Saturday, February 20, 2010

Champagne Tasting - December 2009

(This review was originally posted on The Thursday Night Movie Club Message Board Dec 19, 2009)

Last weekend, I was treated to a New Year's Eve preview by my favoritest liquor store, Union Square Wines & Spirits, which hosted a tasting of sparkling wines -- mostly champagne. On Saturday afternoon, they served up 14 different bottles of bubbly split up among three different tables -- the first with 8 bottles and the others 3 bottles each. Rather than begin at the beginning, I chose to start at the 3rd table because this was the least crowded and the only one that did not serve sparkling wines from France -- clearly, some folks were snobbing it up by skipping this one. A big mistake, in my opinion. Although I didn't get to try every single bottle that was present, I did make an admirable attempt -- 9 our of 14 ain't too friggin' bad. There were a couple of bottles of "pink champagne" (rosé sparkly), but I only had time for one. There were some very reasonably priced choices and a couple that I thought were disgustingly overpriced -- but as always, let your own tastes be your guide as I can only share with you what I personally liked.

Schramsberg 2006 Brut Sparkling Wine Blanc de Noirs - $30
From California's Napa Valley, I was told this has been the official White House sparkling wine since the Johnson administration -- allegedly, Nixon used this back in the 70's when he & Mao toasted (did that really happen? I honestly don't recall ... ). It has a very fruity aroma and a nice, dry taste you come to expect with a Brut. A reasonably priced sparkling wine, you might be tempted to consider mixing cocktails with it such as a kir royale or bellinis and such, but I'd recommend against that as its taste is so good, you'd only be depriving yourself if you masked its flavor in any way.

R Wines NV Bitch Bubbly - $10 ($5 for half size bottle)
This was the only pink sparkly that I tried; while a bit on the sweet side, it's not so bad that you'll make a face. Interestingly, this one comes out of Australia and uses Grenache grapes; it becomes a rosé from the fact that the grapes are separated from their skins after about five days. Although you might be a bit put off by the fact that this has a cap (like the one you would see on a beer bottle) rather than a cork, the distributor told me that this is not uncommon with even some French sparkling wines; it is usually done with sparkling wines that are intended to be consumed sooner rather than later, like a Prosecco. Before even tasting this stuff, I recently purchased a bottle to bring as something of a gag gift to the hostess of a holiday party -- but with a name like this, you have to be careful you know the intended recipient reasonably well ... otherwise, she may take offense.

Paringa 2008 Sparkling Shiraz - $12
Another Australian sparkling wine, this one is even more unusual in the respect that it's red! According to the distributor, it's very popular in southern Australia and is frequently used instead of traditional champagne. Although you may be inclined to serve this at room temperature as many people do with a red wine, he advises that it always be served chilled, as you would with any sparkling wine. It's easy to be thrown by this one as it both smells and tastes like just about any red wine you've ever had ... except it has bubbles! Also, if you like your sparkling wines to have a light taste, you might not care for this one as it has a heavier, fuller body as you would find in most red wines. I purchased this exactly once about a year and a half ago to try it out -- while fun to try for a different twist, I don't know that I'd ever go back to it again, quite frankly.
Moving backwards to the middle table, I sampled the most expensive champagne available at this tasting -- a vintage Veuve Clicquot, which was also presented with a Moet & Chandon and newer VC.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin NV Champagne Brut - $40
Made from 80% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier grapes, this was hands - down my favorite of the bunch that I tried. With a fresh aroma and extremely light taste, it floats down your tongue as you swallow; to me, this is the way a champagne is supposed to taste. If you can manage to spring for this one, then I would strongly recommend you go for it -- you definitely will not be disappointed. Veuve Clicquot is considered one of the best out there and with product like this, you could certainly understand why. Drinking this, you really do feel like you're celebrating something.

Moet & Chandon NV Champagne Brut Imperial - $42
This one was a little disappointing in the sense that it lacked the effervescence one might expect in a champagne -- especially one of this type. In fact, I would describe this in look and taste as almost like a still wine. The distributor told us that a previous release of this Imperial brand was unsuccessful because it was too sweet; they adjusted their process so there is now a lower sugar content, thus hoping this version will take off. One thing I learned from the distributor is that although champagnes are supposed to improve with age, it is not always necessarily the case that older is better. For example, she suggested that if you had a Moet & Chandon at home, don't store it for more than five years before drinking; by contrast, she said that a Dom Perignon could last as long as 20 years and still be good to drink. However, both assume that you store them properly, always keeping the bottles sideways.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin 2002 Champagne Brut Vintage - $75
This has been classified as a vintage by the "experts" because 2002 was supposed to have been a very good year for the grapes in Reims, France. In order to qualify this as a 2002 vintage release, they have produced this version with 80% of the grapes being from the 2002 crop. It contains the same grape combination as the other Veuve Clicquot from above, but I'm not exactly sure if the grape concentrations are the same. It has an extremely light taste but is very low in bubbles. This was the most expensive bottle at the tasting (next most expensive was Pehu-Simonet NV Champagne Brut Rose Grand Cru at $70, but I didn't get a chance to try that one); that said, I have to admit that the Veuve Clicquot that I had tasted first seemed far superior to this one and is nearly half the price.
Finally, I swung around to the first table, which remained absolutely packed -- with a total of 8 bottles on the table, I lacked both the time and the patience to brave the crowd for each one, so I only sampled the first three before skulking off into the rapidly disappearing late afternoon sun.

Marc Hebrart NV Champagne Brut Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs - $50
Unusual in that is the only one I tasted that was made entirely from Chardonnay grapes only. When originally poured, it was extremely bubbly, but eventually seemed to flatten out quite a bit once it settled in the glass. While it didn't taste bad, I found it a little too ordinary compared to the others I tried on that day to be able to give it any kind of a recommendation -- perhaps because it was made of only a single grape, it lacked the complexity and flavor of some of the others. If the thought of a champagne that is made from only a single type of grape appeals to you, then maybe this one might be worth a try.

Egly Ouriet NV Champagne Brut Grand Cru Tradition - $60
This next one was a two - grape combo -- half Chardonnay, half Pinot Noir. Once poured, its bubbles clung to the top, none ever floating up from the bottom. From a taste perspective, I found this to be the worst of the group I had -- it seemed to have an extremely bitter taste to it for some reason. Was it the bottle or my palate? At this point, I wasn't sure -- but I did know that I couldn't recall a wine of any kind tasting quite that bad ... and given the price, it was pretty damned appalling, too.
Henri Goutorbe NV Champagne Brut Premier Cru Cuvee Presige - $45

The last one I tasted was made of 75% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier and only 5% Chardonnay. Since the table was very crowded as I stated earlier and there was only one representative from the distributor, it was a little difficult to get very much information about each of the bottles, especially this one. It would've been really helpful if they had brought along some marketing materials as many of the other distributors and manufacturers do at these tastings, but such was not the case on this day, unfortunately. After the first two from this table, it was refreshing to sip something that was a little more complex, due to the addition of the third grape in the mix. While not entirely out of line with most of the French product that was represented at this tasting, however, I don't know that it's necessarily worth the price being asked.

I'm neither an expert nor a connoisseur when it comes to wine -- either sparkling or still, for that matter -- so please feel free to challenge any of the opinions I had for the bubblies above should you decide to give 'em a shot. In the end, I can only tell you what my meager, unsophisticated taste buds appreciated and which ones were forgettable. Just in case you are curious and would like to try the others that I didn't have the opportunity to sample, here's the list of what remained that day:
  • Vilmart & Cie NV Champagne Brut Premier Cru Grande Reserve - $50
  • Pehu - Simonet NV Champagne Brut Grand Cru Selection $50
  • Pierre Gimonnet & Files 2002 Champagne Brut Premier Cru Paradox - $65
  • Henri Goutorbe NV Champagne Brut Rosé Grand Cru - $60
  • Pehu - Simonet NV Champagne Brut Rosé Grand Cru - $70