Champagne Dreams and Birthday Wishes

Two Cork Dorks, 4 domestic Sparklings and a blind tasting as we search for the answer to what to drink and how to be as insufferable in the debate as possible…

Sometimes I wonder what normal people do with their best friends for their birthdays. This last weekend was my annual birthday trip to Philadelphia to spend two days with my Bestie- the real bitch (oh, and real Somm) behind this Somm Bitch. We’ve been friends since we were five and the fact that we have both somewhat randomly found this amazingly complex world of true cork-dorkiness (he majored in Economics in college, I was raised Mormon and majored in theater, then Marketing) is just another testament to the concept of platonic soulmates. His birthday also happens to be the day after mine, so we always get together for a weekend to do something fairly epic, but classic us.

Friday afternoon I embarked on my three hour journey to South Philly- my always messy Mini gassed up and raring to go, Season Three of my current podcast obsession (My Dad Wrote A Porno- seriously, go, listen. It’s good) plugged into the aux cable and plenty of seltzer water to get me up 95. An hour from Philly I texted Bestie to say, “An hour out, it’s birthday weekend so I expect to be greeted with a glass!”

As usual, he did not disappoint- in the door just as he’s cleaning up the smashed flute he dropped on the floor at my arrival (don’t worry, t was empty, no champagne was wasted or harmed). Cut to a bottle of 2005 vintage champagne! Michel Jacquot – grower (RM) Champs from Aube subregion- things Bestie (he’s definitely the more educated and dorkier of the two of us in all things wine) felt were really important I knew.

Spoiler: it was delicious. He did explain to me Jancis Robinson’s take on the 2005 vintage, a vintage she called mostly lackluster due to variable conditions that year, but amazing weather leading right up to harvest ensured ripeness but kept acidity on the lower side. My take? Wow, heavy on yeast- but I really enjoy that about a good champagne, the scent of rising sourdough almost a little too much to get anything else at first… and then, wow. I got flavors of lemon curd, caramel apples (green Granny Smiths at that), and a tiny bit of hazelnut. Bestie got the caramel apple, but kept going to a pastry dough- leaving us NO choice but to keep sampling until we had both seen each other’s points. Thank God we were heading to a MORE than substantial dinner then.2005 vintage

So, Saturday at 10:30 finds us ready to get serious- we’re both working on our blind tasting skills, but set up an admittedly weird challenge for us to test ourselves. Four bottles of domestic sparkling, all Methode Champenoise, all in the $20-30 range. Ok, four champagnes- we can do this, right? We wrap them up in the cool velvet bags so you can’t see anything about them and just as I think we’re ready to get started, he decides we need to “benchmark” with the ultimate- some Tattinger will remind us of the ideal we’re looking for.

Tattinger, Nectar of the Gods. Even non-vintage, it’s some of the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth. Again, it’s a bit heavy on the yeast- that’s all you can smell in the minute after you open the bottle. And then, those aromas mellow just a bit and you can start to get the notes of lemon zest, cream, honeysuckle, toasted hazelnut- some unbaked apple pie… pure heaven in a glass.

So now we move on. Now, let’s be very clear, this is a strange kind of blind tasting we’re doing- we’re trying to see if based on look, flavor, nose, etc. we can figure out WHICH bottle is which- from which region/producer does this come? The four sparklings:

  • Argyle Brut Willamette Valley, NV ($25.99)
  • Roederer Estate Brut NV ($26.99)
  • Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV ($27.99)
  • Tattinger Domaine Carneros 2013 ($28.99)

I suggested we taste and make comments BEFORE reading what the wasreviewers said of each one- try to form our own opinion first, THEN see how to apply it.

Bottle 1,  Roederer Estate Brut NV was delightful. It was a bit pale for me to think it was the Vintage, but the notes were dried fruit (there was SO much back and forth as to WHAT that fruit was, I think we settled on mango), bread like what you’d make with a batter- some kind of light baking spice and no yeast. It wasn’t particularly mineral (no sensation of licking chalk or limestone) but was definitely elegant and had more than a little complexity. It was also well-balanced with a long finish. We originally thought “This is the multi-vintage (where they mix in small amounts of the best vintages with the lesser vintages for a real layering effect)… until we tried #4, then it became pretty obvious.

Bottle #2, the Tattinger Domaine Carneros, stopped me in my tracks- it was just so light, I had to make sure he hadn’t tricked me and slipped a Prosecco in there. It was exceptionally light, ALMOST more frothy than bubbly, it had a strong nose of blossom, lemon curd, Bosc pear… but also a relatively light taste. This one was nothing if not ethereal- it seemed to live in the upper registers of our sinuses, it felt like it was floating- like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they’re just ingesting bubbles and floating on them. I could almost taste the flavor evaporating on my tongue as it soared to the top of my mouth. Obviously, given the flavor, nose and pale straw color, it’s NON vintage.

Bottle #3, Argyle from Willamette, OR was a different beast entirely. This one reminded me of true, legit, straight-up  Champagne. It wasn’t dead on necessarily, but the nose had briney qualities; not exactly a day at the beach, but serious maritime/sucking down pots of oysters type memories were evoked. There was some sourdough bread rising both on the palate and the nose, some toasty, nuttiness (I’m going with Hazelnut) while still having plenty of baked red apple and baking spice. I started to wonder if there was some anise, but that felt like a fairly pretentious bridge too far. Then, at the very end, it reminded me of the smell of the wet limestone on my parent’s patio after a severe summer storm… it all came together in a visceral and compelling way. Given the flavor, the legs, the color, etc- I was pretty positive this was from Oregon (Argyle).

Bottle #4, Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV was pretty Champagne-esque… but didn’t check the right boxes for me. It lacked any kind of yeast/nut flavor-  There was stone fruit, some pronounced minerality, delicate Meyer Lemon.. it was gorgeous- Champagne-adjacent I would say.  While I very much enjoyed sipping (and eventually, to be honest, guzzling), it still didn’t evoke feelings of Versailles, of velvet, of oysters nor caviar. It didn’t make me want to revolt or put on a beret… it was just good- not perfection.

 

 

Lessons In Blind Tasting

When I first started to learn how to cook, someone gave me the advice to go through my spice cupboard and just taste everything in it: the herbs, the spices, the various oils, vinegars, pastes, etc… Let me tell you, the first time you taste things like Turmeric or Cream of Tartar or oyster sauce on their own… well, it’s interesting. But it really helped me figure out how this flavor and that flavor may work together in a dish. It was one of the smartest (and grossest) things I’ve ever done.

It’s possible to do some of that with wine- I can taste chocolate, berries, stone fruit; I can smell/taste roses, violets, honeysuckle, orange blossoms; I can smell my leather coat, cigars, pencil shavings; I can even go outside and lick limestone paving stones on my patio, chalk, gravel in the driveway… But there are something like 400 “essential” flavors/scents we are likely to identify in a wine. I’m not totally sure my brain can store and instantly recall that many profiles- any chance Apple is working on some kind of smart wearable for that, an iTongue maybe?

So, while I do a pretty good job with a wine tasting- I can usually narrow a wine down to 2-3 options and while I frequently still pick the wrong one, it’s usually the one I didn’t pick that was right… I don’t know if that makes it any better, but I’ll stand by it with only my Level 1 WSET at this point. Oh, and I can pick out a Sauv Blanc in my sleep, while I have a sinus infection- no question. But that’s probably not that special, I should stop bragging about that, huh?

Anyways, so you might know that over the birthday weekend, Bestie and I decided to do a kind of weird blind tasting. When given four bottles of American sparkling, in the $20-30 range, can we pick out which is which? Oh, and we had to make it even harder on ourselves, we had to stick to Methode Champenoise styles, all blends of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So what? We’re going to be able to pick out from a few online tasting notes which is Carneros vs which is Oregon vs which is Anderson Valley? Did we REALLY think we could ID the one that grew in the foggy CA Mendocino County vs Carneros?

Well, yeah. We did think we could.

So at my suggestion, we tasted first, talking them ourselves- not wanting to be influenced by the winery’s/critics’ opinions. Turns out, I’m a genius for that suggestion. Well, genius-ish. But we’ll get to any fault in my mental processes later.  Don’t worry- I’ll make sure I point out the part that indicates my deficits; well, “ish”. 😉

Alright, velvet-covered bottle at the ready. Bestie made sure that we couldn’t even tell if the bottle was green (one of them was, I couldn’t tell in the velvet sleeve), and I was in charge of pouring- Bestie was really worried about compromising the integrity of our test- he had to trim the foil around the bottles’ necks to make sure he couldn’t pick out a silver vs gold. Seriously, for the two people who used to spend hours talking on the phone while watching Mary Poppins on Disney Channel instead of doing homework, our anal-retentiveness occasionally comes through in some truly surprising ways.

Ok, so as a reminder, the four sparklings we tasted:

  • Argyle Brut Willamette Valley, NV ($25.99)
  • Roederer Estate Brut NV ($26.99)
  • Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV ($27.99)
  • Tattinger Domaine Carneros 2013 ($28.99)

So, I poured the first sparkling. It was a lovely, but relatively pale gold- elegant beading. There was a smell of something baked- a battered bread like raisin-nut or spiced? But not a ton of yeast, especially not after the yeastbomb that was the Tattinger we had just enjoyed to help us remember a “benchmark” of fine sparkling. But for me, it was caramel-coated Granny Smith apple that was hitting me hard- toasted, caramel and rich but with some tart, crisp green apple as an almost unexpected backbone. Oh, and let’s not forget the toasted almond involved- it could have bitter or overly acidic, but it was complex and sophisticated, had a long finish and never felt like too much of any one thing.

So, what was it? It felt like the multivintage (MV) from Schramsburg- where they blend in a little bit from the BEST vintages to the lesser vintages to create a steady-to-superior quality. It was balanced and complex, but lacked some of the hedonism and absurd perfection of a true vintage champagne. Put a pin in it, a probable first guess?

Wine two has me asking Bestie,

Me: “Wait, I didn’t think any of these are Prosecco…”

Bestie: “Umm, you think I’d serve you  fucking Prosecco for this tasting? Please.”

(Don’t worry, Fans, dramatic reenactments of this scene will be available on YouTube ASAP).

So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, bottle #2 was exceptionally light, ALMOST more frothy than bubbly, it had a strong nose of blossom, lemon curd, Bosc pear but a relatively light taste. This one was nothing if not ethereal- it seemed to live in the upper registers of our sinuses, it felt like it was floating- like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they’re just ingesting bubbles and floating on them. You could almost taste the flavor evaporating on your tongue as it soared to the top of your mouth. Obviously, given the flavor, nose and pale straw color, it’s NON vintage.

Bottle #3 was a different beast entirely. This one reminded me of true Champagne. It wasn’t dead on, but the nose had briney qualities- not exactly a day at the beach, but serious maritime/sucking down oysters memories were evoked. There was some sourdough bread rising both on the palate and the nose, some toasty, nuttiness (I’m going with Hazelnut) while still having plenty of baked red apple and baking spice. I started to wonder if there was some anise, but that started to feel like a bridge too far. Oh, but at the very end? Definitely reminded me of the smell of wet limestone on my parent’s patio when I was growing up- smell, taste… it all came together in an awfully visceral way. Given the flavor, the legs, the color, etc- I was pretty positive this was from Oregon (Argyle).

Bottle #4 was pretty Champagne-esque… but didn’t hit the tasting notes for me. It lacked any kind of yeast/nut flavor- but it was gorgeous. There was stone fruit, a more pronounced minerality, it was Champagne-adjacent, it was classic and stunning and gorgeous… but didn’t evoke feelings of Versailles, or velvet, of oysters and caviar.

Ok, so we finally picked.

But in the back of my head I was like… yikes- I feel like based on the various descriptions, #3 is the Argyle… but no- it’s an Oregon sparkling that tastes like Champagne? IMPOSSIBLE! That was the most classic, the truest version, that HAS to be the Tattinger. So, we decided:

  1. Mirabelle
  2. Domaine Carneros
  3. Roederer
  4. Argyle

Guess what? We were SO wrong!!!! We correctly identified number one of them. And the thing that kills me is that in my head I KNEW, I absolutely had identified them correctly in my head- I just didn’t listen to myself.

So, as Shakespeare would say, “Know thyself” and “To thine own self be true.” Because you know how to taste, you know what you’re experiencing, don’t give into that inner bully who is trying to overthink it Let’s face it, if I know how to do anything, it’s drink, taste and understand what is currently in my mouth (I know, I know, dirty)… and I didn’t. Lesson, hopefully learned, from now on, it’s what my tongue says it is… Wait, is there any way to say that and not sound weird?

Tricky Holiday Scenarios and Their Pairings

Roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, more pies than the people around the table can possibly eat in one meal (but isn’t it delightful to try?)

Thanksgiving is, after Halloween, my favorite holiday of the year. I have amazing memories of my giant family (8 siblings) gathered around the table, eating green bean casserole, Boston Brown bread- baked inside aluminum cans, and spending the day playing board games, watching movies and our family Turkey Bowl. (Note: If the opposing team forms a line in front of the End Zone to block your touchdown, there is NOTHING in the rules to keep the team from handing off the football to a particularly light and perky (not to mention overly adventurous red head girl who knows NOTHING about football) and launching her over the defensive wall, into the End Zone. It’s surprising to me that this strategy isn’t more widely used.)

Thanksgiving for everyone across the country is a day of family, whether it’s the family you were born to or the one you chose for yourself, it’s a day of love and happiness and gluttony unlike any other in the US.

Of course, with family comes conflict- it’s inevitable. But never fear, I have compiled a list of possible holiday scenarios and ways to cope. (Responsible Adult Note: I’m not saying drinking is the only way to survive a big holiday meal, but in my experience it seriously helps. Also, call an Uber, don’t drive.)

Scenario 1: Everyone in your family (besides you) attended a specific university (I’m not saying BYU- Go Cougars?) The football team somehow made it to a Thanksgiving day game and they’re getting the crap kicked out of them. This game is in overtime which means dinner is being pushed back by five “football minutes” (very different from real-time minutes). The turkey is drying out, the cranberry relish is warming, the gravy is forming a skin on top… oh, and you haven’t eaten in three days to prep your appetite. You’re hungry, they’re cranky and the pies smell amazing.

Pairing: You don’t know how long you’re going to need to drink, so keep it LOW alcohol, low in intensity. This is DEFINITELY the job for a beer (not a heavy craft brew) or maybe a Moscato d’Asti (around 5-6%) or an Alsatian Riesling at about 8%. Make sure it’s light and refreshing and keeping your palate clean enough to sneak tastes between now and the time dinner actually starts.

Scenario 2: Cousin Gary brought his new boyfriend- no one knew he was looking for a BOYfriend- his mom, Aunt Carol, included.

Pairing: So here’s the thing, THIS could be the gift that keeps on giving- the snark, the passive-aggressive comments, the “subtle” bible verses… This is a long game, a marathon, NOT a sprint- Aunt Carol can actually be pretty funny when in passive-aggressive mode. HOWEVER, on the flip side, a lot of what’s going to be said is possibly offensive to you, so being too drunk just isn’t going to work if you’re going to keep your mouth mostly shut. I’d suggest a light-bodied red, maybe a Cru Beaujolais (NOT Nouveau- just spike Welch’s with vodka at that point) or a Pinot Noir from France. You’ll be able to drink it all night, it won’t have too much alcohol for you, but they have the structure and “guzzle factor” that means you’ll feel a bit of a buzz as you hear Carol wailing about never getting to plan a “real” wedding or have grandbabies.

Scenario 3: “So… how’s that acting/music/English/art degree working out for you?”

Pairing: First of all, pro tip- DO NOT SHOOT BACK WITH “how’s your botched plastic surgery lawsuit going?” Believe me, it’s not going to go as well as you might think. But, what to drink when your family is picking at your life choices, your career immobility, your regrettable fashion choices now memorialized on social media? Well, I’d say go big- it’s tough being attacked on this level, something like a Chateauneuf du Pape would be the decadence you deserve. BUT, since you probably DID get that ridiculous acting/music/English/art degree, it seems unlikely you can afford it. So just try another Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre blend (the grapes in CNdP) from the Southern Rhone or even Australia; they easily run below $20/bottle, many under $15, and are just as decadent and amazing. Trust me, it won’t be too hard to forget about what Aunt Doris said- never mind the fact she didn’t even go to college and her precious William is more interested in playing D&D in her basement than studying for the SATs anyways.

Scenario 4: Your brother and sister-in-law just bought an AMAZING new McMansion- 4,000 sq ft, on two acres of land, a gourmet kitchen, it’s Suburban Paradise… so they’re hosting this year for the first time. Oh, and they don’t know how to cook. Turkey is dry, rolls didn’t rise, jello salad is melted and the gravy has enough lumps you’re slightly worried it has cancer.

Pairing: Embrace the fact that dinner is going to be terrible, but you still need a certain amount of calories in a day, so imbibe them via wine. But since red wines can feel kind of heavy on an empty stomach, I’m recommending keep it light with anything sparkling that isn’t too sweet- Prosecco, Cava, Cremant,Champagne- it’s all golden here. And don’t worry about glasses, feel free to chug it out of the bottle because you were promised dinner and this is fucking crap, so you’re entitled to get as drunk as you want. Not to mention, now you don’t have to pretend to help with the dishes- you didn’t use any!

Scenario 5: So, when are you two getting pregnant?

Pairing: Tequila. Unless you’re actually pregnant, (please don’t drink tequila if you’re pregnant). But you can say “none of your business”. You can try “I don’t know, we keep trying (insert disgusting and non-procreative sex act here) and it just hasn’t worked yet!” Generally speaking, in my not at all statistically relevant research, that bitch is going to ask that until you or her are dead.  She’s going to ask your gay Cousin Gary and his boyfriend named Sumner (don’t get me started on the name), and feel 100% entitled to know the answer. She won’t even care if this makes you break down and sob because you know you CAN’T have kids. This is a crappy question to ask people, they really should mind their own business, but in the meantime screw the wine, this is the job for our brother from across the border, Senor Tequila.

**Oh, quick side note: 3 tbsp pumpkin puree, 1 tbsp triple sec and a little bit of water, mixed with cinnamon and tequila make for an unbelievable Pumpkin Margarita- try rimming the glass with pumpkin pie spice and sugar if you’re really trying to impress. It isn’t common, it isn’t typical, but it’s delicious. Drink three of those babies and you’ll barely remember what ANYONE said around the dinner table on Thanksgiving!

Have a Happy Turkey Day! Remember, when in dout, Gewurtztraminer or an unoaked Chardonnay are my choice of whites with turkey dinners,  a French Pinot Noir (do not overlook red Burgundy- it’s like shooting fish in a barrel!) or maybe even a somewhat zestier but still less jammy Southern Rhone Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre (GSM) blend.

Happy Holidays!