Blind tastings can be fun, informative, uplifting, humbling, even humiliating. The ones I enjoy most are those where my involvement is solely as a taster, with no knowledge of what wines are in the mix (I tend to try to identify wines I know are in a lineup, usually with disastrous results.) Oh, and of course if all the wines are high-end Champagnes and other bubblies, so much the better.
Earlier this month I was invited to join about a dozen of DC’s finest palates to taste through a case of top sparkling wines from around the world. The crowd was primarily sommeliers, with some distributor reps and me filling out the bench. The tasting was held at Barmini by José Andres, and was sponsored by Lucas Paya, wine director of Andres’ Think Food Group of restaurants; Ryne Hazzard and Eric Hauptmann of Potomac Selections, a local importer/distributor; and Pepe Raventos of Raventos I Blanc, a Spanish sparkling wine producer. The hosts supplied the wines but did not establish the tasting order, so they did not know which were which.
And guess what? The only American wine in the dozen turned out the be group’s consensus favorite. After we were each asked to identify our top three, the winners were the Schramsberg J. Schram 2005 from California, the Mariel Raventos 2000 Cava from Spain, and the Pierre Paillard 2004 Brut from Champagne.
Generalizations? Sommeliers – at least this group – seem to like fat, oaky, oxidized sparkling wine, which Hazzard describes as “luxury wines” – constructed to smell, taste and feel luxurious. (He did not mean that as a compliment.) Although I tend to prefer fresher wines, I agreed with the group’s top choice. My three favorites turned out to be the J. Schram, the Salon 1999 (a very close second, and those wines were very different), and a new one for me, the A. Margaine Blanc de Blanc 2008. (And to be honest, the lineup was so good that choosing my third favorite was most difficult – I could just as easily have picked three or four others.) In fact, there was only one wine I didn’t like, the Krug Grande Cuvée; and that didn’t surprise me, for I’ve never felt the magic from Krug.
And I learned something – I thought I was beginning to be able to detect whether a Champagne was Chardonnay dominant or mostly Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. No way, I blew it every time. I did peg the Bolly, however.
Here are my hastily scribbled notes, in order of tasting, with the names of the wines. (My notes may not have all the details, as the bottles were cleared away quickly to prepare the space for the evening’s service.)
1. Bruno Giacosa Spumante, Piemonte: Tree fruit aromas, talc, minerals, peach – chardonnay dominant?
2. Mariel Raventos 2000 Cava, Spain: Bruised apple, darker color suggests age in base wines and/or cask aging. Beginning to tip the oxidation scale. (This was the group’s second choice.)
3. Salon 1999, Champagne: Straw gold, moderate dosage, peach, very soft and fine. Focused and luxurious. (The texture was what entranced me about this wine, and when we all realized that it was the oldest in the tasting, several people commented on how young and fresh it tasted.)
4. Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle, Champagne: Racy, mineral, long. Focused. Red fruit flavors. PM, PN here. (??) Color suggests some age, but it’s very fresh. Possibly low dosage. (And definitely a contender for my top rankings.)
5. Krug Grande Cuvée, Champagne: Again with the oxidation, bruised green apples, finishes short.
6. Bollinger Special Cuvée: Winey apples. Spice – ginger? Cream. Smells aged, not fresh. Fruit is bright, soft, and delicate – reminds of Bollinger. (To be honest, I had tasted the Bolly a week earlier for my column on Champagnes.)
7. Raventos L’hereu 2010 Cava, Spain: Fresh, lively, dry, perhaps a bit hollow in middle? Higher than average acid.
8. Schramsberg, J. Schram 2005, California: Ox (oxidation), full, toasty, lush and long, apples, hint of caaramel, rather complex – delish in the full body style. Second taste – more red fruit, currant flavor of PM, PN. [It's 86% Chardonnay, the rest Pinot Noir.] [This was my favorite, as well as the group's.]
9. Pierre Paillard Brut 2004, Champagne: Clean, crisp, pear, apple, some brulée, or tart crust, good finish. A palate cleanser after #8. [Also a top contender for my short list.]
10. A. Margaine 2008 Blanc de Blancs, Champagne: Red fruit, chalk, quince, clean, crisp, delicious. PM/PN- based. [Yeah, shows I need to work on this! My designee as 3rd favorite.]
11. Larmandier Grand Cru 2006, Champagne: Chewy, almost tannic, this has the roughest texture yet, full-bodied, almost steroidal. Perhaps too young.
12. Recaredo Brut Nature 2003 RD Cava, Spain: Here’s how to end a tasting on a down note: This wine was corked. Luckily, there was another bottle available to taste as we socialized afterwards, and it was delicious and yeasty.
So I have a New Year’s Resolution for 2014: I need to improve my ability to taste the subtle differences between Chardonnay and the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes in Champagne, and to recognize when they’re not even there at all. Which means I need to buckle down and drink copious amounts of Champagne and sparkling wine this year.
Or I could just stop worrying about individual grape varieties and enjoy the wine for its harmonious expression of the blend. But then I wouldn’t need to drink as much.