Delicious Mischief is the name of a radio program about food and wine on KRTS 92.1 FM. It's also an apt description of the impish rascality behind the Press's annual champagne taste test. I love these blind tastings because the overpriced, pretentious wines always lose.
Last year a cheap Spanish cava tied with a real French Champagne in a blind tasting by the Houston Press editorial staff (see "Blind Drunk," November 29, 2001). But my colleagues refused to take the voting at face value. As journalists are wont to do, they dug deep for larger explanations: Did the results reflect the uneducated palates and working-class taste buds of those assembled? Or did they prefer the cheap champagne because that's what they were drinking on a special night long ago?
Third annual sparkler shoot-out
This year, in the hopes of avoiding such deep thoughts, I went looking for a panel of real wine experts. And I hit the jackpot at the Saturday, November 22, airing of Delicious Mischief. The weekly live radio show is hosted by former Houston Chronicle food editor John DeMers and Louisiana food writer Rhonda Findley. Lucky for me, their guests that day included three wine professionals: Hermen Key, managing director of Spec's Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods; Bertrand Leulliette, a French wine salesman; and Melba Allen-Mauviel, wine institute director at the Alain & Marie LeNôtre Culinary Institute.
They had come to discuss Nouveau Beaujolais, but they didn't protest much when I stuck glasses of bubbly in their hands. I asked the group to join me in scoring five bottles of sparkling rosé on the Davis 20-point scale, a scoring system developed at the University of California at Davis that awards points for color, clarity, bouquet, taste/balance, sugar, acidity, body and general quality.
I chose rosé champagnes for this year's tasting because they represent the very best and the very worst of sparkling wines. Cold Duck, a bright pink and sugary blend of champagne and sparkling Burgundy, was one of the first wines I ever drank. I think we bought a bottle the night of my high school prom. Fizzy, fruity and sweet, it was an easy transition from soda pop.
I always thought of pink champagne as the cheap stuff, until about ten years ago, when my favorite wine merchant recommended French rosé Champagnes for the holidays. I was shocked, but he told me that in France, the rosés were the favorites of a discerning clientele that included the Champagne makers themselves.
So I decided to write a story about pink champagne for a travel magazine. I visited the headquarters of the Champagne Wine Information Bureau, where a staff enologist gave me a crash course followed by a tasting at the Maison Des Millésimes (House of Vintages) near Épernay. I have been a pink champagne lover ever since.
While rosés represent only 3 to 5 percent of total Champagne production in France, they are taken very seriously by many Champagne houses, which consider them to be among their best wines. French Champagne can be made from only three different varieties of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Of the three, only Chardonnay produces white wine. In order to produce white wine from black grapes, or blanc de noir, as it is known in France, the skins of the darker grapes must be removed before they impart too much color to the wine.
One way to make pink champagne is to add red wine to the cuvée; some top Champagne houses, like Veuve Clicquot, maintain a separate winery operation that produces Pinot Noir wines for the sole purpose of blending into their rosé Champagnes. The other way is to simply leave the dark grape skins in contact with the wine until they give it a rosy tint. This is the method used by Nicolas Feuillatte in its Palmes d'Or Rosé, the most highly touted wine we tasted at the radio station.
Palmes d'Or is a "prestige cuvée," Nicolas Feuillatte's equivalent of Moët et Chandon's Dom Perignon or Clicquot's Grande Dame. A sales executive in Champagne once told me that they make these overpriced prestige cuvées for rock stars, oil sheiks and people who want to throw their money around. The rosé version of Palmes d'Or, which was introduced this year, is perfect for that purpose; at $170, it costs $50 more than even the regular Palmes d'Or. Of course, Nicolas Feuillatte also makes a more reasonable nonvintage Champagne that sells for around $35 a bottle. Before the tasting began, Rhonda Findley told me that the nonvintage Feuillatte was her favorite bubbly.
Representing the opposite end of the spectrum is Freixenet Brut de Noirs, a Spanish sparkling rosé. Made by the traditional Champagne method but with Spanish grape varieties, it was the best bargain in the group. You could buy 17 bottles of this stuff for the price of one bottle of Palmes d'Or.
So how did these two wines compare? The Freixenet kicked ass with a tie for second place, while the Palmes d'Or came in dead last. Which proves, once again, that when you take away the price tags, the fancy labels and the rest of the marketing con artistry, the emperor of Champagne is buck-naked.
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.
Iron Horse Brut Rosé, 1996 (California)
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)
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)
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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