Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Tasting

By Meredith Phillips

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  In his relentless pursuit of the best of everything to eat and drink, Robb Walsh has been a student of Champagne for many years, traversing the globe to hobnob with winemakers at Champagne houses in France, and Champagne-style sparkling winemakers everywhere else. In years past, he's used this information to help him report on locally good deals for Austin consumers. In return, Champagne purveyors continue to send him fancy bottles gratis in the mail, so he feels compelled to continue to report on the product - this seems a never-ending cycle.

Although no one lets me travel anywhere or sends me anything, at least yet, I too am a student of Champagne. This year, Robb and I decided to host a blind tasting. We invited three other Chronicle writers - veterans Pat Earvolino and Pableaux Johnson, plus new wine writer Anthony King - to bring their palates and their opinions to a tasting.

That night, we pitted Robb's booty against some of this year's favorites among local wine-buyers (see sidebar). We wanted to see how François Montand, a Loire Valley Champagne-style sparkler selling for $8, would hold up against Robb's $100 bottle of vintage 1990 Nicolas Feuillatte. These two were the extremes. We also included Feuillatte Brut Premier and Deutz Brut Classic, two non-vintage Champagnes going for $22 a bottle. To round out the tasting, we threw in one of California's best sparkling wines, Roederer Estate Brut. Pableaux, Pat, and Anthony had no idea what we were drinking. Robb and I knew what bottles we had but had no idea which Champagne was in which glass.

The question was: Does it matter? Is one just as satisfied drinking a well-done cheapy Champagne as a fancy-schmancy brand? Is it worth the $75 difference between a Feuillatte vintage and a non-vintage? We suspected that the answer would probably be "no." We hoped so at least, especially in light of the fact that none of us can actually afford a real vintage.

The night of our tasting, the sinus medication flowed like the wine. An upper respiratory plague was keeping me from smelling anything, and Anthony was also having trouble using his venerable nose. While we supped on gravlax hard-boiled egg and onion, sushi, new potatoes stuffed with sour cream and flying fish roe, and asparagus salad, we each worked away on notes for each of our five glasses. We sipped, we swirled, we swizzed fizz around our tongues. We talked of mousses, ebullience, and bubble size, but mainly we talked about #3, which turned out to be the vintage Feuillatte. Did it smell like toffee? Caramel? Pears? The only thing that my jammed proboscis could detect in any of the sparkling wines was the aroma of apple cider, but finally Anthony and Pat agreed that the overwhelming characteristic of #3 was the smell of oyster sauce. The rest of us weren't as sold on that description, but we came to a consensus that it had the biggest body and that it had seemed to have something in common with #5. Since my personal goal was to isolate both Feuillattes from the rest and identify the vintage from the non-vintage, I believed that #3 was the vintage Feuillatte and #5 the non-vintage Feuillatte. I also liked these the best, ranking #3 first and #5 second, as did Robb. The nose ultimately led both Pat and Anthony to rank it last, while Pableaux placed the vintage smack in the middle. His favorite was the lighter, more delicate, highly drinkable, and nicely bubbled François Montand. Pat chose the Montand as his favorite as well, and kept wondering aloud about its similarities to a Loire Valley chenin blanc - an astute observation. The Feuillatte Brut Premier, disguised as #4, came in fourth place overall, a surprise considering its popularity this season. Anthony did choose it as a favorite for its pleasantly yeasty aromas, crisp red-apple flavors, and creamy finish.

The Roederer Estate, a California wine noted by many local purveyors as able to stand up to French sparklers, did not excel here, which further proves that personal taste is the most important thing for any wine drinker to be familiar with.

As for my palate-in-training, what I learned in this episode is that when it comes to Champagne, my only real personal preference is for the most expensive bottle available. - Meredith Phillips

  Cost Notes Scores Total
 

Walsh

Phillips

Johnson

Earvolino

King

 
François Montand (#1) $7.99 Light, clear, and delicate to the point of what one taster called weak; hay, lemons, pineapple, vanilla, great bubbles

3

7

8

9

8

35.0
Deutz Brut Classic (#5) $22.00 Yeasty, salty, warm aromas, green-apply, lemony, musty, nutty flavors

9

9

7

3

7

35.0
Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée
Palme d'Or 1990 (#3)
$99.99 Toffee, caramel, sour, earthy, citrus, pears, complex and nutty with marzipan, full-bodied, best bubbles

9.5

10

6

2

5

32.5
Feuillatte Brut Premier (#4) $22.00 Lemon/lime, scoured metal quality, creamy grapefruit, distilled water, pleasantly yeasty, crisp red apple flavors

3

5

4

6

9

27.0
Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut (#2) $15.99 Acidic, toast, Granny Smith, vanilla, lemony, cider, sweeter than #1

6

3

3

7

6.8

25.8


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