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Drink Pink

Rosé champagnes compete in our third annual sparkler shoot-out

The results didn't faze the wine pros in the least; these guys wade through wine hype for a living. If you ask me, the Palmes d'Or Rosé, made with 100 percent Pinot Noir, wasn't all that bad. Sure, it had some gamey aromas, but many great Burgundies do. Still, as the terrible score here illustrates, it is an acquired taste. And the Freixenet -- with its beautiful color, delightfully fruity taste and a price tag under $10 -- is pretty hard to beat.

In fact, if you check the rankings in this blind tasting, you will notice a bizarre phenomenon. The two wines tied for second cost $10 and $20, the fourth-place wine sells for $35, and the loser costs $170. Judging by these results, you might conclude that price is inversely proportional to quality in the champagne business. Naked emperors all over the place!

The exception to the price-quality equation and the winner of this blind tasting by a country mile was Iron Horse Brut Rosé. This brilliant pink, dry and nutty-tasting American sparkler is worth every penny of its $30 price tag. If you're going to spend this much on a bottle of bubbly, it's tempting to go with nonvintage French Champagnes. But demand has pushed popular brands like Clicquot's orange label closer to the $40 mark over the last few years. When it's $10 cheaper, buying an exceptional California sparkling wine like Iron Horse becomes a much easier decision.

Iron Horse Brut Rosé is now approaching legendary status. In tasting after tasting, it has been singled out as one of the best rosé sparklers in the world. A blend of 88 percent Pinot Noir and 12 percent Chardonnay, it has all the hazelnut, toasty flavors and aromas of the Pinot Noir varietal with none of the gamey off-notes so many French rosé Champagnes exhibit. It is also the driest of the sparkling wines we tasted. This balance and complexity makes it an exceptional wine to drink with food.

Red wine lovers tend to appreciate the deeper flavors of good rosé champagnes over the lemony crisp taste of Chardonnay-based clear sparkling wines. If you've never tried one before, a bottle of Iron Horse Brut Rosé is a great place to start. But if you want to serve a distinctive and delicious pink bubbly at your holiday party, grab a case of Freixenet Brut de Noirs. It's not as complex as the Iron Horse; in fact, it might even remind you a little of Strawberry Nehi. But don't let anybody give you any guff. After all, the wine experts loved it.

Scorecard

Iron Horse Brut Rosé, 1996 (California)
Rank: 1
Average score: 17
Retail price: $30

John DeMers: (13) bright color, boring bouquet
Rhonda Findley: (18) rich, wild, zazzy
Hermen Key: (20) wild strawberry nose, deep flavors
Bertrand Leulliette: (16) I like a lot
Melba Allen-Mauviel: (18) toasty, cherries, very fruity
Robb Walsh: (17) deep red, full fizz, perfect balance

Freixenet Brut de Noirs (Spain)
Rank: 2 (tie)
Average score: 14
Retail price: $10

DeMers: (16) mild, but pleasant
Findley: (14) raw, wilting, too grapey
Key: (10.5) a bit sweet, strange finish
Leulliette: (16) I like a lot
Allen-Mauviel: (16.5) refreshing, easy to drink
Walsh: (11.5) not complex, Strawberry Nehi

Gratien & Meyer Fleur de Lys Rosé Brut (Loire Valley)
Rank: 2 (tie)
Average score: 14
Retail price: $20

DeMers: (15) pale, faded
Findley: (16) sorta like an overmade- up girl
Key: (13) dry, good fruit, oxidized?
Leulliette: (14) it is good
Allen-Mauviel: (12) beautiful pink salmon color
Walsh: (14.5) hot pink, gamey nose

Contadi Castaldi Rosé (Italy)
Rank: 4
Average score: 12.5
Retail price: $35

DeMers: (17) nice, but not very rosé
Findley: (8) smells like a wet, soapy dog
Key: (12) muted, good balance
Leulliette: (12) it is all right
Allen-Mauviel: (16) golden color, toasty ripe apple nose
Walsh: (10) yellow tint, yeasty aroma

Nicolas Feuillatte, Palmes d'Or Rosé, 1996 (Champagne)
Rank: last
Average score: 12
Retail price: $170

DeMers: (15) limited flavor
Findley: (15) bright, creamy texture
Key: (4) strange nose, gamey
Leulliette: (16) I like
Allen-Mauviel: (11.5) dry, powerful, could be Champagne
Walsh: (11.5) cinnamon and fruit, funky nose

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