Monday, February 4, 2013

Champagne Blind Taste-Off (You'll Never Guess the Winner)

The idea: With Valentine’s Day coming up, a friend had the idea of gathering up some wine nerds and some non-vintage Champagne. We tasted and scored the wines blind to find out which bubbly gives the best bang for the buck.

The wines: 10 non-vintage brut Champagnes that cost about $50 or less.

The takeaway: A Champagne’s quality is not necessarily determined by its price tag. Also, no matter how much you know about wine, blind tasting always serves up delicious humble pie.

The tasting panel consisted of myself and six other oenophiles, including wine bloggers, collectors and a winemaker. It’s safe to say we’re all Champagne fans — isn’t everyone? — and each taster has some significant experience with the best of French bubbles.

We tried to bring together the “big names” in non-vintage Champagne blends, those brightly-colored, easily-identifiable labels you see on the shelf at your local liquor store or Safeway. At the end of the tasting, we unveiled the wines and averaged the seven scores to see which came out on top.

Now, all blind tastings contain at least some level of surprise. That’s the whole point. But I doubt anyone could have predicted the outcome of this blind tasting.

Let’s count down the 10 Champagnes…

#10) N.V. Pol Roger Champagne Brut Réserve ($50)
Group score: 82.7 points. My score: 85 points.
Richer aromas of orchard fruit, mango and apricot. Very bready on the palate, with lots of toast, bruised apple and lime. Bread and bagel notes linger onto the finish. (Note: This was likely an “off bottle.” Several tasters with extensive Pol Roger experience thought this particular bottle was not representative of the wine as a whole.) 

#9) N.V. Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Champagne Blue Top Brut ($45)
Group average: 84.3 points. My score: 85 points.
Aromas of white peach, grapefruit, green apple and some raw pear skins. The palate is tangy, showing lots of green pear and apple. A bit of nutty, waxy flavors, but they lack depth. Overall, a mediocre effort.

#8) N.V. Delamotte Champagne Brut ($46)
Group average: 86.3 points. My score: 86 points.
Initially shy on the nose, with green apples and very light floral aromas. The palate is brisk and tangy, with green grape and apple flavors. Overall, a bit harsh in its flavor profile. Sure there’s some zippy acid, but this wine doesn’t have the depth to back it up.

#7) N.V. Taittinger Champagne La Française Brut ($50)
Group average: 86.6 points. My score: 87 points.
Floral aromas, peach blossoms, limestone. The palate is very tangy, with laser-like acid, and lots of grapefruit and citrus peel flavors. Lingers long on the finish.

#6) N.V. Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut ($50)
Group average: 87.6 points. My score: 88 points.
Aromas of chalk, limestone and white flowers, mixed in with freshly toasted bread. The palate is creamy and tangy, with dominant flavors of fresh apple juice, toasted baguette and lots of lemon peel. The palate shows a lot of cut and a mineral-driven finish. Rich yet lean.

#5) N.V. Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Cuvée St. Anne ($46)
Group average: 88.3 points. My score: 87 points.
Flint, baked apple and fun dip candy on the nose. There’s a good amount of tangy pear and grapefruit mixed in with the apricot and toast flavors. Solid acid and white peach carry the finish. Solid stuff.

Tie for #4) and #3)
Group average: 89 points. My score: 88 points.
Aromas of honeycomb, white peach, white flowers and mixed nuts. The palate is really nutty, with lots of richness, along with tangerine and green apple. Tangy, nice acid.

N.V. Bollinger Champagne Special Cuvée Brut ($60)
Group average: 89 points. My score: 89 points.
Aromas of apricot, sea shore, green apple and honeysuckle. Super zesty on the palate, with fine bubbles and lots of cream and grapefruit flavors. Very pure and bright, with lots of limestone and citrus peel flavors. Huge acid/cut on the palate.

#2) N.V. Moët & Chandon Champagne Brut Impérial ($50)
Group average: 89.1 points. My score: 90 points.
Very ethereal on the nose, elegant flowers, honeysuckle and faint minerals. The palate shows mineral water, papaya and lime over top of tangy acid and fine bubbles. The crisp green aple and limestone flavors linger long onto the finish. This wine begs for salads or oysters. My favorite wine of the tasting.

And the winner is…

#1) N.V. Kirkland Signature Champagne Brut ($20)
Group average: 90.3 points. My score: 88 points.
What an interesting Champagne. It smells like papaya, mixed nuts, goat cheese and cheese rind... really strange at first, but it opened up and got more complex with some air. Zippy on the palate, full of toasted coconut, peanut shell, hazelnut and limestone. Rich, yet compact, seems like it needs some air to open up fully. When this was unveiled, we were so shocked to see it was the house brand from Costco. This Champagne is made by Manuel Janisson, a well-respected producer. Hats off to Costco for bringing in this juice at such a low price point. This is why I love blind tastings.

So, there you have it. After everything, the Costco brand Champagne wins out. Wine is a strange and fascinating thing, isn’t it?

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