My husband does not “get” Champagne. He’s willing to take a sip now and again to try something new, but that’s normally as far as he’ll go. I don’t recall him ever having an entire glass of Champagne. This is true not only of Champagne, but also of all its sparkling cousins – whether California Sparkling Wine, Prosecco, or Cava. So come New Year’s Eve there’s no Champagne cork popping at our house. Although I love it, it seems like a waste to open up an entire bottle of fantastic Champagne without anyone to share it with (actually, on second thought, that sounds pretty awesome…)
So, this post is for you, if you or your significant other is anything like my husband – someone who treats toasting with a glass that sparkles to be more of an obligation than a celebration. If so, you’re probably asking yourself – then what do I open instead? Let’s consider why most people pop open a bottle of Champagne – it’s to celebrate! And New Year’s Eve is no exception. The New Year is the start of something new and deserves to be toasted with something unique and exciting. Something that took a little extra time, love, and patience to create.
Below are three delicious, non-sparkly, and nominally white wine options to help you ring in the New Year.
Sauternes, at the southern end of the Bordeaux region of France, is a late harvest wine made from grapes that have been affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). Now, noble rot may not sound all that yummy, but trust me on this one…it is! The noble rot dehydrates the grape, which basically removes the water but keeps the all the succulent sugar. This results in a grape that produces a sweet, concentrated, and distinctively flavored wine. Production can vary significantly between each harvest and vintage. The unpredictability of each harvest along with the fact that grapes are typically hand-picked, through numerous rounds of picking, contributes to the uniqueness and price of these wines.
Now, many will automatically recommend Château d’Yquem for this one – the crème de la crème of the Sauternes world. A bottle of Château d’Yquem can fetch a hefty $300 price tag or more for an average year primarily due to its reputation for impeccable quality (literally if they don’t like it, they throw it away). If you do decide to shell out the money for Château d’Yquem, then be wise and don’t buy any bottle from 2012. If you find one, it’s most definitely a fraud as due to weather conditions and their attitude of nothing but the best, Château d’Yquem did not make a 2012 Sauternes.
Personally, my favorite Sauternes is not Château d’Yquem. Here are three alternative, non-$300 options.
Château Coutet $50 – $75: Château Coutet holds a special place in my heart (and cellar) as it was the bottle I was drinking when I truly fell in love with Sauternes. It still sits at the top of my list and is the only one I (currently) buy by the case. It’s an amazing, high quality wine for a fraction of the price of Château d’Yquem.@ChateauCoutet is an amazing, high quality wine for a fraction of the price of Château d'Yquem. Click To Tweet
Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey $45 – 55: About 6 months ago, my husband and I hosted a Sauternes tasting at our house where we opened all the great Sauternes we could get our hands on from 1996: Château Climens, Château Coutet, Château d’Yquem, Château Guiraud, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Château Rieussec, and Château Suduiraut. (I know, we live a tough and difficult life.) Of everything we tried that night, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey was both my husband and my favorite. Now of course, this is just our own palates, but it goes to show you that a bottle at this price point can more than hold its own. If you’re curious, Château Coutet came second, and Château d’Yquem came in a close third.
Château Doisy-Daëne $20 – $30: As long as you’re not buying a 50 year old bottle of this puppy, the price point is extremely reasonable. I’ve found Château Doisy-Daëne tends to be just slightly less sweet than most other Sauternes. It resembles, just a bit, a dry white wine, which is either a plus or a minus depending on your palate, while still having the richness and extra sugar of a Sauternes.
Tokaji Aszú is a sweet wine from the Tokaji region of Hungary. (It’s an easier name to pronounce than it looks — just think of two words, “toke eye,” and say it as one word.) It has a rich and noble history, and centuries ago was considered the prize wine of nobility. These wines are relatively unknown today due to both a devastating phylloxera outbreak in the late 1800s (phylloxera is a microscopic insect that unfortunately thinks the roots of grapevines are as tasty as us humans think the wines made from the grapes are) followed by the travesties of World War II and communism in the region. Tokaji was once the favorite wine of several prominent historical figures including Ludwig van Beethoven and Thomas Jefferson (though in all fairness, Thomas Jefferson claimed many notable wines as his ‘favorite’ depending upon when he and to whom he was writing). Like Sauternes, its late harvest grapes are also affected by noble rot. Some Tokajis are so thick and viscus that you actually eat it with a spoon – but don’t expect to come across one of those at your local liquor store.
Personally, I’ve struggled to find a Tokaji Aszú wine in my local liquor store that I’ve actually liked – I can’t say I’ve tried them all, but I’ve tried the few that are readily available. Unless you’re local store has an uncommonly fantastic selection, you’re probably going to need to turn to the internet for this one.
Here are some excellent and reasonably priced options. Keep in mind that aside from the very first option, don’t plan on your liquor store carrying them.
Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos $30 – $40 – While one might initially be skeptical of a winery owned by a large insurance company, the insurance company AXA owns a number of great wineries in Europe, such as Château Pichon Baron, a favorite of ours, from the left bank of Bordeaux. Although it produced wine since the 1730s, it wasn’t until after the fall of communism that Domaine Disznoko, like most Tokaji wines, began their resurgence. While sweet like a Sauternes, many prefer the acidity that balances the sweetness in a Tokaji, though many Tokajis can go too far on the acidity. I find, at least for my palette, that Domaine Disznoko has a nice balance of acidity while still being smooth. Full disclosure, AXA is in fact my insurance company, and much to my disappointment (and not so subtle prodding) they’ve never given me a free bottle of wine.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos $20 – $30 – This wine carries with it a bit of history. The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, though coming from vineyards that trace back to the 1570s, was reborn in 1989 after the collapse of communism. Its founders started the winery in an effort revive these great wines of the region and to preserve what they considered to be a dying art. I think they’ve more than succeeded, and I’d love to hear if you agree.
Ice Wine is extremely challenging to make and can only be done in a few select wine regions – making it relatively rare and expensive. Perhaps the most famous region for Ice Wine is from Ontario, Canada. Now, if you’re anything like me, your first thought when you think of Canada is probably polar bears, hockey, or seeing road signs in French as well as English – not quality wine. But, Ice Wine (just the single word Icewine in Canada), is pretty tasty. It is wine made from grapes that have been left to freeze naturally on the vine, which concentrates the sugars resulting in a very sweet wine. Ice Wine production can require a bit of hoping, wishing, and finger crossing. Since the grapes aren’t picked until they freeze, they’re typically left on the vine much longer than other wine grape varieties – in extreme cases, until after New Year’s. This leaves the grapes open to rotting, birds, mold, etc., so getting a good harvest can be tricky. (Unlike Sauternes and Tokaji Aszú, Ice Wine grapes are typically not affected by noble rot.) Additionally, you need a big team of people available to pick the whole crop, at a moment’s notice, as soon as the grapes freeze, usually in the middle of the night, so they can press out the sugar syrup left in the grapes without melting the ice in the grape. Unsurprisingly, the yield (that is, how much wine you get per vine) is extremely low. For most other wines you get a bottle per vine – for Ice Wine you yield a glass per vine. The alcohol level of Ice Wine tends to be lower than that of most table wines – so it can be a nice final glass if you’re already to the point of needing a little help counting from 10 to 1 come midnight.
I personally haven’t tried as many Ice Wines as I would of liked to (remember this blog is about my wine discovery, which means I still have many bottles I need to try). Below is one of the several Ice Wines that I have tried and can recommend.
Inniskillin Vidal – $40 h/bottle – This wine is well balanced with few tannins. It’s slightly sweet, even compared with a Sauternes or Tokaji Aszú, with a touch of viscosity. With the sweetness and viscosity you’d think the alcohol content is higher than it is (though it is typically around 9%). If you’re curious, the “Vidal” in the name is the type of grape, which is certainly not a household name like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.
So whether it’s with a bottle of Sauturnes, Tokaji Aszú, or Ice Wine – pour a glass, make a toast, let your palate have a bit of an adventure, and ring in the New Year!
What’s your favorite non-sparkling celebratory wine?
Happy New Year! Tag me with what you’re drinking this New Year’s Eve! @10KBottles