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There's something about Champagne. Victorious athletes shower in it, '30s movie stars bathed in it, new ships are christened with it, and almost everyone tells you to toast the New Year with it. One thing is certain; Champagne seems to set the tone.
Of course, there are thousands of sparkling wines out there, all varying in style and quality. The sheer volume certainly makes it challenging to definitively say which is best. As a professional taster, I have the opportunity to assess hundreds annually, most of which are available at various Canadian liquor boards.
While I am the first to admit that there is a style for every palate, I am always amazed that some of the most expensive "grande marques" - while very fine - don't always deliver in terms of flavour. For my palate, of all the big names, Krug is usually most reliable - refined, lingering and toasty. Thanks to Krug's new Ontario agent, I have no recent tasting notes to help you determine whether the current listings are still worthy of consideration.
What is surprising is the fact that some big expensive labels (costing upwards of $150 a bottle) are occasionally beaten out in blind tastings by much less expensive competitors. It was my long time friend Christian Pol Roger, who confided, "real connoisseurs go for vintage-dated Champagne." At Vintages at the LCBO you will find Pol Roger 1998 Extra Cuvée de Réserve Brut ($79.95 LCBO / $81 SAQ). This is a classic - dry, well structured and harmonious with ripe lemon-melon flavours and a lingering, toasty finish. Terrific value at the price.
While not vintage-dated, a reliable, less expensive, choice would be Taittinger Champagne Brut Reserve ($59.95 LCBO / $58.99 BCLB), which is very dry, nicely structured and gently toasty again with those ripe lemon flavours and fine lingering finish.
Another favourite is Lanson Black Label Brut Champagne at $39.95 in Ontario, which includes a limited-time $5 discount good until January 5, 2008. It is arguably Canada's best buy Champagne. Crisp, dry and very effervescent, the lingering flavours are focused on bright, ripe lemon, citrus-melon and a touch of apple. In Quebec it will set you back $55, while in BC it goes for $49.99.
A rather amazing value still lingering on the Vintages shelves in Ontario is the even superior Lanson 1997 Gold Label Vintage Brut Champagne (722520), which is a steal at the currently discounted $52.85 price. This winner has truly lovely, gently toasty, ripe lemon-lime flavours with a long seductive finish.
While searching for what's available in each province, I was most surprised by the BC liquor website. Under "Champagne", the only bubbly to come up was a Canadian-made "Baby Champagne". Meanwhile in Quebec, a SAQ search revealed 259 sparkling wines of which 152 are the real thing. Compare this to Nova Scotia where only 14 Champagnes are listed, or even worse yet, Manitoba with only 11 listings.
Of course, there are many great, less expensive, non-Champagne bubblies. From California's Sonoma County, my best bet would be Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($23.95 LCBO / $23.65 SAQ / $29.99 BCLB). This blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has delicious, harmonious, ripe apple-melon flavours with a lingering, effervescent finish.
Some of the least expensive buys are the Spanish "cava" which usually hail from Penedes region southwest of Barcelona. Take Codorniu Brut Cava Pinot Noir Rosé ($16.95 LCBO / $19.99 BCLB), which has charming, very gently honeyed, plummy, fresh strawberry-cherry flavours.
Closer to home, while judging last October's BC Okanagan Wine Festival competition, I was impressed with the Gold medal winning Hawthorne Mountain See Ya Later Ranch Brut Non-Vintage. Be aware that all blends can shift in quality from batch to batch, meaning that what you buy today may be better - or perhaps worse than what I tasted.
In Ontario, one of the most reliable sparklers is Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut at $29.95 (LCBO). It is very dry, bright and nicely balanced with zesty, ripe lemon-melon flavours and good effervescence.
If you want a uniquely Canadian touch of sweetness here are two suggestions, which are available in Ontario. Peller Estates Ice Cuvée ($30.15 along with 10 bonus airmiles) is a very gently sweet méthode classique sparkler with a small dosage of icewine. While the world's first sparkling icewine is the super sweet but balanced Magnotta Limited Edition Sparkling Vidal Icewine 2006 at $ 59.95 per 375 ml.
Whatever the bubbly, I always remember the words of the deceased,
prolifically cryptic columnist, Art Buchwald, who admitted to loving
Champagne because "it always tastes as though my foot's asleep."
- 2007 Tasting Note Database
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Copyright Food & Beverage Testing Institute of Canada