Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Champagne Taste-Off

There's quite a lot to that saying about appreciating what you have.

Just as the ground beneath New York City's collective feet finally rumbled back into action and it was time to get out there and support beloved downtown businesses who had been shuttered due to Sandy, I got good and sick. For me, this is thankfully a rare occurrence. But when it happens, it happens real good. In the beginning, they called Hurricane Sandy the Frankenstorm. Well, this was the Frankenplague - sore throat turned to sinusitis turned to bronchitis. By Election Day, lying down felt like drowning. We take the ease of breathing in and out far too much for granted. The raspy cough that felt like my chest was awash in Pop Rocks lasted nearly two weeks.

I think my senses are still trying to regenerate. Most troubling for me is that my taste buds are not nearly as sharp as they were before I got sick. Flavors feel pixillated. I ate ramen with so much chili oil, it burned my lips as I slurped and left a pink ring around them for the day, but I barely tasted the heat on my tongue. I felt the need to add so much salt to my bowl of chickpea and spinach stew that I could be sold with a PRE-BRINED label. Last Saturday night, I  couldn't taste the acid in the tomato sauce on my pizza, which made me want to cry. Then there was the Champagne.

Last Monday, Executive Wine Seminars, or EWS, put together a blind tasting of 13 non-vintage releases. I was excited by the prospect, not only to taste that many bubblys side by side, but to have the opportunity once and for all settle the score between what are known as Grower Producers (think of them as the indie rockers of the big bad Champagne world, they do everything themselves) vs. the Big Guys (meaning, the big name, iconic, corporate Champagne houses who outsource most of their grapes and mass produce their wine.) Those of us in the know have championed the grower producers for their finesse, flavor structure, individual style and for the most part, approachable price range. Corporate Champagne has the stigma of appeasing the masses, often sacrificing structure for bold, standout flavors at a huge markup. Many wine snobs say they detect in them a syrupy finish due to what are probably high amounts of dosage (sugar mixed with wine that according to law is allowed to be added to Champagnes after secondary fermentation to bring up sweetness levels) and really frothy bubbles. I'm sorry, "mousse."

We knew which wines we were drinking, but not the order in which they were being poured. Each one was covered in a brown paper bag with a number written on it. Years ago, this worked beautifully for the 2005 vintage of Chateauneuf du Pape. In a blind tasting, we all favored the smaller producers. The wines who had received high scores from all the famous reviewers, like Robert Parker, and drove herds of people to snatch them up for triple their worth without even tasting them for themselves, left everyone at our tasting cold, without knowing which ones they were till the end. It made me happy. Score for the underdogs which were being sold at a more appropriate price point.

Robert Millman (a former colleague at Morrell) and Howard Kaplan, who run the tastings for EWS, have a motto: "We take wine seriously, but not too seriously." This isn't necessarily true of the people who take part in the tastings, but like the choices in their lineups, it's a fun mixed bag. Old, young, male, female and in the words of Rudy Ray Moore as Dolomite - "...uptown, downtown, crowned and renowned." (The part where we relay, delay, mislay and parlay comes later.) We taste the wines in small groups, write notes, then discuss.

What was really interesting about this Champagne tasting, apart from the selection, was the huge difference in opinion between the tasters, divided among gender and generation, possibly where we lived too. It was immediately decided that the drier bubblys had to be the growers. Any detection of fruit or sweetness in the finish meant dosage, surely only the big guys do that. But can't that also be attributed to which grapes are used? More Pinot Meunier/Pinot Noir often makes a drier, toastier product. Chardonnay can have inherent caramel apple flavors, nothing wrong with that. Just depends on what's done with them.

The men were definitely going for the drier wines, which to me (and my Mom, who happened to be seated next to me) didn't taste like much. The same wine that an older gentleman in the group said had flavors of "ginger beer and rice pudding" to me tasted super acidic and gassy. Mom said it was even "crying out for Zantac." The women were responding more to the wines that had stronger backbone- fruit, toast, nuts, spice and citrus zing, hitting all parts of the tongue. The men seemed happier when it was more about just the toastiness and yeast. The younger people in the group liked the wines that seemed more edgy and spicy. One of the women brought her poodle to the tasting. By the way, he yapped when that guy said that thing about the rice pudding.

I love Champagne, but so many of these fell flat for me. It could have been palate fatigue, and we were eating very strong cheese on the side, which didn't match with any of them too well. Maybe it had been so long since I had to evaluate wine this way that I was a little rusty. But something seemed off. Many of these were wines I'd tasted before, but they weren't making me happy anymore. Champagne is about celebration and living the good life. But I noticed a lot of subjective opinions were being dismissed as amateur. We were forming ourselves into tribes, and any second there would be war. It felt like all the Champagne fun was deflating as carbonation died in our warming glasses.

Reveal the wines already.

Here was the lineup:
1. Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Brute Cuvée Reserve
2. Veuve Cliquot Brut Yellow Label
3. Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition
4. Louis Roederer Brut Premier
5. Ployez-Jacquemart Extra Quality Brut
6. Jean Lallement Brut
7. Boillinger Brut Special Cuvée
8. Marc Hébrart brut Cuvée de Réserve
9. G.H. Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge
10. A. Margaine Le Brut
11. Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition
12. Pol Roger Brute Reserve
13. Laurent-Perrier Brut

The big winners? #3: Mumm #2: Roger #1: Laurent-Perrier

WTF? None of the growers in the crowd favorites?

Something is definitely wrong here.

Here's my theory, and yes, I am admitting my tasting capabilities are not up to their usual snuff: First of all, one of the things we say we love about grower Champagnes is subtlety and structure. So when going up against a père gros of a bubbly, they could easily have gotten lost. The other is, well, gasp!, maybe some of those famous labels are popular for a reason? When I was coming up in the retail wine world, I was very pleased to have the folks at L-P take us out for the holidays where they showcased the major players of their portfolio with really excellent Italian food. Hey, no one was complaining!

Still, on the rare occasions I buy Champagne, I almost always go for one of the lesser known labels and probably still will.

I don't know, maybe we need a rematch?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Hope it tastes amazing.

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