By Celia Strong
Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a sparkling wine tasting featuring four Champagnes and one California sparkling wine. The tasting let us sample some really good — and expensive — Champagnes, with the thought in mind that between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, most would want to share a good bottle with our spouse, family, fiancé, or whoever was deserving of buying such a bottle.
Before we go through the list of the five featured wines, a bit of review information might help to appreciate what we did get to taste, and why the bottles are so pricey — but worth the cost.
Champagnes are all sparkling wines, but all sparkling wines are not Champagnes. Champagnes have to be made from grapes grown in the region, and the wines have to be made and bottled in the region. Most Champagnes are non-vintage, but rather blends of wines from several different years. Vintage Champagnes are not made every year. Based on the quality of the grapes in any one year, Champagne AC committee can declare a vintage. After that, it is up to each company if they want to make vintage wines for that year. Sometimes, like Clicquot, they choose not to in order to hold on to more wines to blend into their non-vintage Champagne, making it better. Sometimes, like in 2004, everyone has such great grapes they all make a vintage. Vintage Champagnes always cost more. They’re better and have stricter laws regulating their production and it takes longer for their producers to get paid for their work. Rosé Champagnes are always more expensive too.
The order of the tasting was determined by our hostess from the Moët-Hennessey company. Like any other wine tasting, it was lighter body to heavier body. With our wines, we tried different specific flavors, sauces or toppings, all on crispy French fries. It was from these pairings that we learned the most — including a wine that goes great with barbecue.
The first wine, Champagne Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, was non-vintage. Blanc de Blanc means “white wine from white grapes,” and because the Champagne region only grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the only white grape is Chardonnay. So this Champagne is all Chardonnay. A lighter body style, definitely, but very complex. This wine is aged way beyond the legal minimums required by Champagne law, and this adds to its complexities. In fact, Ruinart is closer to vintage laws on this Champagne. With this wine we had lemon-basil flavors: Delicious! So, we have a wine that goes well with Asian flavors, including sushi, lemongrass, coriander and cinnamon. $59.99.
Number two was Moët and Chandon 2006 Vintage Brut. This vintage is the first time in many, many years that a vintage Moët was rated over 90 points, and it deserved every one of those points. Interestingly, this wine has a higher percentage of Chardonnay than is their usual. My thought was they learned something from the new blend and the high score? We tasted truffle oil with this wine, a combination of earthy and delicacy and elegance. Chicken sautéed with mushrooms in a white wine (Chardonnay) sauce sounded really good. We were told, too, on the label for this Champagne, the cellar worker who riddles the bottles, by hand, handwrote “2006” in chalk on every label. Then, each label was laminated to go onto a bottle. Nice touch for a very special Champagne. $67.99
The next wine, the stakes were raised, and so was the price, for the Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin 2004 Vintage Brut. “Veuve” is the French word for widow. This company was built up by the widow Clicquot, who took over when her husband died, and later brought her nephew, from the Ponsardin side of the family, in with her. The widow was a contemporary of Dom Perignon, a real-life monk in monastery in Champagne. She was the “inventor” of the riddling rack — a device that lets the bottles lay on their sides and be twitched and rotated to move sediment down toward the neck of the bottle so that if can be removed more easily. The story is she dug out holes in her kitchen table and leaned it against a wall. But, she was an extremely intelligent woman and an innovator in many ways. The 2004 vintage in the Champagne region was one of the very best in recent declared vintage years and the 2004 Clicquot is a long time favorite. (This will be my third Christmas Day with a bottle.) And, just like I do at home, we had Parmesan cheese to taste with this wine. Yum! $74.97
The fourth bottle featured the sparkling wine Chandon Étoile Rosé. (Just so you know, “étoile” is French for “star,” the house symbol at Moët and all their properties.) This wine is from California, Domaine Chandon. The mere fact that it holds its own in a line-up of four real Champagnes says everything. Étoile Rosé is non-vintage, made from 49 percent Chardonnay, 45 percent Pinot Noir and 6 percent Pinot Meunier. At Chandon, this bubbly is recommended with salmon, duck confit, foie gras, and other rich and elegant foods. Here in Beaufort we tasted it with tomato-based barbecue sauce, and, boy, we are the winners. From now on, pork, beef or chicken barbecue gets Étoile Rosé! But, this wine shows as an equal when tasted at the same time as Champagnes. At its price, $27.99, we can have it often. A new shining star.
Our final wine was Veuve Clicquot 2004 Vintage Rosé. A totally elegant wine, clear and clean and crisp with layers of intense flavors — strawberries, cranberries, red apples. Technically, this is a better wine than our Étoile Rosé, but less affordable. A true holiday wine, Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, any of the times we tend to think of drinking an exceptional bubbly. With this great wine, we tasted a soy-ginger sauce. At $84.99, not inexpensive, but one of the best.
So, the tasting was amazing. Even if you never would spend over a certain amount on a bottle, there are reasons why some just cost more than others. Once you do get a taste of some of them, you have a “yardstick” to measure all the others by. And that is exactly what happened with the Chandon Étoile Rosé. Surrounded by yardsticks, really pretty high yardsticks, it held its own, and then some.
Also, for years, we have heard that bubbles go with all meals, now we know that’s probably true. Maybe not one bubbly with every thing, but there are plenty of bubbles out there. All we have to do is love them and drink them.