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kosher champagne

Despite its crisp refreshingness and near-perfect pairing with a vast quantity of foods, Champagne has unfortunately been pigeonholed as a celebratory beverage, providing a foaming festivity gushing at many a celebratory occasion.  Centuries of celebrity quotes trumpeting Champagne as a wine to be consumed early and often including Winston Churchill’s “Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government”, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right” and Napoleon Bonaparte’s “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself” (plagiarized and basterdized by Winston Churchill into “In victory we deserve it, in defeat we need it”) have not succeeded in convincing the wine-guzzling masses to incorporate it into their regular repertoire.  

While the British actually “invented” sparkling wine in the 17th century, they failed to make it their own, partly as a result of their inability to grow quality grapes during their inferior dark and dreary English summers.  It wasn’t until 30 odd-years later that Champagne was born, after a French monk named Dom Pérignon fiddled with the process and helped create the luxurious wine by refining a number of the process.

Despite prevalent usage around the globe as a descriptor for any wine with bubbles, legally Champagne may only refer sparkling wine grown in the chalky soil of France’s cool-climate Champagne Appellation D’origine Contrôlée (AOC), which yields grapes with considerable acidity contributing to Champagne’s food compatibility.  In order to be labeled as Champagne, the wine must also be produced in accordance with a stringent set of rules comprising the traditionalméthode champenoise (the traditional method of making Champagne described below).  Located approximately 90 miles east of Paris, the region covers approximately 84,000 acres of prime wine-growing soil spread among 319 villages (Crus).  Approximately 90% of this land is owned and farmed by nearly 15,000 independent growers with the remainder owned by the approximately 110 Champagne “Houses” and collectively yielding over 300 million bottles of Champagne a year.  

In addition to Champagne, many other quality sparkling wines from around the world are produced in the méthode champenoise.  However, in addition to trademarking the name “Champagne” and after substantial lobbying, in 1994 Champagne growers obtained protection for the production method as well and non-Champagne wines made in this traditional method may now only be labeled as haven been made in the méthode traditionale.  This method incorporates a complex, intricate, expensive and multi-step process.  Utilizing Champagne’s three primary grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the wine first undergoes a fermentation process similar to that of other quality still wines (typically in stainless steel tanks).  Once this fermentation process has been completed, the still wine is bottled together with yeast and sugar (a syrup referred to as liqueur de triage) and then sealed, triggering a second fermentation in the bottle that yields the effervescence for which the wine is known.  Once the secondary fermentation is completed and the wine has sufficiently “aged on its lees” (referred to as sur lie ), the bottle placed in a special rack, tilted downwards at a 45% angle and slowly rotated over time until the dead yeast cells (the “lees”) settle in the neck of the bottle (a process referred to as “riddling”).  While some of the more prestigious Champagne wines are laboriously riddled by hand (over a period of 6-8 weeks, every few days each bottle requires a light tap and a slight turn), the majority of Champagne (and other sparkling wines made in the méthode traditionale) are riddled utilizing an automated process.  Following the riddling process the wine is flash frozen, the lees removed (in a process known as disgorging) and the bottle is then topped up with a syrup known as liqueur d’expédition (to compensate for the total lack of residual sugar as a result of the secondary fermentation) in a process known as dosage (some Champagne houses claim a proprietary syrup with ingredients other than water and sugar), corked, sealed with a wire netting to prevent the corks escape and covered in the festive colored foil.  The amount of sugar in the added syrup will determine the level of the Champagne’s sweetness which is categorized based on dryness as follows: the sweetest level is doux, proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec(extra dry), brut (almost completely dry and the most common) and a small percentage of Champagne which is sold without any added sugar and categorized as extra brutbrut nature or brut zero.

Most Champagne is made from a blend of grapes produced in many different vintages (typically between 30-60 wines comprise every non-vintage Champagne!).  While the majority of wine in any given non-vintage Champagne is derived from grapes of the current vintage year, a certain portion from past years utilized to ensure the aforementioned consistency (even a small amount of aged/vintage Champagne added to the non-vintage blend can add substantial depth, richness and complexity).  This blending enables the winemaker to compensate for mediocre vintages and inconsistent climate.  The most important marketing aspect for the Champagne houses (also the winemaker’s biggest challenge) is to ensure a consistent “House Blend” year after year and blending is likely the most important aspect of Champagne – the soul of Champagne.  When preparing the blend, the winemaker needs to consider not what the wine tastes like right now but rather what the resulting wine will taste like after second fermentation and many years of aging on the lees.  In exceptional vintage years a vintage is declared and the best wine from that year will be marketed as vintage Champagne requiring a minimum of three years bottle aging on its lees under the AOC rules (non-vintage Champagne requires a minimum of 1.5 years) and guaranteeing a substantially higher price.  That said, most premium Champagne is aged around 6-8 years at least.

Besides vintage v. non-vintage Champagne, there are an additional number of different styles of Champagne including cuvee de prestige (typically the flagship Champagne of a Champagne house and usually the most well-known of its wines),Blanc de Noirs (which refers to a white Champagne made solely from “black” grapes, usually Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), Blanc de Blanc (which refers to a white wine made from only white grapes, usually 100% Chardonnay the best of which are sourced from the chalky slopes of the Côte des Blancs) and finally Rose Champagne.  The years in which Rosé Champagne was largely disregarded as irrelevant from a serious wine perspective are long gone as nearly every major Champagne house worth its salt is producing at least one Rosé version.  Produced by a different method than still Rosé, most Rosé Champagne is made by adding around 15% of still red wine to the otherwise white wine.  Marketed as even more romantic and sexier than “regular” Champagne and coupled with a [controlled] scarcity, the prices of Rosé Champagne usually exceed those of their white brethren.  Unfortunately, only than the delightful added color your money yields very little extra in the form of added nuance or complexity with the white versions usually being better than their more expensive Rosé versions.

robust, rich tishbi reds: perfect with cheese and crusty breads

When I was asked to try a few of Tishbi Winery’s most elite selections before Shavuot, it was with a considerable thrill that I asked the winery’s importer, The River Wine’s Ami Nahari, to help me reach the winemaker, Golan Tishbi, and get his advice on how best to decant and serve the wine for my tasting team. With his father, Jonathan, 77 years young and still active in the day-to-day running of the winery, this father-and-son team is a true legend of Israeli winemaking.

In 1882, Golan Tishbi’s ancestors, the Chamiletzkis, started working the land in Zichron Yaakov, which was first claimed by Baron Edmund de Rothschild. They planted and developed vineyards in the area for Rothschild, and the family settled nearby. In 1925, as the story goes, the family hosted the famous poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. In honor of their warm hospitality, the poet proposed a new, Hebrew family name for them: “Tishbi” is an acronym standing for “a resident of Shefeya in Israel.”

At the beginning of the 1980s, the wine industry underwent a severe crisis and the price of grapes dropped drastically. As a result, Jonathan Tishbi decided to open a small winery of his own in 1984 in the same Judean Hills. Golan Tishbi, now part of the fifth generation of family members working these fields, has been winemaker since 1991. He studied wine science and viticulture at Hawkes Bay University in New Zealand, which has extensive coursework for continuing generation winemakers. “These are people who are coming from the industry who need a certain type of information to become their winery’s winemaker. New Zealand has a lot of these people, family members who care for their family vineyards,” he said.

Turning to his wines, Tishbi told me that his favorite wine was the Tishbi Single Vineyard Ruby Cabernet. Ruby cab is a graft made at University of California at Davis’s viticulture lab, of the carignan and the cabernet sauvignon grape. “I drink this in my house; The color is very deep and thick,” he said. Tishbi has been bottling it as part of their ‘Single Vineyard’ series since 2010, and it was the 2013 wine, aged for 12 months in new American oak from Lebanon, Missouri, that my team was given to try.

As with all his reds, Tishbi recommended I decant his ruby cab, and let it breathe for at least 10 to 15 minutes before serving; this would allow for the wine to begin aerating. Tasting a four-year-old bottle of wine should be an enjoyable, unrushed process, and we tasted it along with The Cheese Guy’s bastardo del grappa cheese, ‘Yummy’ brand asiago and some Shelburne Farms aged kosher cheddar made by a member of our tasting team, our own “cheese guy,” Mark Bodzin of Muncle Ark’s Gourmet. Mark brought several different aged cheddars to our tasting, as well as another from Ludwig Creamery’s called Jacob’s Dream, which he has also distributed through his online shop. Tishbi also recommended we taste the wines with crusty bread, like sourdough or spelt, dipped in good quality olive oil.

In addition to the Ruby Cabernet 2013 Single Vineyard, we were asked to try the Tishbi Estate Gewürtztraminer 2016, the Tishbi Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, and the Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve 2010.

Joining our tasting for the first time were a few members who, for the first time, brought their spouses, so our now clearly legendary tasting team was quite a bit larger than its usual size. Tasting the Tishbi wines were Eliana, Deena, Chana, Ari, Allyson, Shoval, Michal, Yeruchum, Brooke, Jen, Michelle and Mark.

Starting with the only white wine in our tasting, the Tishbi Estate Gewürtztraminer 2016, everyone immediately noticed its sweet, apple-scented nose, and we all expected it to be of syrupy viscosity and ultra-sweet. But the nose belied little about the taste. “It comes off like a chardonnay, it tastes like a cold fall day, not at all as sweet as you would expect,” said Shoval. “It’s nothing like the Late Harvest Gewürtztraminers from Baron Herzog,” commented Yeruchum.

The Tishbi Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 was our first red, and arguably prompted the most varied reaction around the table. It was aged 12 months in American oak and made of 85 percent cabernet and 15 percent merlot. “It’s complex, but lacks viscosity,” said Mark. “The raisin color put me off; it’s garnet, when it should be ruby,” said Chana. Chana, who, with spouse Ari, opened another bottle of the same wine the next day, continued to comment on the color, which we debated long and hard. “It still has a slightly acerbic nose; the body is still lacking in viscosity; and the taste is still reminiscent of raisin,” she reported. The plum notes and forest berries feel were surprising for a cabernet, and the thinner viscosity was surprising for a 12-month oak aged wine. We recommend you grab the last few bottles of this vintage now and drink it for Shavuot. The 2011 vintage is set to be released on Rosh Hashanah.

We also noted that this was the most inexpensive of the reds we were tasting, and that for $25, a kosher wine still tasting good from 2010 is an absolute steal. “This is a good wine for this price point,” said Yeruchum.

Turning to the Ruby Cabernet 2013 Single Vineyard, I reported to the group that Golan Tishbi had been bottling ruby cabernet as a single vineyard estate selection since 2010. The original goal of the ruby cab graft was to obtain the superior quality of a cabernet wine, and the resistance to heat of the carignan, to combine into an inexpensive table wine. Tishbi had been using ruby cab in its wine well before 2010, in its blends.

“I like this one,” said Deena. “The color is deep; it’s a true ruby,” said Ari. “I can taste the terroir here; the tannins are not very strong. This is earthly, and this is what Israeli wines should taste like,” said Yeruchum.

“This wine is true to its name,” said Shoval. I agreed. “Just the name, Ruby Cabernet, makes me want to buy it, relax and enjoy it,” I said.

“It’s smooth going down. It has that good cabernet warmth, but not that much of an alcohol taste… It got smoother as I tasted it again. This is my favorite,” said Michelle.

Moving on to the biggest, most robust wine of the evening, I reported what the winemaker had told me about the Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve 2010. “It’s our most complex vineyard selection, and 2010 was the most worthwhile putting it in the bottle. I have not done since yet, to put my father’s name on it,” Golan Tishbi told me.

The Jonathan Tishbi is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and aged 24 months in American oak. “Its density and aroma, the axis of volatile acidity, when properly aerated, that’s what you will notice,” said Tishbi.

“This wine has a thicker viscosity, with a more aggressive, sweeter nose,” said Chana. “The first taste is a little sweet, but it transitions and finishes off drier. It has the mouthfeel of merlot at the end,” said Mark. “I have not tasted a wine this complex, this smooth, this well-constructed, in a long time,” I told the group.

“I think the underlying taste is chocolate,” said Eliana, as she described the wine’s richness. “At first I liked the Ruby better, but this is growing on me. But, if I had to choose, I would pick the Ruby, because with the Jonathan, there are so many flavors going on, it’s hard to keep up,” said Deena.

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