Probably it’s the bubbles, but I always find it difficult to conduct a champagne tasting and then even more difficult to write about it. No matter how hard I try to be objective and disciplined while I’m tasting, I seem to lose it after just the third or forth sip. I simply can’t spit it out and go on to sample the next wine. A certain pleasure takes overand that’s it. Like the renaissance world view of a great chain of being that connected all levels of creation to God, champagne links so many pleasant memories to the present moment that it creates a kind of quintessential happiness. I’m telling you this to put this month’s reviews in context. But let me put my metaphysical musings to rest, return to more practical matters, and offer some advice on this wonderful beverage.
When it comes to champagne, more money doesn’t necessarily ensure higher quality. Indeed, there are still some great vintage tetes de cuvee champagnes that are worth the price; for example, Louis Roederer’s Cristal (my favorite), Salon, Pol Roger Cuvee Winston Churchill, and Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes. But there are also many vintage champagnes that, in my opinion, are simply over priced. Dom Perignon, except for a really great year like ’85, comes to mind. Nevertheless, around the holidays I always see people asking for it in wine storeswithout any mention of the vintageand I think What’s in a name? All these wines, however, fetch close to $100 or more a bottle and thus go way beyond the price limit for this page.
Take this, sometimes less than humble, reviewer’s opinion and go NV (non vintage) and get more bang for the buck. After all, when blending a non-vintage champagne, the well known houses have a whole palate of vintages from which they can select to achieve a blend that reflects their particular style, whether it be full bodied (e.g., Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger are among my favorites), medium bodied (Pol Roger, Moet & Chandon), or light bodied (Tattinger).
One last word of advicewhen someone give you a bottle of champagne, drink it. Don’t store it away. Enjoy the moment. Somehow one bottle of champagne leads to another and that’s how those pleasant memories keep getting linked together.
Our tastings for this feature included some California sparkling whites as well as French champagnes. I enjoy both, but never try to judge the one by the other. Even though many of the fine California producers employ the methode champenoise, these wines are not champagne. Nevertheless, they provide affordableand truly enjoyablealternatives.
We tasted these wines with a variety of appetizers (or hoover doovers as we called them in our graduate student days) that included smoked salmon on whole grain rye, baked brie with walnuts, mushroom puffs, a couple of pates, a vegetable terrine, and bowls of roasted nuts. I think even a good light bodied champagne or sparkling white should be able to stand up to some food.
Our tasting began with a Domaine Chandon Brut Cuvee ($11.99). Light gold in color with medium bubbles, this wine is light bodied with good acid, and pleasantly fruity. Unfortunately, it did not stand up very well to the food. However, if you’re looking for a good toasting wine, it fills the bill. The more expensive Chandon Reserve Cuvee 490 ($19.99) was more enjoyable. Straw colored with some amber, the wine has a nice mousse and small bubbles. It has a more distinctive nose and a flavor that envelops the tongue. Is it worth the extra price? Yes if you need a wine that will go with savory appetizers or even a first course. No, if all you need the wine for is a New Year’s toast.
Our next two wines were from Scharffenberger. The Scharffenberger Brut ($12.99) is light gold in color with a yeasty complex nose. Its flavor while pleasant, vanishes too quickly. The only appetizer with which it went well was a vegetable terrine. Far more enjoyable is the Schaffenberger Blanc de Blancs ($19.99). Very light gold in color with small bubbles, the wine made completely from chardonnay grapes, has a doughy nose and a pleasant feel in the mouth. Light bodied with good acid and effervescence, the wine can be enjoyed with mild flavored foods.
Tattinger’s 1991 Domaine Carneros Brut ($13.99) has a mystique to it. Very pale gold in color, the wine has a distinctively yeasty bouquet. A beautiful mousse and small bubbles indicate quality winemaking. This wine is surprisingly unimpressive at first, but the flavor slowly develops on the tongue to reveal nutty undertones. This is a very dry wine but not at all bitter. One taster commented: “I hate to dump this one.”
We then moved on to three champagnes. First was the Perrier-Jouet Brut ($20.99). This has always been a old standby and good value. Lately, however, price increases are making it less so. Light gold in color with small bubbles, this light bodied wine has a text-book champagne taste that lingers on the palate.
The Pol Roger Brut ($22.99) was very good. It is a medium bodied champagne, gold in color, full of flavor and pleasantly dry. I found it the perfect accompaniment for the smoked salmon.
We concluded the tasting with my favorite non-vintage champagne. Veuve Clicquot Brut ($24.99). This enchanting champagne
has what one taster called “the bouquet of the great outdoors.” A crisp distinctive nose. A great mousse followed by a plethora of tiny bubbles distinguish this wine, which just keeps delivering flavor. If you ever have a dinner at which you only want to serve champagne, make this your choice. Its flavor stands up to almost any food and just tantalizes the palate.
While champagne and sparkling wines should be served chilled, avoid serving them ice cold. If they are too cold, their flavors will be lost.
Buy your champagne from a merchant who has a good turnover. Also try to buy champagnes and sparklers that have not been exposed to too much light. If they’re in a box all the better.
Please let us know what you think about these wines on our feedback page. In our next issue, we’ll publish some of your comments.