not over think the wine making process though, he just runs with his instincts, takes chances and does what naturally comes to him. It's a total zen approach but then again, what else would you expect from a surfing Rastafarian? Pablo runs the winery with his lovely wife, Marianna who is a fabulous chef and operates the winery kitchen.

Pablo and Marianna's winery is located in Atlantida, about a 30 minute drive from Montevideo. When we visited, he was making repairs to the winery which was damaged a few months earlier by heavy winds, a huge problem in this region and the source of the wineries' name. He was very calm about the whole thing and indicated the doors were just installed the day before while most of the roof was still missing. He took us through the vineyards which were planted with everything from Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. I never thought I would see Gewurztraminer planted next to Cabernet Sauvignon, but hey there is a first time for everything.

I also fell in love with their dog, Escobar. In case you are wondering what is wrong with Escobar, this otherwise healthy 13 year old pup has a basketball sized tumor on his back. Pablo said the tumor is benign but with Escobar's age, it would be too life risking to operate. Escobar is an extremely sweet dog and he definitely runs the show on the property. They have another cute dog named Puccini.

Pablo's wines are unique in style and reflect the his genuine, fun loving nature. Here are my tasting notes:

Estival White - an extremely intriguing blend of Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Moscato Bianco. Dry but floral with flavors of apricots, peaches and pears. Great wine for Asian or Indian food.

Tannat - very well structured yet drinkable. Reminds me of a hearty Malbec.

Eola Gran Reserva - blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon is named after the Greek God of the Winds. Dark red plums, with raisins, figs and spice.

Angel's Cuvee Blanc de Bianco - soft blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Trebbiano. Ripe pears, peaches and slight jasmine floral note.

Angel's Cuvee Ripasso Tannat - Pablo and his team go through the vineyards and twist 8 rows worth of Tannat grapes bunches one by one in order to turn them into raisins. The Ripasso process is often used in the Veneto region of Italy where the pressed skins of Amarone wines are added to regular Valpolicella in order to add a slight raisiny, baby Amarone like character. Here the method helps tame Tannat's excessive richness. Flavors of figs, chocolate, star anise and spice.

Alcyone Dessert Wine - Pablo combines a method used to make Barolo Chinato, an aromatized wine with the method used to make Marsala. Tastes exactly like Hershey's Chocolate kisses. Quite possibly one of the best dessert wines I have ever had.

Who needs chocolate when you have Alycone?

Pablo's wines are brought into the US by T. Edward Wines and are distributed in Chicago by Pure Wine Company. I was able to locate the Tannat at Binny's for $16. Of course, I am already working on getting my hands on some Alcyone!