Sparkling Showdown!

Richard FadeleyAccording to Tom Stevenson (World Encyclopedia of Champagne) there are 250 million bubbles in the average bottle of Champagne. I can't count that fast, but I can think of quite a few good reasons to enjoy a glass or two of this most exquisite of beverages.

As much as we preach to the contrary, most bubbly is consumed over the next three weeks as endless Christmas parties lead into the New Year's celebration; consequently this is when we make our annual assessment of Champagne and sparkling wines to help you with your selections. It is always interesting to see how the big boys from Champagne stack up against the wannabes from other parts of France and the New World. California is producing credible sparklers, but that should be no surprise since most of their producers are based in Champagne. The Spanish have made inroads into the market with their very affordable Cava's, and by now most people are familiar with Italy's Prosecco.

Champagne is not just for weddings or launching ships, it should be a part of a well planned dinner party as well as family gatherings, and how about Wednesday night sushi? Of course real Champagne must come from the Champagne district of France, but effervescent wine is produced in other countries using the same process but with different names (Italy, Spumante; Germany, Sekt; Spain, Cava).

Champagne is located 90 miles northeast of Paris – the northernmost vineyards in France – where the grapes struggle to mature, yielding barely ripe fruit with higher acidity which happens to be ideal for distinctive sparkling wine. Champagne used to produce still wine and the bubbles were a problem, then, when the effervescence became fashionable, bottle breakage ensued, until the British developed stronger glass that would contain the 5-6 atmospheres of pressure in a typical bottle.

While Champagne is made with only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, producers in other countries and regions often use different grapes. Our top wine this year was made with 100 percent Pinot Blanc. We had a sparkling Reisling take top honors in a recent tasting, while the affable. Most sparklers (all wines in this tasting) are produced with techniques that the French employ, with the secondary fermentation taking place in each bottle, known as method champanoise, or "traditional method".

Sparkling wine can be a wonderful accompaniment for a variety of foods. As we were bagging up these wines we filled the dinning room table with smoked salmon, marinated shrimp, Carolina crab cakes, biscuits with prosciutto sushi, ham sandwiches on rolls and a platter full of Apalachicola oysters on the half shell. For dessert we had a chocolate cheesecake topped with fresh raspberries, served with a tasty rosé from California. Sparklers can also be paired with vegetarian fare, creamy soups and bisques, stews and Cobb or Caesar salads.

All of these sparklers were tasted blind along with the food. We had a lot of past winners in this tasting, which made it hard for our tasters to discern the subtle differences. All of these wine were very good to excellent! Our favorite wine this year was also a repeat "first place" from nine years ago, and only cleared the second place wine by 1/2 point (another past favorite Mumm Cordon Rouge).

Gruet, Henriot, and Piper Heidsieck, with their showy red label, again clwed their way to the top hails from Alsace – Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace – followed closely by two nice Champagnes. Gruet from New Mexico showed well, and was a repeat favorite.

There are lots of good sparklers for the budget minded, but when the occasion calls for the cachet associated with the genuine article, you can plan on spending $25 plus for a good Champagne. Shop around though, there are some deals out there. Many of the non-French wines were delightful and affordable. Freixenet again showed why it is the world's largest selling sparkling wine and several California wines were outstanding. Saint Hilaire and Paul Cheneau round out the "Best Buys".

None of these wines would disappoint: they are refreshing and lively wines to highlight your holiday parties or compliment a meal. Look for the best value to fit the occasion.

Next time you are in your local wine store pick up one of these sparkling wines and see if it won't change your outlook on life.

Sparkling Wine Review

Iron Horse 2007 Vintage Brut **** Best of Tasting California $ 26.00
Mumm Cordon Rouge NV, Champagne **** Best Champagne, Again! France $ 36.00
Gruet, NV Brut **** Always a Smart Buy! New Mexico $ 14.00
Piper Heidsieck NV Brut **** Classic! Good Showing! France $ 36.00
Henriot NV Souverain **** A Personal Favorite! France $ 36.00
Domaine Carnaros, 2006 **** A Consistent Favorite! California $ 21.99
Lucien-Albrecht Crement d'Alsace **** Twice Our Top Wine! France $ 19.99
Taittinger NV Brut, La Franciase **** Always in Good Taste! France $ 38.00
Mailly Les Echansons '99 Vintage **** Complex & Classic! France $ 79.99
Saint-Hilaire 2007 Brut *** A Consistent Best Buy! France $ 14.99
Pacific Rim Sparkling Riesling *** Good Value Here! Washington $ 14.99
Cristalino NV Brut Cava *** A Best Buy! Spain $ 7.99


Our four-star rating system and how it might compare to the WS 100-point scale:
* Decent (80-83)
** Good (86-87)
*** Very Good (87-89)
**** Excellent (90+)

All ratings are only the opinions of our tasters and not meant to offend your personal favorites.

December 2010

To contact Richard Fadeley, write him at

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