what am i tasting?


Tasting Note

Posted November 21, 2012 Exotic curry notes accent flavors of pear financier, coffee liqueur, oyster shell and candied orange zest in this luxuriant, toasty sparkling wine. Aging gracefully, the vibrant acidity is seamlessly integrated with the rich flavor profile and fine, creamy texture.

And the answer is...


Varietal:

So you've just sabered open a bottle of delectable bubbly and accidentally shredded the label off. Now you've got a mystery quaff—what are you tasting?

That it's a sparkler, is, of course, a clue, but one that makes narrowing down the grape variety that much harder, because sparkling wines can be made from virtually any grape from Riesling to Syrah. Complicating matters further, even wines that appear to be white or golden-hued could well be the fruition of red-skinned grapes that are simply pressed for white juice rather than allowed to macerate after crush and impart their color to the wine. A "white" sparkler made from entirely red grapes is called a blanc de noirs—a white from blacks.

The notes of citrus and pear we pick up here indicate a wine that at least looks and behaves like a white. So while Cabernet Franc is a friend to bubbly makers in the middle Loire (crémant de Loire), in "white" crémant it usually plays a bit part, adding a little muscle and fruit to primarily Chenin Blanc blends. When winemakers cast it in the lead role, it's almost always for a sparkling rosé that can showcase its perfume of cherry and berry and its fresh red fruit flavors. That's not our profile, so we can rule that out.

Let's think about Glera and Moscato from the opposite angle. The former is the main and only ingredient in the Prosecco of northeastern Italy; the latter, even trendier in the American wine scene than popular Prosecco, makes either a lightly fizzy frizzante wine or a full bubble bath spumante. Moscato is running the table in both styles from grapes planted all over the world, but its spiritual home is Asti, in Piedmont. Our wine has the tertiary notes of some bottle age—the pastry quality of financier, the coffee, the oyster shell—and also, it says the wine is aging, right there in the note. Prosecco (Glera) is beloved for its brisk, fresh citrusy elements and Moscato for its distinctive honeyed aromas of sweet tropical fruits; not only do neither match the flavor profile here, both tend to lose their most appealing qualities with much age. So we can nix them.

We're left with the two most classic grapes of sparkling wine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Both are blessed with high natural acidity and the ability to thrive in cool climates, where sparkling wines are often the highest expression of the terroir. The grapes are harvested early, before the danger of winter frost or full ripeness (acidity is desired over ripeness as a balance to the bit of sugar that in the traditional méthode Champenoise will be added later in the dosage).

Our wine, like most sparklers from these grapes, is probably a blend, but a close look at the tasting note can help discern which grape dominates. Chardonnay-based fizz is most typically more structured, more toward freshness and crispness than weight and creaminess. The chalkiness of the oyster shell note could certainly be a calling card of the grape's presence in the wine and the "vibrant acidity" and orange and pear flavors indicate that the grape probably figures into the blend. But other elements—the "heaviness" of the fruit flavors, described in dessert rather than pure form, and the fullness of figure in the rich, creamy wine—are hallmarks of Pinot influence.

This wine is a Pinot Noir-based blend.

Country:

Pinot Noir takes, with general enthusiasm, to all five regions listed here. (In Italy, it's Pinot Nero.) But in Italy, the most ubiquitous and celebrated sparkling wines are made with the grapes discussed above. Similarly, sparkling wines are generally still a niche endeavor in New Zealand, and the most heralded Pinots there, from regions like Central Otago Valley, are table wines. Let's rule those two out.

In New York, winemakers do their best with Pinot in Long Island, the Finger Lakes and even, recently, the Hudson River Valley, and indeed, some make fine bubbly from it in the traditional method. But Pinot is a sensitive grape, and the winds, rains and frosts in New York's wine regions do it no favors; Chardonnay and Riesling, less frustrating, make lovely bubbly as well. So this wine is unlikely to be a New Yorker.

France is the birthplace of bubbly in the modern world (there is some evidence the Romans got it down first) and marathon champ of fine sparkling wine, but California, with its late start, is on its heels in quality.

Cool-climate regions like Carneros and Sonoma's Anderson Valley share many similarities with Champagne; indeed, realizing this, grandes marques like Taittinger, Roederer, Moët & Chandon and Mumm all set up outposts there.

It is hard to generalize about differences in style between the two countries' bubbly, because each house uses its own blend of vine plots, grapes, aging techniques and sometimes vintages. But generally, the warmer California areas shower a ripeness on the grapes that allows for expressions of bright fruit flavors, ranging from apple to cherry and a lushness that may or may not be found in Champagnes. It is also less common to age California wines at the winery for more than, say, seven years, or to raise them in barrels, whereas, especially for vintage Champagnes, plenty are aged in oak and held for a decade or more. At many houses, 2000 or 2002 is the current vintage, and this wine, with its toasty and savory notes, fits the bill for both oak and age.

This is a French wine.

Age:

Virtually all of the flavor compounds here are signs of a wine with the air of maturity about it, simple fruit flavors having evolved into more complex and expressive evocations like coffee liqueur and pear financier. In the méthode Champenoise, it is not uncommon to disgorge some wines at one point (that is, to remove the lees after secondary bottle fermentation and put in the dosage and cork) and let others rest a little longer before releasing them. This is especially handy if it seems there will be some wait time between years good enough to be declared millesimes—single-vintage wines.

This wine is more than 10 years old.

Appellation:

Pinot Noir is indeed a permitted grape in the Crémant de Loire AOC, and the Loire is the second-biggest producer of bubbly in France outside Champagne. (The AOC only applies to the Saumur, Anjou and Touraine regions, where the best stuff is made.) However, the grape is not a major player there. Rather than force a grape that doesn't thrive as well in the area, most winemakers use the same grapes that go into the still wines of the region—Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

This is Champagne, baby.

In this particular case, the blend is entirely from the grand cru village of Aÿ, in the Vallée de la Marne, Pinot country in the heart of Champagne, though Chardonnay excels here too; hence the happy harmony of blending.

Wine:

This is the Henri Giraud Brut Champagne Aÿ Fût de Chêne, the tête de cuvee—flagship wine—of the Giraud house, which has significant holdings in Aÿ. It is less common for Champagne makers to source an entire cuvée from one cru; rather, they strive for a blend of the different qualities that various terroirs impart. But Giraud has land in one of the finest spots in Champagne, and this wine is a specific expression of it. Believe it or not, this, the 2000 vintage, is the current release for this wine. As the name "Fût de Chêne" indicates, it spent some time—a year—aging in oak barrels, and it is, in fact, a blend of 70 percent Pinot Noir with 30 percent Chardonnay. This Champagne scored 93 points in Wine Spectator's June 15 issue and will set you back a cool $249. Enjoy it now or cellar through 2022.

—Ben O'Donnell, assistant editor, WineSpectator.com

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