Brian St. Pierre
Brian St. Pierre: Wine Expert

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  • WineInstitute
Brian St. Pierre is the author of eight books on food and wine, including the best-selling A Perfect Glass of Wine and The Wine Lover Cooks Italian. He also wrote the wine chapter for the 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking. A former director of the Wine Institute in San Francisco, and now a contributing editor for Decanter magazine in London, as well as wine columnist for Taste Italia magazine, St. Pierre also writes a website on wining and dining in London and Europe:
  • Best Champagnes
    Champagne is the best-known wine in the world; you could also say it’s the most celebrated, except that the idea always becomes self-referential - we celebrate everything with Champagne, which makes it a sort of Zen equation: It’s both journey and destination, a means to an end and an end in itself. Luckily, it’s also so delightful that serious thoughts float away with the bubbles. Charles Dickens called it “one of the elegant extras of life,” while Napoleon took it into battle with him (his motto: “In victory, you deserve it, in defeat you need it.”) For those of us who can’t watch a championship game without regretting how much first-rate bubbly is going to be sprayed over a bunch of sweaty athletes at the end, it’s just a delicious affirmation, more of a necessity than an extra.

    Technically, it’s amazing that Champagne tastes so good. Although it’s made from fine-wine grapes, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Champagne region is so cool that the grapes don’t quite ripen, and because most Champagne is made as a white, the wine is drained away from the flavorful and colorful skins of the red Pinot grapes as soon as it’s fermented. Then, after a few months, wines from different parts of the region, and often different grapes as well, are blended together, with some older wine from previous vintages added. If any other wines were made that way, they’d be lucky to fetch five bucks a bottle.

    Instead, Champagne is not only consistently expensive, it’s also continually successful: Sales have been increasing for decades, and the governing body in France just responded to the increased demand by passing a law expanding the vineyard area - by a mere 3 percent, which is major news not only because it’s the first change allowed in 80 years, but because the upgrade will increase the value of the lucky vineyards by more than $750,000 an acre.

    The question of value comes up often with regard to Champagne. With most wine, you get what you pay for most of the time, but in this case, there’s that celebratory image, that luxurious mystique, the sheer glamorous aura of the stuff, that can make it difficult to judge. Is Cristal, copiously swilled by rappers and rock stars, worth $300-500 a bottle? Dom Perignon, named for the alleged inventor of the wine, costs almost as much. Value? I don’t think so, but as Duke Ellington once said, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t afford it.”

    Most Champagne - more than 90 percent - is non-vintage. Luxury blends and vintage versions can be marvelous, as well they should, but the best of the non-vintage Champagnes are really fine wines, quite marvelous too. One thing that makes them so is the amount of older wine, known as “reserve wine,” that is blended in, to give the wine complexity and depth of flavor; this is the advantage the best-known, well-established older brands have. Each aims for a specific “house style” in their skillful blends, so if you find one you like, you’ll probably enjoy it again and again over the years.

    The Best Non-Vintage Champagnes:
    The new releases are coming out right now - Spring 2008 - and these notes are based on extensive tasting of those newest versions. Some blends may be slightly different from earlier in the decade, because of poor harvests in 2001 and 2003, which meant more reserve wine had to be used to bring the wines up to par and some wineries are still re-building their stocks.
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  • Best CA Cabernet Sauvignons
    Right now is a good time to be a lover - or even a friend, for that matter - of Cabernet Sauvignon: California’s 2004 vintage, just released, is a bounty of richness and elegance, and Bordeaux 2005, appearing on the market shortly, has been hailed as the best vintage for several decades.

    Of course, playing the game at the top level means putting nothing but the blue chips on the table; in many cases, sticker-shock is part of the package, and then there’s the necessity for aging the stuff into something exquisite, which means your pleasure is a dream deferred for at least ten years, probably more. On the other hand, it’s undoubtedly a better bet than buying a piece of a hedge fund. I know which way I’d go. . .

    Ever since the now-legendary “Judgment of Paris” competition in 1976, where wines were tasted blind (without labels showing) and California Cabernets trounced several famous and expensive Bordeaux, there’s been no question that the Golden State has the grapes, soil, sunshine, investment, and ambition to take on the chateaux of the world’s benchmark wine (the ambition peters out somewhat after that - Cabernet rules, by a long shot). In replays of the Paris tasting over the years as the wines have aged, including the 30th anniversary shootout last year, the results have stayed fairly consistent: California wines still do very well.

    In fact, their success has opened the door for Cabs from Washington State, Australia, even Italy - good soil, grapes, money and ambition aren’t confined to California, or Bordeaux any more. In the long run, though, California has so much of those elements, and also has the considerable bonus of well-established vineyards, that it sets a standard of its own. As Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited the Napa Valley in 1880, wrote, “The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” He didn’t know he was talking about Cabernet Sauvignon, but it was indeed a good call.
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  • Best Chianti Classicos
    Chianti is Italy’s oldest wine region (it goes back to the 14th Century), and the best-known (formally legislated by the Medicis in 1716, sold all over the world, it nearly became a generic name for Italian red wine). Until very recently, however, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about - no other wine in the world was so muddled and misshaped, by interfering politicians, bureaucrats, and mass-market industrialization; even in modern times, the best wines were rarely more than ordinary, pizza-parlor staples before pizza got sophisticated.

    Aside from the Italian genius for interpreting the rules in creative ways, the biggest problem was that they had the wrong sort of grapes in the wrong places - quantity was valued more than quality. That began to end in 1989, with a project to select and grow the best sort of grapes, and to simplify the rules, and to bring Chianti into the 21st Century with some degree of grace and style. I was at the conference that launched the project, walked through the experimental vineyards, and wished the winemakers luck; many of us still had doubts. Not any more. It worked.

    The proof is in the heart of the region, known as Chianti Classico (there are six other zones ranging around the Classico zone, all entitled to use the “Chianti” name as a prefix, i.e., Chianti Rufina, etc.). Chianti Classico is not only the best territory for grapes, but the wines are made to a higher standard. The main grape, sometimes the only one, is Sangiovese; small amounts of other wines may be blended in. What you get from it is a lovely aroma, almost perfumed, of cherries, violets, raspberries, and a flavor of cherries, sometimes a hint of plums, with a nice smack of refreshing acidity at the end. It’s a lean and, ideally elegant wine, angular rather than bulky or dense.

    The good news doesn’t end there. The last four years have been a string of good vintages, so there’s an abundance to come for quite a while, and because of its previous reputation, prices are still fairly low. In fact, Chianti Classico is one of the best values in the wine world today.

    These are chosen from the 2004 vintage, which was released in the autumn of 2007, but their track records are based on consistent quality over several years’ worth of tasting. There is still some 2001 around by the way, a superb vintage. If you see it, don’t think twice, go for it.
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