In addition to the side benefit of providing you, my readers, with information about a large number of wines, I go to public tastings primarily to learn. There is absolutely no better way to educate your palate than to deliberately and comparatively taste through a large number (however many you can handle) of similar wines with the goal of taking mental or actual notes. You will never get around to tasting enough of any single kind of wine just by ordering it at restaurants or picking up a bottle on your way home to ever learn anything substantial about a specific varietal, region, or winemaking style.
I was very excited recently to see that the Institute for the Masters of Wine (you know, the one that confers the elusive and coveted MW degree on a few select individuals each year who manage to pass the reported excruciatingly difficult test) has decided to start holding public tastings. These tastings are designed to be both PR for the organization as well as fundraisers for a society that has been not-for-profit since its inception.
Their first such tasting was a Champagne tasting held last week in San Francisco. I’m not a sparkling wine fanatic, unlike some of my wine loving friends, but I do enjoy a nice glass of the good stuff every once in a while, and there are certain foods (sushi, Chinese food, etc.) for which Champagne is a fantastic match. I’ve never had a chance, though, to really taste through a large number of Champagnes side-by-side, so I grabbed my notebook and headed down to the tasting last week without knowing exactly what I was getting myself into.
The tasting was very pleasant and casual, if a bit disorganized. After collecting a glass and a booklet listing the wines available at the entrance, tasters were set loose in the room with champagnes in great big iced tubs. Everyone was allowed to pour their own tastes (something I LOVE at tastings, as most people typically pour me more wine than I want, and a lot slower than I want) and move about the room between the different categories of bubbly as they chose.
The tasting took place in two sessions, and it was clear that it would have been better for me to have arrived for the first session rather than the second. A few top wines were no longer available for tasting. Even more painfully, some of their last drops were poured just as I arrived at the table, my outstretched glass only seconds too late. As a result I did not get to taste the famous Dom Perignon Oenoteque or the 1995 Krug. Sigh.
I know. If that’s all I have to complain about in a day, I’m doing pretty good. Despite missing out on a couple of gems, I did get a chance to taste an awful lot of very good stuff, which I am happy to report on below.
There was very little sign of the Masters of Wine at this tasting. While there were a few with the degree in the room, including some of the board members of the organization, frankly the most evidence that the Institute was involved came in the form of the selection of wines available — an incredible selection from some of the world’s best Champagne producers.
My suggestion to the Institute (which I have already made to some of its representatives) is to make the whole thing a bit more value-added, in the form of a pre-tasting seminar about Champagne, or even a demonstration of proper Champagne service, or techniques for tasting a type of wine that doesn’t behave like other wine when you swish it about in your mouth. Something that would both take advantage of the incredible knowledge and talent of the institution as well as promote it at the same time.
Finding some solution to keep the bottles from toppling over into their bins of ice and spilling would also be a worthy consideration, but that’s a tricky thing to do when you’re trying to let people taste nearly eighty Champagnes. Anyone ever seen a good solution?
In any case, this was a fantastic tasting of many wines that I cannot afford to buy under most circumstances, and do not often consume regardless. Which means it was a great education. Here are my thoughts about some of the world’s top Champagnes.
Brut Non Vintage
Brut Champagnes are generally accepted to be “dry” tasting champagnes that typically have very little dosage (a mixture of wine and sweetener) added to them. Technically most of these wines are not completely dry, but most contain very low residual sugar levels (below 15 grams per liter). Non-vintage champagnes are made in the solera style, in which a mixture of wines from previous years are blended together with the current vintage to achieve more consistency from year to year against a desired flavor profile.
NV Henri Billiot “Cuvée Réserve”. Score: 9. $45. Where to buy?
NV Comte Audoin de Dampierre “1er cru Cuvée des Ambassadeurs”. Score: 9. $25. Where to buy?
NV Gosset “Grande Réserve”. Score: 9. $38. Where to buy?
NV Bruno Paillard “Première Cuvée”. Score: 9. $34. Where to buy?
NV Philipponnat “Royale Réserve”. Score: 9. $29. Where to buy?
NV Taittinger “Prélude”. Score: 9. $50. Where to buy?
NV Besserat de Bellefon “Cuvée des Moines”. Score: 8.5/9. $23
NV Bollinger “Special Cuvée”. Score: 8.5/9. $40
NV Nicolas Feuillatte “Blue Label”. Score: 8.5/9. $25
NV Charles Heidsieck “Réserve”. Score: 8.5/9. $35
NV A.R. Lenoble “Nature”. Score: 8.5/9. $39
NV Perrier-Jouët “Grand Brut”. Score: 8.5/9. $28
NV Delamotte. Score: 8.5. $35
NV Rene Geoffroy “Cuvée Selectionnée”. Score: 8.5. $40
NV Lallement. Score: 8.5. $30
NV Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label”. Score: 8/8.5. $36
NV Jean Milan “Cuvée Spéciale”. Score: 8. $33
Brut Blanc de Blancs
In addition to being Brut (as described above) these wines are Blanc de Blancs:(literally, white of whites) which means they are made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Some of these wines are non-vintage, but others are vintage wines, made with grapes from only a single year’s harvest, and typically aged longer than non-vintage wines before release.
NV Pascal Doquet “Grand Cru”. Score: 9/9.5. $36. Where to buy?
1997 Pascal Doquet “Grand Cru”. Score: 9/9.5. $65. Where to buy?
NV A.R. Lenoble “Grand Cru”. Score: 9/9.5. $36. Where to buy?
NV Pierre Peters “Cuvee de Reserve” Grand Cru. Score: 9/9.5. $48. Where to buy?
NV Comte Audoin de Dampierre “Grand Cru”. Score: 9. $49
1998 Nicolas Feuillatte. Score: 9. $33
2000 Pierre Gimonnet “Cuvée Gastronome”. Score: 9. $54
NV Chartogne-Taillet . Score: 8.5/9. $42
1999 Delamotte. Score: 8.5/9. $65
NV Ruinart. Score: 8.5/9. $33
NV Besserat de Bellefon “Cuvée des Moines”. Score: 8.5. $34
Brut Vintage Cuvées
The vintage dated wines from any producer are typically much more expensive, often higher quality, and generally made in smaller quantities than their non-vintage siblings. Some producers only make vintage dated wines in particularly good years. Most Champagne houses hold their vintage wines several years before release to the market. For some producers 1996 is the “current” vintage on the market today, though there are also 1997, 1998, and 1999 wines appearing with more frequency in the last few years.
1997 Lanson “Gold Label”. Score: 8.5/9. $??
1999 Nicolas Feuillatte “Cuvée Spéciale”. Score: 8.5. $55
1999 Taittinger Brut. Score: 8.5. $43
Vintage and Non-Vintage Brut Rosés
In non-sparkling wines, rosés are often made from the saignée (or bleeding off) juice that comes out of the initial maceration of grapes. Because it has had little contact with the grape skins it is usually a pale pink color. With Champagne however, rosés are almost exclusively made from the blending of finished wines of the red and white variety (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for the red, Chardonnay for the white).
NV Comte Audoin de Dampierre “1er cru Oeil de Perdrix”. Score: 9.5. $40.. Where to buy?
NV Pascal Doquet “1er Cru”. Score: 9/9.5. $??
NV Lanson “Rosé Label”. Score: 9. $45. Where to buy?
NV Besserat de Bellefon “Cuvée des Moines”. Score: 8.5/9. $25
NV Delamotte. Score: 8.5/9. $??
NV Nicolas Feuillatte. Score: 8.5/9. $30
NV Mumm. Score: 8.5/9. $35
1999 Moët & Chandon. Score: 8.5. $50
NV Ruinart. Score: 8.5. $74
NV Veuve Clicquot. Score: 8/8.5. $50
1999 Veuve Clicquot. Score: 8/8.5. $65
NV Bruno Paillard “Première Cuvée”. Score: 8/8.5. $48
NV Philipponnat “Réserve Rosé”. Score: 8/8.5. $44
NV Taittinger “Prestige” . Score: 8. $50
NV Perrier-Jouët “Blason”. Score: 7.5/8. $50
Most Champagne houses make multiple wines in different quantities that sell for various price points. Among them are always one or two “prestige cuvées” or “tete-de-cuvées” which are the producer’s top wines. The term cuvée has many definitions and uses, but in the Champagne world it is particularly used to define the first and finest juice that flows out of the wine press (also known as free-run juice here in the US). Prestige cuvées can be of both the vintage dated and non-vintage varieties.
NV Krug “Grande Cuvée”. Score: 9.5/10. $125. Where to buy?
1995 Bollinger “RD”. Score: 9.5. $150.
1997 Nicolas Feuillatte “Cuvée 225”. Score: 9.5. $50. Where to buy?
1997 Nicolas Feuillatte “Palmes d’Or”. Score: 9.5. $110. Where to buy?
1999 Perrier-Jouët “Fleur de Champagne” Rosé. Score: 9.5. $??
1999 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Rosé. Score: 9.5. $110. Where to buy?
1995 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Rosé. Score: 9/9.5. $200. Where to buy?
2000 Comte Audoin de Dampierre “Family Reserve Grand Cru Ficelée Ã l’Ancienne”. Score: 9/9.5. $??
1997 Lanson “Noble Cuvée”. Score: 9/9.5. $??
1998 Lanson “Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs”. Score: 9/9.5. $??
1999 Perrier-Jouët “Fleur de Champagne”. Score: 9/9.5. $100. Where to buy?
1995 Dom Pérignon Rosé. Score: 9/9.5. $125. Where to buy?
1996 Salon. Score: 9/9.5. $225. Where to buy?
1996 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne”. Score: 9/9.5. $150. Where to buy?
1996 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame”. Score: 9. $120.
NV Krug Rosé. Score: 9. $225
1998 Dom Pérignon. Score: 9. $120
1996 Philipponnat “Clos des Goisses”. Score: 9. $110
Perhaps more properly known as demi-sec Champagnes, dose cuvées typically have more dosage added to them at finishing, making them sweeter and less dry than Brut Champagnes. While Brut wines typically have less than 15 grams of residual sugar per liter, Demi-Sec wines normally have between 33 and 50 grams of sugar per liter.
NV Veuve Clicquot Demi Sec. Score: 8.5/9. $24
NV Taittinger “Nocturne” Sec. Score: 8.5/9. $??
NV Moët & Chandon “Nectar Impérial” Demi-Sec. Score: 8.5. $45
NV Moët & Chandon “White Star” Extra Sec. Score: 8. $38
NV Moët & Chandon “Nectar Impérial” Demi-Sec Rosé. Score: 7. $48