I don't know how old the bottle was. It had to be at least 12 years old, probably more like 15. I looked at it in dismay as I pulled it out of the refrigerator. I just wanted to drink something celebratory with my wife and daughter after Brian Wilson struck out Nelson Cruz for the final out of the 2010 World Series last Monday night.
I had snatched it from the cellar that afternoon in order to have it ready were the Giants to win Game 5, and the World Series. I did not even look closely at the label because I figured the few bottles of fizz were all good. When I saw that it was Scharffenberg Brut non-vintage, I blanched.
Scharffenberger, I knew, had changed to Pacific Echo in 1998. It went back to the original name in 2004, but I knew I had not bought any of it since then. No, I had inadvertently grabbed an old bottle of fizz.
Here's the problem. I had always been taught, and experience had confirmed, that Champagne was almost always best on release. Aging had already taken place in the producer's cellar, "on the yeast." In méthode Champenoise, the traditional process, each bottle re-ferments thanks to a bit of sugar and yeast dissolved in the wine. The spent yeast adds depth and character to the wine, and then it is removed when the bottle gets its final corking. After that, quality declines. A 15-year-old bottle of non-vintage California fizz should by all rights be shot.
At least that's the company line from Champagne, and from most serious makers of sparkling wine. They believe their wines benefit from aging "on the yeast," but only lose freshness and character if cellared at home too long. On the other hand, there are the British. It has long been a British tradition to prefer older bottles of Champagne. Even if the wines go a bit flat, and pick up oxidation, there are those who prefer that extra bit of complexity. And indeed certain wines (particularly Salon Le Mesnil, a highly prized Champagne) do seem to get richer and more complex after a few years in the cellar.
I had no illusions that this non-vintage Scharffenberger, made from Mendocino grapes not Mesnil, could achieve anything like that. But it was all I had, so I took it into the TV room along with three nice Riedel flutes. We were going to drink it, no matter what.
I eased out the cork. No big pop, not even much of a sigh. I hoped it wasn't flat. I poured some. Usually, with sparkling wines, the first ounce poured fizzes up to the top of the glass. There was some foam, but I could pour a full glass all at once. Not a good sign.
I sniffed. Not bad. Very toasty, but not oxidized. It had that classic bread dough aroma, a bit of char in the background, and way in the background a hint of lemon. I took a sip. It was delicious. OK, not a world-beater, but it had finesse, balance, complexity, a nice touch of pear lurking under the toast, and if not a fizz at least a serious crackle to the very fine bubbles. It would do. (I would rate this bottle 88 points, non-blind.) We drank the whole thing.
I do an occasional series in this blog that I call "Up from the Cellar." Usually I focus on a wine with some history that has lain in my wine storage for way too long. I open it and see what it has to say. As it turned out this veteran, like Series MVP Edgar Renteria, was not washed up after all. In fact, it taught me that old sparkling wine can deliver.
Stephen Kahn Law Offc — Los Angeles, Cal USA — November 10, 2010 9:01pm ET
Chris Haag — vancouver, bc — November 12, 2010 1:18pm ET
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