By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
What is it about champagne that gets us all excited? Are we so easy that all it takes are a few cascading bubbles to make us smile?
Yes. And what’s wrong with that? Not all problems can be so easily vanquished by a glass of sparkling wine, but the accidental drink popularized by Benedictine monks in the 18th century has a magical effect on the worst of problems. Sparkling wine — correctly called champagne only in Champagne — can warm the heart, invigorate the senses and set a mood like no other wine.
Its region in northern France is not the most hospitable in a country known more for its still wine. Only hearty grapes can survive the cold temperatures, although global warming is changing that. Perhaps that is why champagne is unfortunately relegated to a special occasion. We don’t know of anyone outside of Champagne who drinks it regularly even if it has more versatility than people give it credit for.
Champagne may have a lock on the name, but they don’t have a lock on bubbles. In recent years, we have seen an explosion in popularity for prosecco — the Italian sparkling wine generally made from glera grapes. Spanish cava is making a comeback if you can get past the ubiqutuous Freixenet. And there are many California and Oregon sparkling wines that are as luxurious as their French cousins. The choices are great.
Champagne’s luxury image has been helped by the flourish of how the bottle is opened. The unmistakable pop of a cork is associated with celebration. If you hear it in a restaurant, don’t you wonder what the table is celebrating? Look into the woman’s eyes and tell us she isn’t feeling special.
Some American sparkling wine is as expensive as champagne. The best values in French champagne are Nicolas Feuillate, Pierre Peters, Veuve Clicquot and Pommery.
As we engage in the year’s most celebratory season, it is time again to think of champagne if only to put a smile on the most dour of faces.
Here are several champagnes and sparkling wines we recently tasted:
J Brut Rosé Russian River Valley ($38). A rosé doubles the impact of sparkling wine. Its color adds a festive splash to the table and intrigues the palate. The J is made predominantly from pinot noir grapes and shows off raspberry and citrus notes. Serve this alongside salmon and you won’t find a more elegant dinner.
Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs Brut ($25). Also from the Russian River Valley, this sparkling chardonnay has understated apple and pear flavors and mouth-cleansing acidity.
Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($65). Too often we forget about this venerable producer, yet every time we taste it we are quickly reminded of its pedigree. The brut reserve offers generous mango and roasted coffee aromas and creamy plum and cherry flavors. It is an even blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($45). This reasonably priced cuvee — a blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes — is an excellent value. Good structure with pear and apple notes.
Adami Col Credas Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore 2011 ($22). Made with glera grapes, this dry and tangy sparkling wine has a floral fragrance and simple but cleansing mouthfeel.
Mumm Napa Cuvee M ($22). The dosage includes late-harvest muscat and pinot noir to give this a sweetness. If that’s your pleasure, you’ll certainly like this viscous wine with ripe peach and pear notes.
We recently met with Pierre Casenave, winemaker for Veuve Clicquot — France’s second largest producer of champagne. Pierre started at Veuve Clicquot in 2008 is a member of the tasting group that assembles the various house blends. But his most recent assignment is the production of the pinot noir still wine that is used in the making of Veuve Clicquot’s rosé.
The pinot noir is entirely aged in stainless steel, and is never more than 3-5 years old to preserve the color. Here are the wines we recently tasted:
Veuve Clicquot N/V Yellow Label Brut ($45-55). Arguably the best looking and most recognizable champagne label on retail shelves, this champagne consistently wins consumer approval. A pleasant nose of bread and yeast that leads to a full fruity and elegant presence in the mouth. Well balanced and refreshing. Made from 55 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, and 15 percent pinot meunier.
Veuve Clicquot Rose N/V Brut ($85). Made from the same blend as the “Yellow Label” except 15 percent of the blend is the still pinot noir. Nice toasty nose with some berry fruit notes in the mouth. Pretty light pink color makes a nice presentation.
Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004 Brut ($96). This is a young wine that Pierre stated ”can age for 20 years for sure”. More intense fruit than the non-vintage blends with some nice bread notes and a hint of flowers. Complex.
Veuve Clicquot Demi Sec N/V ($68). This slightly sweet fruity wine is perfect as an accompaniment to rich Holiday desserts and chocolates. It also should work for any visitors and guests that don’t like dry wines. Pierre also recommended the demi sec for spicy foods as a nice foil to the heat. Nice fruity nose and mouth experience.