Yesterday we explored the origins of Champagne, and all sparkling wines, from the Stone Age forward. Today we get down to business, namely, something to drink.
Today’s blog is not aimed at wine connoisseurs, expert tasters or wine snobs. There are many people who will advise you on just which fine wine to buy depending on your mood or the food you join it with.
Here is our target audience today:
– We who like wine and wouldn’t mind liking it a little more, but who don’t want a PhD course in the art of the sommelier.
– We who like a casual drink of wine at home with friends, who want enjoyment at a reasonable price.
Science Speculation: Today, if you enjoy the frizz of carbonation in your wine, there are many choices for your wine cellar. However, there are those who feel that Champagne is the only wine worth having in your glass.
What most sticks in my mind is a memorable quote by Winston Churchill:
Visiting gentlewoman: Mr Churchill, why do you drink Champagne for breakfast?
Churchill: Because I can, madame. Because I can!
It is not recorded whether Churchill meant to brag about his wealth, comment on his values, or just express his joy of living. Perhaps the quote is memorable because it says just enough, and not too much. Alas, the quote itself is not recorded anywhere that I can find, so perhaps it exists only in my imperfect memory.
Bubbly as a Beverage of Choice
We have previously remarked that our tastes are biased by many factors; those who disdain every sparkler save Champagne might feel that way because of sheer sensory pleasure, but they might also be swayed by price, prestige, back story, advertising or other factors.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons to consider sparkling wine as a beverage of choice. One simple reason has to do with calories. Personally, I get the most enjoyment per calorie consumed if I drink brut (dry sparkling wine) or straight-up martinis. For example, I might gladly consume 21 ounces of a tasty mid-alcohol IPA for a total of 355 calories; however, I would get just as much pleasure from one four-ounce classic martini (214 cal) or two 4-ounce glasses of bubbly (156 cal). The ale gains its flavor from plentiful high-calorie carbs; the other beverages get their flavor from very low-calorie additions to the alcohol. (I chose the quantities in this example because the total pure alcohol content in each case is 1.4 ounces, if I did my math correctly.)
If bubbly is an acceptable drink, which ones should we choose? Fortune magazine will gladly help you select an authentic Champagne at prices ranging from $40 to $375 per bottle. But what if, unlike Winston Churchill, that’s a bit too rich for your everyday budget?
Brut Rosé Tasting: A Celebration
With the holiday season in full swing, many of our family members have recently been sipping brut rosé, which is a fairly dry, pink-tinted sparkling wine. Perhaps it’s the zing of effervescence that captivates them. Or the cheery bright color. Or the fact that the makers of pink wines often make them slightly sweeter than their straw-colored cousins, fulfilling the expectations of some consumers while at the same time seducing their taste buds with extra sweetness.
I suggested that our family group should conduct a brut rosé tasting, in which we would sample a number of brut rosés selling for about $7 to $15 a bottle, a modest but not rock-bottom price range. Since we are not wine experts and these are wines that are not advertised as the best in their class, the brut rosé tasting was designed as a form of entertainment and the excuse to have a party.
The most difficult task was finding a date when our most enthusiastic quaffers of brut rosé would all be in town, and that day turned out to be two days ago, 12/28/2014. I collected eight different brut rosés, wrapped each from head to toe to hide its identity, and added a blank shipping label.
Eight members of our extended family gathered round, alternately tasting and running to the TV to check on the progress of the Lions vs Packers game. Each taster had eight matching glasses coded to match the wines; plain crackers and water to clear the palate; a cup with some coffee beans to clear the nose; a clipboard with a score sheet; and a pencil.
Each bottle’s shipping label was given a fictitious identity, specifically H K N Q U V X Z. (These letters were chosen because they did not include any of the initials of our tasters, in hopes of minimizing that subtle influence over their scores.)
The score sheet was modeled on those used by professional tasters, with categories for color, carbonation, aroma, taste/dryness and flavor. Following advice from my friend and party host Reimer Priester, I had simplified the categories so as to make the tasting seem less like work, to minimize pretension, and to maximize festive enjoyment.
The key section of the score sheet asked each taster to select three wines that they liked best and the one that they liked best of all. If there were any wines that they actively disliked, they were asked to note that as well. Once all tasters had made their choices, each one applied silver stars to the labels of their top three still-concealed bottles, and a red heart sticker to their top choice. Rejected selections received a “NO” sticker.
Finally, we arranged the bottles roughly in order of their overall rating as measured by hearts, stars and NOs. We unveiled the lowest ranking bottle first and transferred its shipping label to the revealed bottle. We continued until all were exposed.
Did we discover a Champagne substitute, a gustatory gem hidden among the bargain wines? No, of course not, because that was not the goal: we are not trained tasters, and we did not attempt to compare cheap versus costly bubblies. What occurred was that we had fun, and each of us learned how we feel about this class of wines when we taste them “blind,” that is, without knowing brand name, price, or anything else. And we discovered, in this single barely-controlled marginally scientific experiment, that this group was in strong agreement on the top three wines, and on the bottom two wines of the group.
Your own taste may be different, but here’s how our informal brut rosé tasting ranked the wines:
– Top three: Korbel Brut Rosé, M. Lawrence Sex Brut Rosé and Yellowtail Bubbles Rosé
– Middle three: Veuve de Vernay Brut Rosé, Gruet Brut Rosé and Jaume Serra Brut Rosé
– Bottom two: Rotari Rosé and Segura Viudas Brut Rosé
There were surprises here compared with our expectations: Korbel Brut Rosé, with four hearts, five stars and no NOs, was a clear winner, but Korbel does not immediately come to mind when you think of the best wines. Nevertheless, when I searched I found that Korbel has been ranked high among inexpensive bubblies in a number of tests:
– Korbel Brut was rated #2 among five inexpensive bubblies by Thrillist
– Korbel Brut Rosé was one of the three “highly recommended” brut rosés (the highest category awarded) in Chicago Tribune’s comparison tasting of fourteen brut rosés ranging from $10 to $50 a bottle
– Korbel Brut Rosé was rated highest of four sparkling rosés tasted by Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org, ratings available to subscribers only); the other three were J, Roederer and Yellowtail.
Gruet was a surprise by sitting in the middle of the pack, since the Gruet wines are generally highly rated. Sex and Yellowtail Bubbles Rosé did not surprise our group as top rated quaffs, since our family was already fond of these wines.
Will our brut rosé tasting inspire you to do a similar blind tasting test on the beverages you most prefer? You may or may not gain self-knowledge, but you’ll certainly have fun!
Image Credit: Art Chester; venue courtesy of Reimer Priester and Rebecca Tyler