Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Sparkling wine in the dark

Andover Wine Friends’ March tasting was designed to have some fun while tasting a range of sparkling wines blind.  It certainly achieved the first aim. The blind tasting part showed some the difficulties of this game all too clearly:

1.  Sparkling pink wines don’t give a lot away

Two pink wines Apart from an occasional difference in colour – like the Saumur rosé and the New Zealand copper tinged wine in the picture on the left – even markedly different grape varieties are difficult to detect blind when made as pale rosé.  This is because the wines have very little time on the skins and intentionally pick up little varietal difference.  Only one person correctly allocated the wines to the Loire, Spain and New Zealand and he has more years in the wine trade than he might like to admit to!  The wines were:

Selección Especial, Cava, Rosé Brut, Marques de Monistrol, 11.5%, Monastrell, Pinot Noir – neutral red fruit and apricot, short on the palate

Saumur Brut Rosé, Gratien & Meyer, 12%, made from Cabernet Franc and a small amount of Grolleau – some indeterminate perfume and almond notes, slightly off-dry, the most acidic of the three, rather more refined than number 1

Sparkling Cuvée Rosé, Oyster Bay, New Zealand, 12% – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – easy-drinking stone fruit, lower acidity, some sweetness of finish, rather lacked character for a wine that was £5 more than the preceding two

2. Guess the grape variety, guess the country

Sparkling wine in the darkAgain, despite being 100% varietals, this was surprisingly challenging. Certainly the old rule of thumb, ‘Chardonnay for finesse, Pinot Noir for structure’ did not really help, even though these were the grape varieties.  But what applies in Champagne may not apply in the same way in a rather warmer climate, in this case, Northern Italy.  And certainly, the Pinot Noir did not have a hint of pinkness about it:

Blanc de Noir, Extra Brut, Puiatti, Friuli, Italy – a real rarity this with the bottle stating that this is from the only winery making bottle-fermented sparkling wine in Friuli, the extreme northeastern corner of Italy, famous for its white wines.  100% Pinot Noir – fine subtle fruit, marked yeasty notes and a touch of something savoury.  Unusual and worthwhile. 

Brut 25, Franciacorta DOCG, Berlucchi – striking autolytic notes on the nose (but then the 25 in the name refers to the number of months the wine has spent with the yeast in the bottle), modest if elegant fruit, lower acidity and fully flavoured.  Next month Janet and I are visiting Franciacorta, the Italian stronghold for bottle-fermented wines, east of Milan, so this was by way of homework!

3. Guess the quality level (for example, non vintage, vintage or special cuvée) and guess the country. 

With marked yeast and brioche aromas, you should have (and most did) head to vintage or special cuvée level for these two outstanding wines. We had less success with the country, though one of our members did spot the English connection, whereas most assumed from the quality that these were both Champagne:

Classic Cuvee, Brut 2004, Nyetimber, English quality sparkling wine, 12%: made from the Champagne trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes and given 36 months in bottles before removing the yeast.  Pronounced biscuit notes, medium-high acidity (though some found this even more marked), powerful structured fruit which perhaps lacked some complexity.

Blanc des Blancs Les Fleurons, Brut Premier Cru, Pierre Gimonnet, Champagne, 12.5%, more than four years on the lees in bottles: initially rather a neutral nose but a complex and beautiful palate – cut ripe and green apple, layers of interest, excellent length.

 4. What the **** is that?’ section

Two more or less sparkling wines, pale red and a deeper red, one very sweet and the other with a touch of sweetness and some bitterness.  It was obviously a good evening because I forgot to take any pictures of these colourful wines, which turned out to be two glorious Italian eccentricities:

Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG, Alasia, Araldica, Piemonte, 5% – similar in conception to Asti, this wine is tank fermented to retain maximum fragrance from the Brachetto grape variety and all the sugar in the wine is from the original grapes. The fermentation is stopped when the low 5% of alcohol is reached with the yeast and its nutrients being filtered out under pressure and at a low temperature.  Moderately fizzy, pure strawberry cordial, sweet and delicious: good wine does not have to be serious stuff. 

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, Tenuta Pederzana, Emilia Romagna 11.5%, lively frothy fizz, ruby red (if not as deep as a sparkling Shiraz as some thought), some red fruit but then almond and savoury flavours; light on the palate and only slightly sweet, but with a bitter finish, ergo must be Italian.  And indeed it was a traditional Lambrusco, not the industrial stuff, but still best served with a plate of fatty salami …

And the moral of the story? – in fact, there were two: 1.  because of the subtle differences between them, identifying sparkling wines tasted blind can only succeed if the number of variables is reduced so that contrasts stand out (eg start from the base of the same region or same grape variety or strongly contrasting styles) and 2. nonetheless a great deal of fun can be had in the process. 

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