Over the past month in preparation for the holidays, this column has spoken to differences in generic sparkling wine and true champagne. True champagne comes only from the French region of Champagne and is made from three allowed grapes: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay.
Most wine-producing areas make sparkling wines. Some are made using the same labor-intensive methods and same grape varietals that are used in making true champagne. Other sparkling wines are made in France outside the region of Champagne. They are frequently referred to as crémants.
Outside the region of Champagne, sparkling wines are made from every grape known to man.
Among the more popular sparklings are prosecco from Italy and cava from Spain. Even Great Britain, whose climate is not unlike Champagne’s, now produces sparkling wine.
The differences in all these sparkling wines, aside from price and style, are often subtle and difficult to discern even by sophisticated tasters.
In fact, professionals often have difficulty identifying wines when tasting blindly (where bottles are covered so tasters are not influenced by brand or price).
If professionals taste double-blindly, where the bottle is covered and opaque tasting glasses obstruct the wine’s appearance, some professionals have proven incapable of distinguishing red from white.
With such an array of prices and styles of sparkling wines available locally, I assembled a tasting panel of 11 wine lover pals to help me sort through an array of 13 sparkling wines, including a couple of true champagnes. These bubblies were tasted blindly. Tasters were instructed to select their top three best in show, as well as a fourth wine they found to be absolutely hideous.
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2003 J Late Disgorged Russian River Valley Vintage Brut
• Suggested retail price $90. Available locally by special order.
• This impeccable Sonoma County wine is made by the same exacting production methods used in making true champagne. Its structure and concentration appealed to me. It was packed with flavor and had a creamy finish. “Late disgorged” means it was left to macerate in the bottle on its lees for an extended period of time before receiving its permanent cap.
Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee
• $10 range at most grocery outlets.
• Once again the structure and balance was the attraction. As I tasted blindly, my note on this wine said, “Possibly Champagne.” Boy was I fooled. But so were other tasters who gave this wine high scores.
Villa Sandi Rose
• $11.75 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs.
• Pale pink, fruit driven, tasty Italian sparkling wine with a zesty finish.
• Interestingly, the two non-vintage true French champagnes, Champagne Henriot and Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, both in the $40 range, received two second place votes and one third place vote, respectively.
• One taster even selected a non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice as their favorite.
The takeaway here is that stripping wines of their identity frees the consumer to select what they really like without the influence of price or producer, and that is how all wine selection should be approached.
Aimery Crémant de Limoux
• The most unanimous vote came for the least liked wine, Aimery Crémant de Limoux, a sparkling wine made in the Limoux region located in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France.