The countdown has made it to “one,” the fireworks are lighting up the sky and the next most-anticipated sound officially ringing in 2015 is the pop of a Champagne cork. There’s nothing like a little bubbly to start off the new year, but with so many choices, which one do you pick?
First off, not all sparkling wines are Champagne. Only those that come from the Champagne region in France are true Champagnes. The Spanish call their sparkling wines cavas; the Italians make five different sparkling wines: Prosecco, Lambrusco, Franciacorta and Asti Spumante. Here in the United States, they’re known simply as sparkling wines, even though we incorrectly refer to them as Champagne.
Sparkling wines come in different styles. Blanc de noirs — a French term that means “white from black” or “white of blacks” — is described as a white wine produced entirely from black grapes. Blanc de blancs means “white from whites” and is used to designate sparkling wines made exclusively from chardonnay grapes or, in rare occasions, from pinot blanc. The rosé wines of sparklings, also known as pink Champagne, are produced either by leaving the clear juice of black grapes on its skins for a brief time or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of still pinot noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvée.
Sparkling wines also come in various degrees of sweetness. Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, sparkling wines were generally much sweeter than today. The most common with today’s consumer is brut, which has less than 12 grams of residual sugar per liter.
If the bottle says “extra brut,” it has less than 6 grams of sugar. Extra dry has between 12 and 17 grams; sec between 17 and 32 grams; demi-sec between 32 and 50 grams; and doux, 50 grams. When you’re reading that label, make sure the sparkling wine you select was made in the “traditional method” or “Méthode Champenoise.” This involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle induced by adding several grams of yeast and several grams of rock sugar. The result is “tiny bubbles, tiny headache,” unlike the large bubble obtained by gassing the sparkling wine that leads to large headaches.
At two recent tastings, industry professionals and wine aficionados sampled almost 100 sparkling wines. The top choices at the industry all-Champagne tasting at Juban’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge were the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé , the Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve and the Laurent-Perrior Brut Vintage 2004.
“It has a light toast on the nose,” said Justin McDonald, of Mansurs on the Boulevard, of the Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve. “It’s very dry with lots of bubbles on the finish.”
“It’s creamy in texture,” said Louis Molbert, of Galatoire’s Bistro, of the Laurent-Perrior Brut Vintage 2004. “It’s not too dry and it lingers on the palate pretty well. It’s a good food Champagne.”
“You get a lot of minerality from the terrior,” added McDonald. “It has a rich mouth feel.”
Pomegranate with a hint of grapefruit rind is what Jason Johnson, of Purveyor of Fine Wines, picked up when sipping the Jacquesson Cuvé e.
At an earlier tasting, also at Juban’s and hosted by Bret Smith, of Republic National Distributors, the top three sparkling wines were the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, the Bollinger Cuvé e Speciale and the Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc.
The Heidsieck has notes of fully ripe fruit, such as nectarines and cherry plums at first sip, with hints of nougat, honey and cereal grains on the finish. This wine is remarkably smooth and generous on the palate.
The Bollinger has plenty of white fruit, like apples and pears with bread dough notes. The texture is creamy and the finish clean.
My absolute favorite is the Schramsberg, America’s first commercially produced, 100 percent chardonnay-based brut sparkling wine. Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs gained international recognition in 1972 when then-President Richard Nixon served the wine at the historic “Toast to Peace” in Beijing . Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs is dry, crisp and fruitful with a refined finish. Great by itself as an apéritif, it’s also perfect with fresh oysters and other shellfish.
All of the above wines are $25 and up — way up. But if you’re looking for a true Champagne bargain, look no further than the Monmousseau Brut E toile. This excellent dry sparkling has almond, citrus and pear flavors, a subtle richness and a soft refreshing finish. It’s the perfect apéritif.