A Sparkling Evening – Champagne tasting!

Last night I offered to a small group of old and new college friends a tasting and a comparison of sparkling wines.  About forty years ago, several of the top large Champagne houses in France (which is the only place that makes what may be legally called “Champagne”) decided to establish winemaking outposts in California, three in the Napa Valley, one in Sonoma, and one in the Anderson Valley.  Today, they continue to make fine sparkling wines at those sites, using the traditional Champagne method of inducing a secondary fermentation in the bottle … enclosing, thus, all those fine bubbles we enjoy so much.

preserving champagne

Put balloons on the bottles to keep the bubbles fresh! Blurry photo?…maybe I should serve smaller tastings to the photographer!

What I decided to do was to pair the basic house brut of a French Champagne maker against the basic house brut from that same maker’s California winery … for example, Louis Roederer Brut Champagne versus Roederer Estate sparkling brut wine from the Anderson Valley.  Each bottle was bagged so that no prior prejudices in favor of California or France could be indulged.  Though almost every participant preferred the real Champagnes to their California counterparts, the latter were still deemed entirely enjoyable.  That’s important to know because the French sparklers cost, on average, twice that of their American competitors … no small consideration, especially if one is serving sparklers to a large number of guests.  By the way, if you have sparkling wine left in the bottle, how do you best reseal that bottle?  The pressure remaining in the bottle will simply eject any cork, so try this:  put a rubber balloon over the bottle top; that way the seal is functionally air-tight, and that remaining pressure will do nothing other than to inflate a bit of balloon.  Looks weird, but it works.

I might add that when, for many years past, I conducted the same kind of tasting for senior undergraduates at the Claremont Colleges, they almost always liked the French version when drunk by itself, but the California when consumed with food.  Interesting.  So what does one eat with these bruts?  Stay tuned.

The Tasting List:

Bortolotti Prosecco Brut  DOCG  (Valdobbiadene)

G.H. Mumm (Reims)

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (Napa Valley)

Moët & Chandon Impérial (Epernay)

Chandon Brut Classique (California)

Louis Roederer Brut Premiere (Reims)

Roederer Estate (Anderson Valley)

Taittinger (Reims)

Domaine Carneros, 2009  (Carneros)

Albino Armani 1607 Prosecco  Extra Dry (Veneto) DOC



Wine Spectator’s Grand Tour 2014, Las Vegas

Just back from attending the annual tasting that the Wine Spectator puts on with such class; this year’s final version was held at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.  It lasted three hours, but it would take many more for anyone to sample all of the 227 wineries that were pouring some of their choicest selections.  The represented wineries included some that are very well-known, e.g. Pio Cesare or Castello Banfi, and some that are rather more arcane, e.g. Caparzo or Tasca Almerita … all from Italy, though the same division was true of, say, Spain and France. The vinous largess was almost too generous to believe: such as eight wineries from Italy’s Piemonte, all pouring their most recently released Barolos.  Across the same aisle, eight more wineries from Toscana, pouring not just Sangiovese, but Sangiovese Grosso, the very finest clone of that grape: Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montipulciano, in mind-boggling abundance and quality.  Same with Spain … not just Tempranillo, but Tempranillo Tinto Fino: the very best.  Ever had a Tempranillo from Muga?  Go for it.

Yes, France was there, but not in such abundance and quality; most of those great Bordeaux having long since been sold to the Chinese market for their prestige value.  For much the same reason, there wasn’t much of Burgundy to be seen either.  Still, Bordeaux’s Ch. Margaux showed up, and, predictably enough, when the doors opened, most of the attendees rushed straight to the Margaux stand.  They were pouring their 2004 vintage, a pleasant but not great year in Bordeaux, but it was still a lovely reminder of what can be done all over the world by the best wineries from the best regions using the best grapes.  Nothing new there, of course, but there are just so many of those wines now compared to, say, twenty years past.  On the one hand, I suppose the sheer abundance of magnificence complicates the business of making an informed choice, but then again, the likelihood of making a bad choice has been dramatically reduced.  If they hadn’t driven us from the tasting at the end of the appointed time, I’d still be there.  Perhaps a few more ruminations are in order at another time.


After tasting 200+ wines, the photos get a bit blurry!