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?
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.