Champagne and Sparkling Report 2014
By John Szabo, MS
Admittedly, publishing this report on December 23rd reinforces the notion that sparkling wines are only suitable for celebration or special occasion, which is, of course, nonsense. I regularly pop corks anytime between January 1st and December 31st, often simply to celebrate that the sun has risen again, or that the atmosphere still contains oxygen (note that the views of this author are, in this rare case only, shared by the publisher of WineAlign and its entire editorial team). Yet the last couple of months of each year register over half of annual champagne and sparkling sales, so it’s also a sensible time to publish, if only to capture your attention.
So, following are a dozen occasions to buy and drink sparkling wine, in case you needed inspiration, along with a smart buy or two for each. Some occasions are holiday related, while others are applicable year-round. All wines are currently available in Ontario; those available in consignment will list the agent name and link to their profile page on WineAlign where you can access their contact info – these are the ones you’ll be buying by the 6 or 12 pack. The rest are in stock at the LCBO or are available through the local winery.
1. Lunch with the Girls
There’s lots to talk about, so no time to fuss over precious wine. The Bottega Vino Dei Poeti Prosecco, Veneto, Italy ($13.95) delivers exactly what’s needed: a gentle, barely off-dry, lightly effervescent burst of happiness at a drink-another-bottle price. For those who prefer it a little sweeter, opt for the Grange Of Prince Edward 2013 Sparkling Riesling, Prince Edward County ($19.95), a medium-sweet, authentic riesling-flavoured bubbly from the Grange’s estate fruit.
On the other hand, if your girlfriends are free in the middle of the day and up for boozy lunches, there’s a good chance they work in hospitality, so you’ll want something a little more “important”. Cave Spring has quietly been making some of Ontario’s best bubbly, especially the refined 100% chardonnay Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut, VQA Niagara Escarpment ($29.95). It’s treated to three years on the lees for extra biscuitiness, without the calories.
2. To Take to the Big House Party
Who knows whether you’ll be offered crystal stems or paper cups, if it’s a beer and cocktail crowd, or if a pack of rabid wine snobs may be lurking in the corner. But for all eventualities, the Belstar Prosecco, Veneto, Italy ($16.95) has you covered. It’s inexpensive but not available at the LCBO so you can make up any price you want, the package looks classy and expensive, and the wine inside is actually damned good. It’s a less frivolous version, on the drier side of brut, ideal for sipping and chatting, or washing down the smoked salmon canapés. Buy a case, you’ll need it. Available through 30-50 Imports, 12b/case.
3. To Crack When Friends Drop By (unexpectedly or not)
You know its gonna happen, so don’t be caught unawares. Nothing’s more welcoming to a long-lost friend, or better for neighbor relations, than the gesture of cracking a bottle of bubbly. But champagne’s too expensive for my freeloading acquaintances and noisy neighbors, so split the difference with the Nino Franco Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, Italy ($21.95), a premium but affordable prosecco from one of the most lauded producers in the region. This is very dry and crisp, more stony than fruity – you might call it a grown-up version.
4. Intimate Family Dinner
Time to dig deeper and enjoy. The André Clouet Champagne Brut Rosé, France ($62.95) is just about the finest rosé champagne I’ve tasted this year, probably in several years, certainly for the price. It’ sumptuous and rich, generously proportioned and perfectly balanced. This classy latest shipment from small grower André Clouet was disgorged in April 2014, made from a 2010 base wine with the balance from 2009 and 2008, all from grand cru vineyards in Bouzy. Considering the oft-inflated price of the category this is very smart value. It’ll pass from aperitif to table with grace. 6/case; Groupe Soleil, Stephen Cohen, email@example.com
5. With Oysters
Tasmanians know a thing or two about both oysters (send up those Pacific Crassostrea gigas please) and sparkling. In fact, cool Tassie is currently the hottest source in Oz for sparkling wine grapes (and fine chardonnay and pinot in still versions, too). Josef Chromy makes a very bright 2008 Méthode Traditionnelle, Tasmania ($29.95), perfectly brisk, fresh and very dry, not to say ideal with those salty, iodine, cucumber-tinged Pacific bivalves. At the price, you can also throw in another dozen.
6. The Classy Brunch
What better way to start the day? Act quickly to secure a few bottles of the 2014 Méthode Ancestrale, Prince Edward County ($25.00) from sparkling specialists Hinterland, a gamay based, lightly effervescent, off-dry bubbly with about 8% alcohol that sells out quickly each year. It’s like a pre-made raspberry mimosa, made in the original sparkling method, by bottling still-fermenting wine (well, back then it was accidental, now it’s on purpose). Available from the winery; order before December 24th for pre-New Year delivery.
When you move to the table, move on to the Schramsberg 2011 Blanc De Blancs Brut, North Coast Region, California ($51.95). Sometimes champagne seems over the top, but you needn’t give up on pleasure, and Schramsberg is a wine with quality and pedigree. It was founded by Jacob Schram in 1862, and lays claim to America’s first commercially produced, Chardonnay-based brut sparkling wine in 1965. Fruit from the cool and ideal 2011 sparkling vintage comes from vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino as well as Napa County, yielding a brisk and lively, citrus and green apple-flavoured bubbly. A quarter of the base wine is barrel fermented, adding a delicate touch of spice, while nearly two years on the lees broadens complexity further to give you hope for the rest of the day. Available through The Vine Agency, 6/case.
7. For Contemplative Sipping
For moments more Beethoven than Mozart, the outstanding Louise Brison 2006 Champagne Brut “Tendresse” Blanc De Blancs ($64.00) will fill your mind with happy, or at least deep, thoughts. This small grower’s vineyards are in the very southern part of the region, closer to Chablis than Reims. Base wines are fermented and aged in barrel without malolactic, and wines are kept on the lees far longer than appellation requirements – this particular bottle was disgorged in September 2013, meaning over a half dozen years sur lattes. It’s a wonderfully mature, toasty, complex champagne, more like aged white Burgundy with fine bubbles, and terrific length and depth. Mature, vintage champagne from a great year, for $64? I’ll take a case of that, Mr. Le Caviste. Marcel Rethore: firstname.lastname@example.org.
8. To Impress Your Fancy-Pants, Champagne-Loving Friends
So your friends have had it all? I’d wager they haven’t tried Diebolt Vallois Prestige Brut Blanc De Blancs ($68.00), unless of course they travel regularly to Champagne. And even then, they’ll still appreciate this beautiful wine from the grand cru villages of Chouilly, Le Mesnil s/Oger and Cramant in the celebrated Côtes des Blancs. There’s pitch perfect equilibrium between creamy citrus, lightly toasted wheat bread, pear and apple, with a lovely streak of ripe acids and a saline, mineral finish. Seven grams of dosage gives this a drier edge. 6/case; Groupe Soleil, Stephen Cohen, email@example.com
9. To Gift to Someone you don’t know well
If you’re not close to the recipient and want to be sure to impress, you need some brand recognition. Otherwise your “niche discovery” might be misperceived as a cheap substitute. Taittinger Brut Réserve Champagne ($58.95) has just that, a well-respected name. And beyond that, the wine is also excellent: a classy, well balanced, chardonnay-based champagne that hits a balance between enough biscuity-brioche flavour to satisfy fans of developed champagne, while retaining enough fruit and freshness for those in search of vibrancy. In other words, I can’t see who wouldn’t enjoy this.
10. To Gift to Someone You Know Well
On the other hand, for someone you know well, and who more importantly will know that your intentions are pure, give the gift of both discovery and quality, from somewhere unexpected. Nova Scotia may not yet be known as the epicenter of top sparkling wine in North America, but Benjamin Bridge is doing their best to make it so. The Benjamin Bridge 2009 Brut, Gaspereau Valley, ($49.95) is not even their top wine, but it’s a tidy blend of over half L’Acadie Blanc, with ¼ chardonnay and the balanced filled in by seyval blanc, well worth discovering. Your friends will thank you.
11. To Sip During the Lead-Up To Midnight
Keep it classic in the lead up to the countdown with a champagne that’s neither excessively aggressive nor overly mellow: Deutz Brut Classic Champagne ($54.95) fits the bill. It features sufficiently intriguing toasted wheat bread, dried fruit and honeyed character to keep your interest over several hours, while it’s also crisp, dry and sinewy enough not to tire the palate.
12. To Ring in The New Year
Increase the vibrational energy in the room to welcome the new year with Champagne Agrapart Terroirs Blanc De Blancs Grand Cru ($67.95), an uncompromising grower champagne regularly in my top picks, made in an extremely mineral style. It comes across as virtually brut zero despite almost 5 grams of sugar, though that all but disappears in a stream of crackling acids. It improves dramatically with aeration so I recommend the radical tack of carafing before serving, around 11:45pm (just do it gently so you don’t lose too much effervescence, and use a narrow decanter) to ensure maximum midnight merriment. 6/case; Groupe Soleil, Stephen Cohen, firstname.lastname@example.org
“I only drink champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger
Celebrate in Italy Next October
And while you’re thinking of celebrating, consider joining me next October in Tuscany and Piedmont for an insider’s deluxe gastronomy tour via Indus Travel. Only fluffy, unlumpy pillows and high thread count sheets, plus daily diet of white truffles and extraordinary wine. It will be memorable. Details: http://www.indus.travel/tour/tuscany-and-barolo-with-john-szabo
That’s all for this year. We wish you the very happiest 2015 and thank you sincerely for putting your trust in us when it comes to the realm of drinks. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
Earlier Holiday Gift Guides: