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Blind Drunk

The palates of our staffers don't discriminate by price

Freixenet Cordon Negro is cheap. You could buy three of the familiar black bottles for less than what you'd pay for an inexpensive French Champagne like Mumm Cordon Rouge. I thought that was why Freixenet had become so popular in the United States. If money were no object, we'd all drink the more expensive stuff because it tastes better, right?

Not so. In a blind tasting conducted at the Houston Press office last week, Freixenet and Mumm Cordon Rouge finished neck and neck. Tasters scored ten wines on a scale of one to ten. Freixenet and Mumm Cordon Rouge each got an average score of 6.8. Segura Viudas "Aria," a premium Spanish Cava that is also owned by Freixenet, came in a very close second with a 6.7. Chandon Fresco Perla, a new bubbly from Argentina that sells for under $10, did well with a score of 5.4, while Pacific Echo, a popular California blend that sells for more than $16, came in fourth with a 5.2.

Two of the tasters preferred the $7 Spanish bubbly over the $24 French Champagne, and three scored them the same. Both wines scored higher than sparkling wines from California, Argentina, the French Loire Valley and five other Spanish Cava houses. When we asked the tasters to guess which of the ten glasses contained the real French Champagne, Freixenet got more votes than any other wine except the Mumm itself. If you think these results are an anomaly, consider that in a similar tasting at The Wall Street Journal, Freixenet had the same sort of success. It seems that Freixenet (pronounced "fresh-eh-net") has a taste that is uniquely appealing to the American palate.

"Maybe it's because I'm familiar with the taste," said Press staff writer Wendy Grossman when she found out she had given the Spanish Cava a nine and the French Champagne a four. "I was drinking Freixenet when I went out dancing one night. So maybe I associate that taste with a really good experience."

Spanish Cavas are unique in the world of sparkling wines in that they are made from three obscure Spanish grapes. California sparkling wines and others around the world imitate the French by using only Champagne grape varietals, so there is a sameness to the flavor. The low acidity of the three white Spanish grapes gives Cava a taste that is not very crisp. The wines are often criticized as being too soft by leading Champagne experts such as Tom Stevenson. Some Cava makers are experimenting with Chardonnay and imported varietals, but Freixenet has resisted this trend, insisting that it is the Spanish grapes that make Cava unique. Judging by their phenomenal success in the United States, you'd have to believe they're on the right track.

Freixenet sold 6.5 million bottles in the United States last year. It has an 80 percent share of the Spanish Cava market worldwide, which is quite a lot of wine considering that the Cava appellation is reportedly now producing more sparkling wine than the Champagne region. There are a wide variety of Freixenet labels on the market, ranging from a sweeter semi-dry to several premium labels, but Cordon Negro remains the leading seller.

Personally, I gave the Freixenet Cordon Negro a three, the lowest score it received. Call me the Russian judge, but I find the stuff insipid. The big discovery of this tasting, as far as I am concerned, is another Cava owned by Freixenet, the Segura Viudas "Aria." I gave it a six. It came in a very close second in the rankings to the two leaders. This stuff is much better than Cordon Negro, and not that much more expensive. But don't listen to me -- I'm a wine geek, a cork dork. My tastes have been influenced by too many vertical tastings and winemaker dinners. The more champagne I taste, it seems, the less I know about the stuff.

It all seemed so simple ten years ago when I started writing an annual Champagne round-up for the Austin Chronicle. Back then, I thought it was big news that sturdy, non-vintage $25 bubblies like Clicquot Orange Label and Taittinger Brut Reserve were a far better value than $100 Dom Pérignon and Cristal. But I soon came to realize how few of my readers actually drank the French stuff.

People wanted to know about the bargains -- the high-quality California sparklers, Spanish Cavas and French cremants that sold for under $10. And so every year, I went around to supermarkets and wine stores to check out what was new. I drank them, I rated them, and I wrote about them. All the while, I assumed that wine drinkers would generally share my tastes. But through recent blind tastings, I have discovered that I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

The first blind tasting I did, about three years ago, included several young food and wine writers. I am prone to gush over Champagnes that include a lot of Pinot Noir. These wines have complex bouquets with components of hazelnuts, toast and vanilla. But they also can throw off some very odd aromas, especially when they are first opened. When we tasted Nicolas Feuillatte's Palmes D'Or, a Grand Cuvée that sells from around $100 a bottle, I loved it and the young writers hated it. One observed that it smelled like a wet dog. And it did, sort of. But it still tasted wonderful. (Maybe I have a positive association with wet dogs.) The younger tasters vastly preferred the lemon and green-apple flavors and tongue-biting tartness of Chardonnay-based sparkling wines -- which taste like 7-Up to me.

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