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Wine Value Archive

© Copyright 1997 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

Sparkling Wines

Two cheap bubblies
I have to hammer together a "good cheap wines to go with Derby brunch" article before I hit the road on Monday, so we opened two cheap bubblies with dinner tonight.

Taking advantage of the circumstance, we played a couple of wine games: I poured us each one in a Champagne "flute" and one in a traditional tulip glass, reversing the procedure so we each had opposite wines in opposite glasses. The results: If you like bubbles, use a "flute." The carbonation "fountain" is far more impressive and longer-lasting when the bubbles have the point at the bottom of the traditional glass to take off from. In the tulip glass, although the wine smelled and tasted fine, the bubbles dissipated fast.

Then, that test done, I took over the two "flutes" for a side-by-side comparison of two identically priced sparkling wines from Domaine St. Michelle from Washington State, a wine I consider the best low-end value for sparklers. It blows away the budget domestic bubblies, which are generally nasty, and the cheap Spanish cavas, which are a little better but boring, and would actually rank surprisingly well even against the double-digit sparkling wines made in California by the French houses such as Chandon, Deutz, Roederer and Mumm's. I don't see how Ste. Michelle does it, but I remain convinced that if you want a good sparkling wine experience for a minimal price, this is the way to go.

That being said, the Blanc de Blanc (silver label) clearly outpaces the Brut (gold).

Domaine Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley (Washington) Blanc de Blancs ($7.99)
Pale straw color with streaming pinpoint bubbles. Light apple scent, fresh and clean, leads to a crisp, "creamy" texture, rich and bone-dry, with apple flavors remaining consistent in a medium-long finish. A truly remarkable value, a single-digit bubbly that can be recommended without any reservations and competes persuasively against wines at two to three times the price. (Feb. 28, 1997)

Domaine Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley (Washington) "Champagne" Brut ($7.99)
Pale straw color with the faintest rosy hue; lasting bubbles when served in a traditional "flute." Apples and yeasty rising bread dough aromas at first, with a fruity, oddly perfumed character coming in as the wine warms in the glass. Perfumed and minty qualities detract from an otherwise fresh and clean palate impression, particularly once the wine warms to less than ice cold. Disappointing in comparison with the blanc de blancs, but still a big step ahead of everything else at the price point. (Feb. 28, 1997)

Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin 1989 "Vintage Reserve" (Gold Label) Brut Champagne ($39.99)
Pricey, yes, but one of the world's great bubblies, and likely the only fine vintage Champagne you'll find for $40, only $10 above the non-vintage Yellow Label. It's a pale-gold color with a rushing, endless fountain of pinpoint bubbles. A fresh ripe-apple scent adds a delicate yeasty edge. Flavors are consistent with the nose, rich and full -- this is no light little Champers -- with a subtle, delicious nuance that drives us crazy trying to identify it until my wife nails it as, remarkably, "chocolate-covered cherries." Clean, fresh and lovely in a very long finish that leaves just a haunting sense of dark, bitter chocolate. Wonderful wine! Importer: Cliquot Inc., NYC. (Dec. 31, 1996)

Domaine Ste. Michelle non-vintage Columbia Valley (Washington State) "Champagne Brut" Sparkling Wine ($6.99)
It's a shame to see a major winery like Ste. Michelle appropriating the name "Champagne" for its bubbly now that most responsible U.S. wineries have gotten over that; but this being said, it's a heck of a good sparkling wine, so let's not let politics stand in the way of a value. It's a very pale gold color, with a fountain of pinpoint bubbles. Good yeasty and apple scents lead into a crisp and very dry flavor. Definitely blows away the competition among bubblies in the single-digit range. (Dec. 14, 1996)

Domaine Ste. Michelle non-vintage Columbia Valley (Washington) Sparkling Wine "Champagne" Brut ($7.99)
Pale straw color, with a lasting fountain of tiny bubbles. Faint appley aroma, rather closed in the nose department. Crisp and fresh, fizzy mouthfeel, finishes very clean without the sour tang that flaws so many cheap (and some not-so-cheap) U.S. and Spanish bubblies. Good, not great, but blows the doors off the competition at the price point. (Jan. 8, 1996)

Mumm Cuvee Napa non-vintage "Brut Prestige" ($10.99)
Tasted in a blind "shootout" with its genuine French sibling (below) as a comparison; they don't compare. Clear, pale-straw, with streaming but relatively few bubbles. Yeast and apples nose. High carbonation creates a very foamy mouthfeel; perceptible sweetness, simple on the palate, seems a bit flabby in comparison with the French model. (Oct. 30, 1995)

G. H. Mumm & Cie Cordon Rouge Brut Champagne ($23.99)
Clear, pale straw color, bubbles both more abundant and tinier than the California Mumm (above). Yeast and toast nose, more complex and more "traditional" in the style of real Champagne; dry, crisp, apple and "biscuit" flavors, ditto on the complexity. Yes, it costs more than twice as much as the California wine in this market; even so, the Napa wine is no bargain. Importer: The Seagram Classics Wine Co., New York City. (Oct. 30, 1995)

All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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