The blind Champagne tasting was organized for our group’s usual critical dissection. The sparklers made the tasting calendar because a regular member of our vinous clan, Dale Cruse, has been wrapped in a self declared “Champagne Campaign” mission, adhering to his disciplined plan of tasting at least one glass of sparkling wine every day for a year. He has been chronicling this bubbly indulgence at Drinks Are On Me and was eager to organize the line up and chase down all the wines, save the 1983 Dom Perignon that had been laying around my cellar for long enough years. The marquis wines also attracted new tasting talent, fielding an expanded group of first time participants and helpful palates including Dale’s friends Sarah and Michelle, Rachel who took some time out from her work at Boston University in the anthropology of food and wine, and her husband Doug who is threatening to make some big final pushes on his mind boggling, wine-dedicated Able Grape search engine; all joining our usual circle of armchair critics eager to pick these wines apart (more on the topic of critical dissection of Champagne in an upcoming post).
At first it seemed like an odd line up of wines to compare side by side; none holding too much in common beyond major Champagne house roots except, of course, for the Schramsberg. There were vintage and non vintage wines from the eighties, nineties, and post 2000 made from mostly Pinot to mostly Chardonnay and every other combination of varietal blend in between, including a couple of untold blending recipes. But the wide range of styles, blends, and bottle age produced stark comparisons that helped the learning along for many of us, especially me, who do not spend nearly enough time experimenting and learning more about these wines. Here is a descriptive line up and approximate prices.
NV Mumm De Cramant, Reims, 100% Chardonnay, $70
1983 Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon, Epernay, 60% Chardonnay 40% Pinot Noir, $310
1988 Deutz 150 Anniversaire, Ay, (fruit unknown), $125
1996 Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne, Epernay, 50% Chardonnay 45% Pinot Noir 5% Pinot Meunier, $110
1997 Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Brut, Epernay, 60% Pinot Noir 40% Chardonnay, $110
1998 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Reims, 66% Pinot Noir 34% Chardonnay, $140
1999 Gosset Grand Millésime, Ay, 56% Chardonnay 44% Pinot Noir, $105
1999 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, Epernay, secret blend, $275
2000 Bollinger La Grande Année Brut Ay 63% Pinot Noir 37% Chardonnay, $130
2003 Schramsberg J. Schram, California, 65% Chardonnay 35% Pinot Noir, $110
The two older wines were easy to pick out of the lineup based on their developed rich dark yellow/orange colors, secondary and oxidative aromatics, and flattening effervescence. The luck of the draw had both in the first flight of five and enabled comparison. Almost everybody guessed them wrong, with the Deutz showing significantly more bottle age character even though it had five fewer years of age than the Dom Perignon. Interestingly, the group voted the Dom Perignon as our favorite wine of the tasting, and the Deutz fourth out of ten. I had the Deutz as my personal favorite and the Dom Perignon third. There is no surprise to that since my personal preference leans towards older wines that manage to maintain their basic bones and balance, but take on new wardrobes of advanced aromatics, friendly evolved mouth feels, and wild flavors. My notes on the 1983 Dom Perignon show mushroom, mocha, yeasty, and caramelized aromas that combine with a luscious mouthfeel of a wine that has come together over time and still throwing tight bubbles during the first 10-15 minutes in the glass. The Deutz was amazingly alive and fresh, which defied the more musty and oxidative nose as well as its rusty orange color and creme brulee flavors. Both of these wines were magic, offered great learning, and simply wonderful to drink. I have had the privilege of tasting very old Champagne back to 1928 which reminds me of old Madeira, and I really think that these two wines helped me understand that 25-30 years may be the witching hour for enjoying a combination of freshness and old Champagne character.
The second favorite wine of the group, as well as my personal second favorite, was the 1999 Pol Roger Cuvee Winston Churchill; monumental wine in all ways. It had a light white/yellow color and a nose of really fresh yeast, tapioca, and crushed peanut shell. It was a tremendously balanced and flavor focused wine, with lemony notes and a bright finish with a characteristic whispy and evaporative Champagne finish. Such a classy wine, with a perfectly integrated series of aromas and flavors that make it stand high above the rest of the middle aged to younger wines.
Interestingly, no one in our 16 person tasting group could pick the California Schramsberg wine blind. Everyone tried, nobody had it right. And, the wine finished somewhere in the middle of the pack and was a wonderful wine by its own right. There was no shame finishing in the middle or bottom of this pack of wines, with every one of them providing superb satisfaction and joy.
I am not experienced with Champagne in the ways I wish I were. For some really serious insights, have a look at this post authored by one of my absolute favorite wine bloggers, and the four posts that follow it in more recent chronological order. It is the first post in a series from the Brooklynguy on his recent and fascinating visit to Champagne. He has an amazing sensibility and curiosity about Champagne and other pretty wines. In addition to those perspectives, our own tasting has left me confident about three big and valuable personal Champagne lessons:
- Old Champagne is magic: I like Dom Perignon with bottle age. It makes sense to lay away a couple of bottles of this wine in every vintage
- Great Champagne is expensive: The most expensive wines won this tasting. It always happens this way when we blind taste Champagne. It is the problem with Champagne, it is just too darn expensive to drink great examples every day
- Champagne, of all wines, is made to be enjoyed and not dissected: There is a lot about Champagne that I will raise in a future post that points to a wine that is constructed for pure enjoyment, above all else. So, find the style you like and drink it. Regularly.
It’s Valentine’s Day today, a day holding fewer excuses to prevent you from popping a bottle of some of the most enjoyable wine made to relish with someone close to you. Let me know what you drink tonight and I promise not to ask any more questions about your evening other than that.