Sparkling wine is rightfully regarded as a party wine; the high natural acidity and bubbles are palate cleansing and make the beverage just plain fun to drink.
Perhaps it’s even perfect for the non-beer drinkers at a Super Bowl party or during March Madness get-togethers?
Sparkling wine is made in virtually every wine-producing region, but Champagne is made only in the Champagne region of Burgundy, France. Champagne can be made from a single grape variety or a combination of up to three: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne is Blanc de Blancs (translated as “white wine from white grapes,”) whereas a Champagne made with the dark Pinot Noir grape would be a Blanc de Noirs (“white wine from black grapes”), unless it’s a Rosé.
Many of the highly advertised and cultish Champagnes also come with a price tag that correlate with their reputations and advertising budgets, such as Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon and Cristal. But the smaller, almost unknown labels colloquially known as grower Champagnes or farmer fizz, are produced by growers in the Champagne region of France, without an advertising budget or the production capacity to respond to high demand. These wines reflect the terroir of the vineyards in which they are grown, the viticultural practices of the grower and the personal style of the wine maker. While not necessarily inexpensive, they can be terrific values relative to the quality of the wine in the bottle.
Pierre Peters Cuvee de Reserve, Le Mesnil Sur Oger Blanc de Blanc (retail price: $80) is 100 percent Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs. The soil is a powdery pure chalk soil similar to the soil around Chablis. Structured and acidic, the wine has a clean, bright, palate, cleansing style and refreshing minerality. Grand Cru Chardonnay at its best, and a great representation of its terroir.
Nicolas Chiquet’s flagship wine, Gaston Chiquet Cuvée Tradition ($65), is reflective of its house style. This wine is from the Vallée de la Marne and reflects the influence of adding red wine to the blend. Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir make up about 65 percent of this wine, the remainder being Chardonnay. The difference in taste and smell contrasted with the Pierre Peters is demonstrable; this wine presents with fuller bouquet, earthier notes and a broader mouthfeel. The grapes are from a soil type reflecting more limestone and clay, and the grapes come from vineyards tended by the same family for more than two centuries. This producer has higher production than many other farmer fizz producers, but still fewer than 100 cases are likely to make it into Michigan. Because of the limited supply, grower Champagnes may be available only for a few months out of the year, and then the wait begins for the wines released from the next vintage.
Lallement Rosé Brut Verzenay, NV Grand Cru ($52),, comes from Pinot Noir specialist Jean Lallement. Focused and earthy, the nose is more subdued, but this plays down on its strawberry fruit. Grown in gravelly loam and clay soil with no chalk, the deep berry fruit of this wine would make for a great pairing with salmon. The flavor lingers on and on in the finish of this wine produced from vineyards in Verzenay and Verzy in the Montagne de Rims.
The last grower Champagne featured in this tasting was the Pierre Gimonnet “Special Club” ($65). A Champagne labeled as “Special Club” is special, indeed — it consists of 26 grower-producers who annually taste the best of the best from each other’s productions. They blind taste the wines and only the best wine can be designated as “Special Club,” which is then bottled in the same bottle for all producers, but each labeled with the label of its own producer. This wine is aged in bottle for three more years, then tasted again by the committee. Only those that pass this rigorous multi-phase judging can be released as a “Special Club” Champagne. The Pierre Gimonnet “Special Club” is light straw colored with a wonderful nose, impeccable balance, bright acids, clean concentrated fruit, good minerality and a long finish. From the 2005 vintage, it is 100 percent Chardonnay.
Bubbly fanciers can also find an abundance of non-farmer fizz juice on local shelves, or likely available for special order if not on the shelf. Recently tasted sparklers that are recommended include M. Lawrence “Green” Extra-Sec from Larry Mawby on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, a blend of Cayuga and Vidal. Light, crisp, fruity and delightful, this is a screaming bargain at around $14.
Also from Leelanau — and one of Michigan’s newest wineries — Viva Cellars’ “Calavera” Blanc de Blancs is 100 percent Chardonnay from Leelanau grapes. This is yeastier, broader and more full bodied, and priced around $22.
Another bargain is 2010 Taltarni Taché, an Australian bubbly comprised of 53 percent, Chardonnay, 44 percent, Pinot Noir and 3 percent Pinot Meunier, with a small dosage of Cabernet (around $16).
Recommended sparklers at higher price points include NV Lallier Grand Reserve Grand Cru Champagne (65 percent Pinot Noir, 35 percent Chardonnay, $45), NV Marc Hebrart Premier Cru Champagne (65 percent Pinot Noir, 35 percent Chardonnay, $50), NV Stephane Coquillette Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Noir “les Cles” (100 percent Pinot Noir, $60), Saint-Chamant a Epernay Champagne Brut Cuvée de Chardonnay 2000 (100 percent Chardonnay, $80) and NV Duval-Leroy Sec- Rose Champagne (100 percent Pinot Noir in a sweeter style, $22).
Best Wishes in 2014!
In Vino Veritas (Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintner’s Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)