THE LINEUP Several surprise upsets made this year's blind tasting a contentious one, with close results.
Let's have a toast! Ah, but you need something in your glass. Which do you prefer, Champagne or sparkling wine? I'm sorry, is the question quite absurd? It does seem so.
Sophisticates all, our readers know that Champagne is a sparkling wine product originating specifically from the better addresses of the Champagne region of France, while "sparkling wine" is from . . . everywhere else. What kind of rube would ask, "What is better, Champagne or domestic sparkling wine?" That would truly be the height of naiveté—something that, by the sound of it, we also lifted from the French.
But that's exactly what we're doing in this year's holiday bubbly special: it's Champagne vs. California. Because everybody says or thinks "Champagne" first—whether from innocence or insouciance—when they mean an elegant, popping, foaming embodiment of celebration, of winning, of party, of love. Before international convention returned the term to its rightful owners, it escaped into our hearts. And it's from there that a little voice speaks, raspingly, as if through a tiny flute, when we sip our home-grown tête de cuvée: Just an also-ran, my friend, is it not? It is no "real Champagne"—who can say I'm crazy? Would your tongue not dance more joyfully, my amusing American friend, if you showered it with the pure luxury that emanates only from the limestone slopes of the Montagne de Reims?
Pricing favors the home team—yet adds to our insecurity. Entry-level Champagne starts at about $40, while the local product goes for less than $20, a huge value considering all the bottle-fermenting, riddling and disgorging that each bottle undergoes. Even the top cuvées are comparable in price with our best still Pinot Noir, of which winemakers are fond of claiming, "The wine makes itself. We leave it alone, hands-off, until bottling. Seventy dollars, please."
With just five Champagnes represented—and no Dom Perignon, darn it—surely this is no pièce de résistance on the topic. Perhaps it's even, if you want to be a Debbie Downer about it, a tad less than meaningful. But who wants to hear that kind of talk at a party? Pop those corks!
Wines were blind-tasted and scored from one to five stars by a group of Bohemian staff. In a few cases, I've noted where I disagreed significantly with the group—a truculent lot, hard to please, even on a Friday afternoon with 14 free tastes of fizzy wine. Domestics are listed at official suggested retail price, and are usually available at a discount; Champagnes at approximate list prices from major retailers.
Chandon Étoile North Coast Brut ($40) Because "fluffy," everyone agreed. Fluffy aromas of cake frosting, marzipan, apple-pie crust lend an inviting nose to this top cuvée from Chandon, founded by Moët-Hennessy and Champagne's first Napa Valley foothold. It's both richer and more refined than the brut classic, and while not as lively, earned high marks for easy drinkability. A win for the home team. ★★★★
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne($37) Nice yeasty, apple pie crust aromas, and a sort of "correct" Champagne palate. Although a touch sweeter, it's the better of its Sonoma County doppelgänger in the contest of Piper vs. Piper. ★★★★
Chandon California Brut Classic ($22) Big upset: Chandon's standard brut didn't fare well in past tastings. This is by turns floral, nutty, fruity, with hints of Sweet Tart and a lean, citrusy, salty palate, sporting a lively mousse. It all comes together on a reasonably complex, integrated finish. ★★★★
Ayala Brut Majeur Champagne ($50) Distinctive nose of marzipan, apricot kernel, orgeat—sweet, enticing things you might find at a French cafe. The rich palate belies a mere 0.7 percent dosage, while a singular saltiness through the finish hints at melancholy. Bollinger bought and revamped this brand. ★★★½
Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial Champagne ($40) The bubbly from Epernay was first blended in 1869. Demure whole grain apple bagel, lean lemon and an austere finish. On second tasting, it seemed more balanced and softer on the palate than its better-scoring Napa sister, above, but by then the horse, of course, had left the barn. ★★★½
Mumm Napa 2006 DVX Brut Napa Valley ($60) Vintage-dated sparkling, held in the embrace of its dead yeasts for several more years, should be the winery's crème de la crème. This one scores high for spot-on yeasty, "fresh linen" and lemon aromas. One taster says, "The saison
of Champagne." But it's challengingly tart, with unripe apple and lemon flavors demanding crab cake or ceviche, the sooner the better. The bottle is accessorized with a tiny flute "charm" that can serve as a memento of the evening, perhaps. Or afternoon. Or morning—have some fun. ★★★½
Mumm Napa Brut Prestige Napa Valley ($22) Fresh, refined, a little salty—reminds me of manzanilla sherry, others of bitter melon and ocean mist. It seems nice. ★★★½
Piper Sonoma Sonoma County Brut ($17) Mixed reactions: high and low. Bit sulfury at first, piney later, grapefruit citrusy, laundry basket; salty, citrusy finish. I thought for sure, this was French; another taster suggested mimosas. ★★★
Korbel 2008 Le Premier RussianRiver Valley Champagne ($25) With all the resources at their disposal, this is the highest historic Korbel dares to aim in vintage-dated sparkling wine—which they're allowed to call "champagne" after a California appellation prefix. Still, for 25 bucks, it's dignified: faint aromas of apple and yeast, aggressively foamy, yet elegant and dry on the finish—like a fine perry cider. (I gave it four stars.) ★★★
Domaine Carneros by Taittinger2009 Brut Cuvée ($28) The framboise perfume with toasty accents is exciting, and the hint of slightly volatile apple cider, intriguing. Dry and elegant enough on the palate, "Good New Year Champagne," says one. (I say four stars.) ★★★
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne ($35) A widely available co-op brand. A fine bead, a creamy, yeasty palate with hints of marzipan, a gentle mousse. Reminiscent of sweet pear juice, yet finishes dry. Nice. Causes some tasters to become obsessed with "fancy cheese." ★★★
Schramsberg 2010 North Coast Brut Rosé ($43) Like a little puff of eau de strawberry shortcake, Schramsberg's Brut Rosé dances in the nose, promising blood oranges, raspberry delight, and all the light, dry, creamy flavor that it indeed delivers. Pale pink, it's delicate, but packs the right amount of flavor. (I have no idea what it's doing down here—my score is 4.75, rounded to five stars.) ★★★
Korbel 2010 Natural Russian River Valley Champagne ($15) Natty K, how can you fail us? The Natural, so-named for its low dosage (0.75 percent, although a brut natural might really prefer zero added sugar), sports musky notes of cream soda, apple cider and, well, moscato, and sort of carries these themes through on the palate. But it's just not a success. On retasting, I couldn't find a reason to change my score. ★★½
Moët & Chandon Rosé Imperial Champagne ($65) A deeper salmon-pink, this delivers deli meat and smoke with red fruit aromas—no wonder, because the blend includes a small percentage of red wine, as does the Schramsberg, but if this is more "serious," it's surely less
Average domestic score: 3.23. Average Champagne score: 3.29. I'd say that's too close to call, rematch required.