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Champagne Tasting Party

Hello All!

I thought I'd tap into your combined expertise for a Champagne (actually Champagne/Sparkling Wine) tasting I'm planning for my birthday.

I thought that, heading into the holiday season, it'd be fun for my friends to get to taste one of the "important" vintage champagnes and then discover some reasonably priced alternatives by doing a blind tasting with notecards and everything. I thought it'd be fun to include wines from a variety of regions, trying to pick a wine that would "do justice" to each.

I've never tasted a vintage Champagne and haven't had much experience with the non-vintages outside the occasional glass of Veuve at a party.

After doing some research online about the possibilities (mostly via the NY Times, but hitting some blogs as well) I'm a little overwhelmed with choices and have to narrow it down to 6 bottles (8 guests total).

So far, I've looked at:

Vintage Champagne: Dom Perignon (the idea is to try one "once in a lifetime" bottle)
Non-Vintage Champagne: ????? so many choices!
Cremant: Lucian Cremant d' Alcase or Boyer Blanc d' Blancs
Prosecco: Col Vetoraz
Cava: ???
California: Domaine Carneros
Nevada: Gruet

I'm wondering if I should impose some some limitations, like trying to keep them all in a certain range of dryness, or exclude Rose's.

I've budgeted $250 for wine, much of which I expect will go towards the two Champagnes.

Thoughts? As you recommend a wine, it'd be nice to hear why: what you like about it and where it fits into the tasting as a whole. If you're discouraging me from a particular wine, I'd also love to hear your reasons.

Many thanks for chiming in!

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  1. I think you are on the right track. But first and foremost, I would expand the guest list to more people if you can, because 6 bottles for 8 people is a lot of bubbly. Second, skip prosecco, cava, USA for the most part...there's a lot of discovery to be done with France alone for the typical wine consumer.

    I'd think about two rounds of blind tastings featuring matched bottles, such as:

    Tasteoff 1 -- Vintage Champagne Stars - Dom and another vintage 'grower' champagne that your trusted wine retailer tells you is as great or better than Dom at a fraciton of the price. Purpose of this one is to show friends that there are MANY great Champagnes that you don't have to spend $150 to enjoy.

    Tasteoff 2 - 2 Cremants vs. Korbel Natural NV vs 1 Champagne NV- get Veuve Cliquot orange label and put it up against Jean Louis Denois ($15). Purpose here is to show your friends that drinking well branded bubblies will cost you 2-3x more than it should. Well chosen Cremants usually win in blind tastings. And meanwhile, Korbel Natural ($9) usually stands up to any Champagne NV in a blind tasting.

    Finally, be sure to fully consider the food you serve around sparkling wines. That should be half of all the thought that goes into this.

    People usually are intimidated by pairing food to sparkling wine, when in fact is one of the easiest pairings to do...

    1 Reply
    1. re: kaysyrahsyrah

      1. The budget isn't going to buy 6 bottles of champagne, including a bottle of Dom. Half bottles would work.

      2. I thought the purpose was taste wines blind and see what their real preferences are? In this case, it's important to have non-champagne sparkling: to see if they prefer the higher priced one. You might skip the cavas and proseccos and, as Brad states, to stick to France. In fact, that's an excellent list, though depending on where you are, Crémant de Limoux may not be so easy.

    2. if you want to learn a bit about small producer champanges, which can offer excellent quality and value, check out Terry Theise catalog: http://www.skurnikwines.com/msw/docum...

      Gruet is from New Mexico by the way. The Lucien Albrecht is generally a pretty good value wine.

      You might also want to check out a sparkling Vourvray.

      1. I've done many Champagne and sparkling wine tastings. I like the idea of

        Champagne
        Cremant d'Alsace
        Cremant de Bourgogne
        Cremant de Limoux
        Cremant du Jura
        Cremant de Loire or Brut Loire or Vouvray Petillant
        Cremant de Bordeaux

        1 Reply
        1. Vintage: Forget DP - WAY overpriced and not particularly fabulous. Look for 1995 or 1996 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs - it will save you some money and is a better wine. (In any case, go 1995 or 1996 for BdB, go only 1996 for Champagnes with Pinot in the blend)

          NV: Again, unless you have access to small grower-producers like Boulard, I'd go with Heidsieck.

          CA: Domaine Carneros is a good choice. If willing to spend slightly more, then Schramsberg.

          2 Replies
          1. re: whiner

            Wow!

            Great ideas all around. I think I will skip the prosecco and cava... I'm just now finding out about the existence of Cremants so I'd like to explore more there.

            I like Brad's list: I'll try to fill it in with Eric Asimov's recent(ish) picks from those regions - who else should I consult?

            I'm reading the intro to the Terry Theise catalog now: inspiring! I'll see if I can find some "farmer fizz."

            I kind of know I should skip the DP: but I guess when you've never tried the "super premiums" you want to see that the emperor has no clothes for yourself. Although maybe I'll wait 'til I've got money to burn for that particular experiment!

            I'll look for the '95 or '96 Heidsieck: (found it for $122 at Beacon Wines, which is in subway distance -- any other suggestions)?

            Yes, absolutely will expand the guest list. Should be easy enough to find people willing to play along :-)

            kaysyrahsyrah: I was thinking classic/retro: water crackers with brie & chevre, crudite (cucumber, endive, daikon, celery) grapes & kiwi, crab crostini: sort of a white & light green fantasia! Is that too boring? I was told that spicy can compete with and overwhelm the subtleties of the wines.

            Hurray! too much fun. Thanks again for all the wonderful suggestions!

            1. re: CCeliaS

              Something else you might want to consider is serving two Champagnes from the same house, a non-vintage and a vintage. For example, Bollinger's Spéciale Cuvée (NV) and Grande Année (vintage) or Henriot's Brut Soverain (NV) and Brut Millésimé (vintage), but there are plenty of others. The two bottles would probably cost less than a bottle of the overrated Dom Pérignon. Note that if you're set on the notion of a higher-end bottle, many houses also make luxury cuvées: Bollinger's R.D. and exceedingly rare and breathtakingly expensive Vieilles Vignes Françaises, Henriot's Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, etc.

              BTW, here's an earlier thread about food pairings for Champagnes. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/347066

          2. I really like DP (Cristal is better)...so I would include it. I also really like La Grande Dame and Diamanti Bleu. You can always find some less expensive Champagnes from smaller producers to try. My "everyday" Champagne is Korbel and it is tasty but not anything to "savor"or take notes on. It is nice to have a Champagne that really IS stellar to compare to. Check out Wine Commune (if you have time) and you might be able to buy some unique items at a reasonable cost.

            1. Oh, and you should see about including a Moet & Chandon "white star" (it's cheap enough)....it will really get your guest talking about the differences in "textures" of Champagne!

              1. I don't think Dom Pérignon is worth the price or hype, nor is it really a "once in a lifetime" type of bottle. You can find better grower champagnes at a fraction of the price and I would strongly suggest springing for one of them instead. For the "once in a lifetime" experience, there are several têtes de cuvées from other champagne houses that would blow the standard Dom out of the water. Even Krug's NV Grand Cuvée can beat vintage Dom in tastings. Dom Pérignon Œnothèque ($300+ per bottle) would be the top champagne of Moët et Chandon's range, and it competes with prestige cuvées from other large houses like Veuve Clicquot's La Grand Dame and Louis Roederer's Cristal. However, in this high price range, the rare Bollinger Vieille Vignes Françaises (blanc de noirs), Champagne Salon (blanc de blancs, single vineyard), and vintage Krug are usually the best, but can be more expensive.

                Krug doesn't stop there though; they also have single vineyard vintage bottlings, the blanc de blancs Clos du Mesnil ($1000+ per bottle) and the blanc de noirs Clos d'Ambonnay ($3500+ per bottle). They may be the two greatest champagnes in the world, but those are DRC level prices.

                3 Replies
                1. re: hcbk0702

                  ^^^

                  Yup.

                  I buy most of my Champagne from K&L.

                  I might consider getting a Champagne with age on it. This is a nice wine that I have bought from this store: http://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku...

                  This is a killer wine for the price: http://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku...

                  I haven't looked at other stores' deals at the moment.

                  1. re: hcbk0702

                    Yes, hcbk...your probably right about cost vs better tasting champagnes. I collect, so I have great aged vintage Champagnes that I have stored for over 20 years. The prices now might be outrageous for them (they didn't cost that much in 1984! :). I agree- Krug is excellent!

                    It sounds like the OP wanted the Dom to add to the "fun" of the party. It is really fun to have a big name like that at a tasting party....kind of adds to the experience and gives your guests a little something extra to talk about. Sometimes all your guests won't really know the value or appreciate the differences of all the wines served...but they KNOW what "Dom" is, so that is why I suggested the OP go ahead and "do it" if he wants - hey, it won't be a bad Champagne!

                    1. re: sedimental

                      Yes, exactly sedimental: that's the thought. :-) Though now that I'm interested in the mid-priced estate wines from France, it might pressure my budget beyond affording the Dom. [sigh] Good problems to have, I suppose!

                  2. Just to close the loop: the party was on October 30th and we had a wonderful time!

                    The wines:

                    Dom Perignon 1999
                    Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut 2004
                    Pierre Peters ‘Cuvée Reserve,’ Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc, N.V.
                    Varnier-Fanniere Brut, 'Grand Cru', N.V.
                    Chartogne-Taillet 'Cuvée Ste.-Anne', N.V.
                    Domaine Ste Michelle Brut

                    The price range was $150 (Dom) to $11 (Ste Michelle)

                    The methodology for chosing them? Budget & Panic. The Dom had already been volunteered by a guest, and then I just couldn't decide on a game plan for the rest of them. I knew I wanted to try some estate bottled champagnes and to have a couple american bottles in the mix. So, I asked for recommendations from Lief at Skurnik & away we went.

                    Each guest got 6 tasting cards (w/ blanks for color, aroma, taste, bubble, finish & score), each card decorated with a ribbon color matched to a ribbon tied to the stem of one of six flutes in front of them. It made for a very festive table with all the glassware and ribbons!

                    The wines were wrapped in foil and then tagged randomly with one of the six colored ribbons by a neutral party, not participating in the tasting.

                    We poured three wines at a time, about a two ounce pour. I have to admit, that since we weren't spitting the notes degraded significantly after the first round. However! People were really engaged and talking about subtleties and comparing impressions ("I'd call it - soil?" "Maybe -- chalk?" "Yes! Chalk!" or "What is that? Nutmeg?" "Well first I'm getting lemony but then - gingerbread").

                    In terms of scoring: almost every wine had its fans and its detractors. The two people at the table who were used to drinking fine wines rated the Dom very highly. For the rest of us it was "caviar to the general" and did not particularly please or displease.

                    The farmer fizzes were sort of all over the board in popularity, with everyone liking the Pierre Peters.

                    The two American wines (Iron Horse & Ste Michelle) did surprisingly well, considering their price points. The notes indicated less adventurous tones (more familiar terms like lemon, powdery, many people noting an absence of finish), which in some cases was better received than the farmer fizzes, where more than once people registered a bit of "skunk."

                    My impression is that perhaps one likes what you're familiar with. If you've been trained to appreciate notes of Tobacco and moss, you like them. If you haven't been acclimated to them they can be unpleasant.

                    And if you're curious about the menu: crudite plate, brie & chevre on water crackers, jumbo shrimp w/ a glisten of lemon, creme fraiche crab salad crostini. Then coconut cake for my birthday.

                    I think my favorite tasting note of the evening was "sauvignon blanc spilled on leather" (penned by one of the playwrights at the table).

                    It was a truly great evening. Thank you all for your help!

                    1. Don't forget some cheese with those bubbles! A little stilton, Red hawk from Cowgirl Creamery or Bellwether Farms Carmody are a few that come to mind.

                      1. I think the comment on Krug NV beating DP was understatement. It will beat most anything. It is a unique house with a unique style and will astound anyone who has harbored the notion that Champagnes are all "light." I spend my "Champagne life" in search of other comparable experiences for less $$$. I highly recommend the Billecart-Salmon NV rose. I think a rose tasting would be awesome, too, perhaps throwing in a Domaine Chandon rose (although I prefer their Blancs de Noir).

                        For the budget you are considering you could get three fine Champs and a fine California... a Billecart, a Pommery, and a sleeper your wine merchant tells you about.