Ellen Clifford: The Big Guys vs The Rest of the World

Champagne is my favorite wine. If I could only drink Champagne for the rest of my life, I’d be okay,” said Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth to kick off “Style and Substance” a master class on the big houses of Champagne. It was held as part of Effervescence LA, a three-day celebration of all things sparkling, but especially Champagne. My quest for the weekend was to think about how the most treasured of Champagne bottles measure up to other sparkling wines. Are they really that special? To be fair, I decided I would only compare Champagne with sparkling wines made the way Champagne is, where the second fermentation takes place in bottle. I feel like beverages made bubbly with the tank or Charmat methods, like Prosecco or Moscato d’Asti, or even the trendy pétillant naturels, are completely different animals. Riddle me this: is it fair to compare them? Yes I am trying to make disgorgement puns. Geoff Kruth’s seminar would be my starting point. I wanted to get a grip on what made the prestige cuvées special in a controlled environment. We tried six Champagnes from three different houses that have very different styles. Perhaps one of the most intriguing things that Kruth made me realize was that “Champagne is a product of the mind…Mozart is a product of the mind!” Natural wines may be growing in popularity but perhaps we could all take a moment to appreciate the amount of human ingenuity it takes to consistently craft a bottle of bubbles. Like Mozart’s music, Champagne is art. The three houses we tasted were Ruinart, Roederer and Bollinger. For each we tasted a non-vintage wine and a prestige cuvée, or the crème de la crème of each house. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs was first as it was the lightest of the bunch. Then came their prestige, the Dom Ruinart. I cannot lie, I became that person closing her eyes, shifting glass from nostil to nostril to take in the smell of the 2006 Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, over and over. Imagine the most pillowy, velvety, buttery freshly oven-toasted-yet-not-hot biscuit you ever ate, with just the whiff of lemon curd atop it. Dom Ruinart, just to spoil the ending of the tasting for you, was to be my favorite Champagne of the day. We moved on to Louis Roederer Brut Premier, the Champagne originally cherished by Russian tsars. The clear glass and lack of punt on their bottles was initially to prevent anything being hidden in the bottles that could harm the monarch. If Ruinart is the lightest of Champagnes, then Roederer is a solid middle of the road option. It is a classic. The fruit flavor is darker, the toasted notes ever slightly more pleasantly burnt. We had the 2009 vintage of their prestige cuvée, the famous Cristal. It was almost caramel on the nose. Once in the mouth it is a velvet explosion of lightly cooked fruit and crusty bread. I was seized with the childhood sense memory of the crusts we would dip into communion grape juice, which turned boring Sunday sermons into a special treat when I was a kid. That may sound prosaic, but in that Champagne I was finding religion. Lastly we tasted the Bollinger, the heaviest of the bunch. Slightly oxidative in style, it has the feel of bruised fruit, yet retains freshness. The Bollinger Brut got everyone thinking of cheese pairings. It would go wonderfully with some pungent dairy, much like a dark bread would. Then we had their top of the line, a 2007 Bollinger Grande Année. The fruit is funkier and more varied—on the first sip I found myself jotting “toast-pear-lime zest-rock!” It is complex and bigger and has more cut than the rest. Once you sip it runs the risk of killing your taste buds for lighter brews, so tread carefully in the order of which you serve it. After the seminar I have to admit. Champagne DOES have a magic. It occurred to me that the top houses don’t just have the right flavor, story, and chemical balance…they have choreography to them that makes all of the elements stitch together to be greater than the sum of their parts. They are the Paris Opera Ballet. They have the (pardon my French) “je ne sais quoi.” Each sip is so exquisitely textured, and plays over your tongue in the perfect sensation of taste, smell and velvet burn that you are drawn in like you are to a perfect dance sequence set to beautiful music. Dom Ruinart remained my favorite. But I’d be overly pleased with any of these on my table. The question is, was I ruined for the rest of the weekend’s wines? The next day I went to the Effervescence LA “More Bubbles” tasting, which had almost every type of sparkling wine except Champagne. There was a bevy of bubbly beverages out there for the taking. Would these wines hold a candle to the big names in Champagne? Cava perhaps got a sneak advantage because I ran into Ramon Giró Gramona of Jaume Giró i Giró, a Cava producer who was going to be exhibiting at Effervescence, a couple of days prior to the event. “We drink Cava throughout our meal,” he informed me. He explained that they start with a sparkling rosé and usually finish with something fuller and more complex, and really it is just all for good digestion, right? Right. Bubbles seem to just cleanse you. Particularly to my liking was Ramon’s “Selecte,” a Gran Reserva that defies proper description. If Champagne is ballet, this was more an avant garde dance piece, but performed by ballerinas. It was complex and unique, but graceful. The finish on it goes on and on and evolves! I was sad the “Selecte” wasn’t at More Bubbles but happy to have gotten the opportunity to try it. I did revisit Ramon’s other offering and can happily report that Jaume Giró i Giró Cava is pretty special, even in its simpler styles. South Africa was the big surprise for me at More Bubbles. I had never had Cap Classique , the South African term for Champagne-method sparkling wine, but gleefully tasted through seven offerings that night from Wines of South Africa. A particular favorite was the 2016 Backsberg Brut. A Chardonnay wine from Paarl, it was pungent on the nose but gentle on the tongue with just the right amount of cut and heft to make it both refreshing and filling, with a finish that goes long. If I am going to keep on my dance metaphor this is a dancer that is both lean and muscular. This dancer is also Kosher! The juice is approved Meshuval and Kosher for Passover. On to California! Go figure, my favorite sparkler from the United States was made by a big Champagne house? Taittinger’s United States outlet is Domaine Carneros, and their Taittinger Cuvée de la Pompadour is something I’d drink both when I want to think about wine and when I just want something to toss back with friends. I’d drink it with a pompadour or ponytail. If Pinot Noir tastes like Cherry Coke (in the best way) then this is Cherry Coke Enlightened. There is depth and froth. While we are going with anglophone countries, I managed to try some English sparkling. I found the Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs to be particularly good - both solidly earthy and plush with fruit. Perhaps it was me imagining I was in the UK, but in the Ridgeview, the brioche notes typical of good Champagne felt more like scones with a good blackberry jam,- ever so slightly more robust. Moving on to Austrian wine, I totally dug the 100% Grüner Veltliner from Schlumberger. It had those salad-y, pepper-y, is-that-arugula-in-my-drink-or-are-you-just-grüner flavors, but with bubbles. It’s an appetizers and light plate of greens wine. Or even a brunch wine. I’m imagining it with quiche and fruit salad. Another huge hit with me, perhaps a tie for being my favorite with the Backsberg, was the Ettore Germano “Rosanna” Brut Rosé. This Nebbiolo rosé is more than just novelty. It is a serious bubbly. I tasted that blood and wanted more. The cherries jump into your mouth and do a jig. Or whatever dance they do in Piedmont. It was unusual and exceptional. And when the cherries are done dancing the finish lingers, mellowing into a velvet toast. I polished off my tasting by going back to France with a Crémant d’Alsace . The 2013 Domaine Pfister Brut grabbed my attention. A Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay blend made by a father-daughter team, this wine had the mystical ability to be lees-intensive as traditional method sparklers are, but also redolent of candied fruit - without the sweetness, on the palate. Just to be thorough, I returned to Effervescence for the Grand Champagne Tasting the next day. This was a tasting of all Champagnes, and there were to be at least a couple of prestige cuvées I thought I ought to try in the same environment as I’d been tasting the other sparkling wines. I have to admit there was one top wine I’d dreamed of tasting that did not live up its reputation. And there were many Champagnes that were good, but not magical. But then there was Billecart-Salmon. And most of all there was Krug Grande Cuvée Brut. Based on 2007 but with base wines going back to 1990 in the blend, the Grand Cuvée was doing the same things to me as the Dom Ruinart. Time stopped as I sipped on explosions of butter, semi-tropical fruit and marzipan. There are no good words. So, is Champagne automatically magic? Not always. But Champagne is its own animal when it comes to the big houses’ top offerings. As Geoff Kruth pointed out, the big houses have the access and funds both to get more base wines and store them for years, while the smaller houses may not. They have the financial means to make sure their mystical “tête de cuvées” shine year-after-year. Other sparkling wines, such as the “Selecte” Cava from Jaume Giró i Giró will shine in their own way, but it will be a different way than Champagne, neither better nor worse. Just different. I also realized that even in just the Champagne genre there is such a breadth of styles, that it is hard to definitively say one house is better than another. Some styles may appeal more to one person than another. Like fashion, everyone will favor one style over another. If nothing else, I can say with confidence that there is going to be a sparkling wine out there for everyone. I’d still lean towards Cava a good deal of the time, particularly for hearty everyday sipping. Unless I had unlimited Dom Ruinart access. That might change things. Maybe. - Ellen Clifford Delectable columnist Ellen Clifford is a WSET 3 and CMS 2 wine professional and comedic actress living in Los Angeles. Her musings on all things wine can be found on her blog Scrumptious Gruel and weekly podcast The Whine Situation . You can follower Ellen on Delectable and Instagram at @ellenclifford.

Ruinart

Dom Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Chardonnay 2006

My favorite of the first event of Effervescence LA ! In the meantime if I could even just smell this wine I’d consider it a treat. It is the most perfect delicate biscuit with just a dash of lemon curd. An elegant alcoholic tea party treat. I am ruined. I’ll dream of this until I taste it again. Thank you @Delectable Wine for sending me and stay tuned for a column with more bubbly details. — 20 days ago

Shaughn Buchholz
with Shaughn
Trixie, Bryce and 34 others liked this
Bryce Wiatrak

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Champagne is indeed a daily essential
Ellen Clifford

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@Norman Gennaro It’ll be up sometime after this weekend! I’ve got more bubbles ahead...

Schlumberger

Brut Grüner Veltliner 2014

Look how pretty the label! But beyond that this is salad wine for salad dayz. Perfect opener for a brunch with asparagus quiche and fruit salad. At least that is the pairing I dreamt up. — 16 days ago

Serge, Joe and 13 others liked this

Krug

Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne Blend

Oh yes yes yes Krug. Again with the buttered toast sensation that turns me on to the big house bubblies. Undercurrents of marzipan but this marzipan is vacationing somewhere tropical. — 18 days ago

Eric, Kim and 33 others liked this
Norman Gennaro

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Several bottles as well. Life is good. Very good!

Bollinger

La Grande Année Brut Champagne Blend 2007

This was from class last Thursday. It was heaviest of the beverages that day. More of a charred toast character. But I like things dark. Beyond toast there are pears, lime zest, and big bold stones and yet all this weaves together seamlessly. I also need more. — 17 days ago

Paul, Eric and 27 others liked this

Taittinger

Comtes de Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Chardonnay 2006

Oh hey. This Comptes talks. It says “I am here” the way landing a proper tours jete feels good I probably messed that ballet spelling. But this wine was lovely and lively and precise. — 17 days ago

Evan, Paul and 22 others liked this
Joe Lucca

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Just had the 2006 and it was bangin’

Backsberg

Kosher Methode Cap Classique Brut Chardonnay 2016

This was a surprise favorite from Effervescence. I don’t think I’ve ever had Cap Classique but hot damn they are making some impressive bubbles in South Africa! — 17 days ago

Serge, Ira and 11 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

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@Laura Purdy i know! I’m totally falling for Cap Classique. A write up in the Features section on all the bubbles I had should be up on Delectable soon!
Laura Purdy

Laura Purdy

Can’t wait! Love your reviews
Ellen Clifford

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@Laura Purdy thank you, Laura!