John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – February 3rd, 2018

Club Med Bargains and Ocular Safety while Drinking
By John Szabo, MS, with notes by David Lawrason, Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

A Danish man was recently left in a coma after an attempt to open a bottle of sparkling wine went horribly wrong. That story, and other CO2-related calamities, were the inspiration to create the video clip featured in this report. In the one-minute segment, I’ll show you the safe way to open bubbly, limiting injury risk to yourself and those around you. Then assuming we make it through the sparkling aperitif course, the WineAlign crü has a strong group of well-priced Mediterranean wines to recommend for the rest of the meal, theme of the VINTAGES February 3rd release. Vineyards from around the Mediterranean Basin are surely among the world’s most fertile hunting grounds for value. Let me explain.

Sparkling Safety: Don’t Be That Person!

At the Court of Master Sommeliers examinations, we see hundreds of candidates open bottles of sparkling wine. You’d think that the level of competence and safety would be high, but the truth is otherwise. Plenty of examiners have been threatened by loaded bottles pointed at them like loose, hand-held canons (what we call a “kill-fail”); clumsy fumbling has sent countless corks screaming into the air and frothy foam on the floor. And sometimes worse. So don’t be embarrassed if you’re uncomfortable opening a bottle of bubbly. But if you plan on doing it, you really need how to do it safely.

Injuries caused by bottles of bubbly are thankfully rare, but often serious. Read, for example, this Drinks Business story about a Danish man who was left in a coma on New Year’s Eve after a bottle exploded between his legs while he was attempting to open it. I, too, have had my hand sliced by shattering glass during an attempt to saber a bottle of champagne (at an event in front of 300 people, no less). Dripping blood and fainting guests was not the performance I was going for. Note to all you sabrage enthusiasts out there: do it enough times and it will happen to you. Just sayin’.

More common than breaking glass (caused by a defect in the bottle, another reason to avoid cheap sparkling), are injuries caused by projectile corks.

Consider that most traditional method sparkling wines contain around 5-6 atmospheres of pressure, or up to 90 pounds per square inch. That’s almost 3 times the average pressure in your car tires. Uncontrolled, ejected corks can go from zero to over to 80 kilometers per hour in a split second. (Newtonian physicists out there may find amusement in calculating the force thus exerted, Force = Mass x Acceleration, knowing that an average champagne cork weights about 9 grams).

In any case, that’s easily enough to explode an overhead light bulb, or, say, shred through a priceless 18th century oil painting.

But since most people are looking down at the bottle as they open it, ejected corks find more than their fair share of faces. Indeed, many thousands of bubbly-opening-related accidents are reported each year around the world, with a notable increase around holiday seasons. But statistically, weddings are the most dangerous places to be. Fair warning. Most incidents never make it into the media, unless of course it happens to involve a celebrity, like tennis player Novak Djokovic, who hit himself in the face with a cork after winning the Italian Open in 2015.

Far less comical are the serious eye injuries that occur regularly, including permanent blindness. Referred to as “cork eye trauma”, the “blunt instrument can damage the ocular structures of the anterior and posterior segments both directly in the impact area and also through a process of counterblow”, causing “contusive ocular closed-globe trauma.” Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

And just to complete the fear mongering, consider for a moment the estimated two dozen people who are actually killed each year by champagne projectiles, like the unfortunate Chinese businessman Dingxiang Loeng, who suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage after being stuck in the temple by the cork from the bottle he was opening to celebrate his 50th birthday. Words can’t begin to describe how much that sucks.

Concerned yet? Like sabrage, I guarantee that if you carelessly open enough bottles of sparkling in your life, sooner or later the cork will fly. Don’t be that person who catches it in the face, or hits somebody else.

Safety Tips

Watch the video below from a series called 99 Things About Wine I’m compiling for FlavourTV, for a visual how-to. (If you find this useful, I’d be happy to know what other topics you’d like to see covered). And follow these basic tips:

  • Chill well. Pressure is reduced at lower temperatures.
  • Don’t shake the bottle. Duh, that increases pressure.
  • Keep the bottle tilted at a 45-degree angle while opening. This increases the surface area of wine in contact air, and thus CO2 release occurs less forcefully over a larger area rather than restricting the same pressure across a smaller surface area.
  • Once the cage is unscrewed, NEVER take your hand off the cork, until it’s out. Part two to that is: don’t remove the cage. How can you do that without taking your hand off the cork, even if only for a second or two?? Refer again to the above point.
  • Place a folded towel over the cage to provide an additional shield and to catch any foam that might follow the cork.

A Sparkling to Test Drive Your Opening Skills

Now that you’re fully up to speed on the steps to safely opening a bottle of sparkling, here’s a fine wine to test drive your skills from the February 3rd release: Patrick Chan 2011 Sparkling Blanc De Blancs, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara ($29.95) – Of all the celebrity wines to have come out of Ontario over the years, this is surely one of the best. Made by Flat Rock Cellars (and presumably selected by Chan), it’s a lovely, complex, mature and toasty traditional method sparkling chardonnay. The mousse is fine and well integrated, and the texture is seamless, at once both lively and creamy, balanced and rich. Yeasty-toasty autolysis flavours are a major part of the profile and length is excellent. Classy and elegant stuff.

Patrick Chan Sparkling Blanc De Blancs 2011

Club Med Bargains

Vineyards around the Mediterranean are a smart place to search for value. The main reason is simple: the weather is nice. Given the benign climate, it’s far easier to produce large quantities of inexpensive wine than it is in wetter and colder regions. Thus places like Puglia, Sicily, the Languedoc-Roussillon, Algeria, and Southern Spain have historically taken on the (highly profitable) role of bulk producers, supplying northern regions with decent, cheap wine, either for direct sale in bottle, or earlier, by the tanker load to beef up the anaemic wines of the north. The die-hard image of mass production still dogs these areas, suppressing prices. Wine pricing is, after all, driven largely by image.

Also on a historic note, wine has always been, and has largely remained a daily staple in the Mediterranean, not a commercial commodity for profit. While the aristocrats of Northern Europe were busy trading their Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Barolo for evermore money and prestige, the southerners were simply drinking their stuff. There was little pretension to grandiose reputations or king’s ransoms, a reality that lingers to this day.

Another reason, not unique to the Mediterranean but prevalent there nonetheless, is that many estates have been in families for generations. That means vineyards and installations are often owned outright. No property mortgages, no equipment amortization. Prices are much more reflective of the actual cost of production, (low in the Mediterranean in any case for reasons mentioned above), rather than also being tied to paying off expensive investments over a reasonable time frame. Cost of living is also often lower in southern Europe than northern Europe, so the pressure to increase prices is not as acute (see this quick COL comparison between Milan and Palermo, for example).

Also related to this is the number of the wealthy northerners who have headed south to expand their ranges, usually in lower price tiers, in order to grow their market reach. Vineyard land is scarcer and often far more expensive in the north, making the south look not only attractive, but also the only viable option for expansion. The influx of money, know-how and the plan to make less expensive wine adds up to Mediterranean value. One need only look at the number of Burgundians or Northern Rhône producers operating in the Languedoc and Roussillon, or the Tuscans, Venetians and Piedmontese in Sicily and Puglia.

Now graft onto this framework the wide-scale improvement in grapegrowing and winemaking across the Mediterranean, a range of grape varieties perfectly adapted to local conditions over centuries (millennia), and unique styles that have been honed over time, and you have the recipe for great discoveries at accessible prices.

Try the wines below for a little sampling of bargains from the Mediterranean.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES February 3rd:

Mediterranean Whites

Argyros 2016 Assyrtiko, PDO Santorini, Greece ($27.95)
John Szabo – 3000 years of experience and adaptation have made assyrtiko from Santorini one of the best wines and most original wines in the Mediterranean, while the Greek economy keeps prices unsustainably low (for now). This textbook example from Argyros offers the usual vague white grapefruit flavours, but mostly scorched earth and hot dry stone flavours, while the palate is thick and stuffed with dry extract, with great tension and palpable salinity. It’s delicious now, but surely better in 2-4 years.…

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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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Anko Flor De Cardón Malbec 2014