Definitely Strawberries

I love wine.... I don't care if it has hints of passion fruit or terra firma. I've never had a passion fruit, and, as far as I know, terra firma means dirt. But I do love rush of pleasure when you taste something unexpected and extraordinary. This blog is dedicated to understanding and tracking down that feeling through weekly experiments in wine tasting and tipsiness.

"Mmm... a little citrus... maybe some strawberry, passionfruit... and, oh, there's just the faintest soupcon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a nutty Edam cheese."

"Wow. Strawberries, yeah! Definitely Strawberries. Not the cheese..."

Battle of the Bubbles

I get it.  Champagne is a region in France.  Your bubbly is not “Champagne” unless it was grown and bottled in the relatively tiny region of northeast France.  As a result of this technicality, I find myself grimacing at least once every Christmas as my brother refuses to pass the delicious drink until I correctly call it “sparkling wine.” 

“There isn’t any Champagne,” he says.

To which I reply:

“In that case, I’m sorry, but we don’t have any Kleenex in the house, just lots of tissue paper.  There’s some in the bathroom right next to the cotton swabs for ear fiddling.  And we don't have any Diet Coke, only Rite Aid brand Diet Soda.” And so on and so forth.

As you know, my brother is correct. Champagne comes from Champagne, France.  Legend has it that the famous Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, invented it; however most wine historians agree that Masseur Perignon spent much of his life trying to figure our how to eradicate the then-accidental bubbles.  The first sparkling wines to come from Champagne were intended to be still wines.   It was the Brits who, as early as 1662, first started introducing sugars to their finished wine for the intended effect of creating additional carbon dioxide bubbles.

Champagne proper is generally made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.  Blanc de noirs – which we sample tonight - are made from all or predominately Pinot Noir grapes.  Blanc de blancs come from entirely Chardonnay grapes.   The most common classificaiton of sparkling wine, available anywhere from your local Rite Aid to Europe’s most prestigious cellars, is the Brut label.  The differing Brut designations refer to the amount in sugar in the bubbly which dictates its sweetness level:

  •  Brut Natural or Brut Zéro (less than 3 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Brut (less than 12 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Demi sec (highest level of sugar)

Onto the Test
Tonight we test two “relatively similar” sparkling wines: a Mailly Grand Cru Blanc De Noir and a Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir.  Both are nonvintage, meaning they were not harvested in a single year, and both are blanc de noirs.   The Mailly hails from Champagne.  The Domaine Chandon, from California.  

There was no discernable difference in the nose of either.  In fact, I found it hard to pin down any real characteristics of their aromas.   Their colors were similar as well: a black cherry and golden hue.  The Chandon was slightly darker, I suspect in part due to the fact that it includes a small amount of the darker Pinot Meunier grapes while the Mailly was 100% Pinot Noir. 

Unlike the nose, the difference in taste between these two was certain.  This particular Champagne was much better than this particular California sparkling wine.  While the Mailly was smooth and earthy, the Chandon was harsh in comparison. It tasted sharp and steely following the Mailly.  

Another common point of comparison for sparking wines is the quantity and quality of the bubbles. A large number of fine bubbles can be the hallmark of a great sparkling wine.  The more your wine has big bubbles like a lemon-lime soda (don’t call it Sprite), the less likely it is to be noteworthy.  In this case, there was a slightly discernable difference in the bubble comparison.  As you can see from the photo below, the Champagne (on the left) was superior in the amount, although perhaps not the size of, the bubbles. 

Conclusion: Champagne won this battle of the regions.

Full disclosure on this comparison:  the Mailly Champagne retails for more than twice as much as the Chandon.  Their price points are not even close. Moreover, the Mailly comes from the acclaimed Champagne region.  It is, in fact, a grand cru.  The French word cru meaning “growth place,”  a grand cru comes from a patch of land within a region that is known to be spectacular. So, even within the world-renowned Champagne region, the Mailley Grand Cru has a special reputation and designation.  

The Chandon, on the other hand, is simply from “California.”

That being said,  the Chandon Blanc De Noir is no slouch.  In fact, it’s the sparkling wine of choice at White House receptions and also my wedding.  It’s also my wife’s favorite for the price.  But, in the end of the day,  both my wife and I were easily won over by this Champagne.  It was a special treat, and well worth the cost.

Pass the California Champagne
The French had their priorities straight at Versailles.
Use of the word “Champagne” is heavily regulated.  Most laws reserve the term exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region that are made in accordance with Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne regulations.  The name has been protected in Europe since 1891, and France's rights to the term were reaffirmed in Treaty of Versailles.  

While many other countries including Canada and Australia limit the use of the name "Champagne" to those products produced in the French region,  the United States is slightly more liberal.  While the term is banned on new US produced wines, those companies that had approval to use the name before 2006 can continue to call their sparkling wines Champagne so long as the term is followed by the wine’s true locality.  Hence, the $6 Korbel I purchased from Safeway last New Year’s Eve is, according to law, actual Champagne.  

Take that Frenchies!   

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