Champagne and celebration are as linked as Texas and 10-gallon hats in the minds of most of us — so much so that the festive bubbly is all but ignored in ordinary times. Not so with Sir Winston Churchill. “I drink Champagne to celebrate a victory, and I console myself with Champagne in times of defeat,” he famously said. (Churchill was never one to turn down a drink of any kind, apparently.) The obvious interpretation is that Champagne — along with its sparkling cousins — can easily be an anytime drink, especially given its extraordinary flexibility with foods of all types.
Nevertheless, Omniboire is shamelessly flogging Champagne for the season in this column, and the shame is compounded by the decision to concentrate uniquely on rosé sparkling wines. (We tasted three bottles that were not from France’s Champagne region, and thus can’t be called Champagne.) In our defense, we note that exports of rosé Champagne rose nearly 50 percent between 2005 and 2006 alone, and we doubt the increase can be explained entirely on the basis of quality. The two methods of achieving a rosé sparkler are to add a portion of still red wine to the blend before refermentating the blend in the bottle, or simply to let the grapes to macerate longer on their skins in earlier stages. Even the exalted experts tend to disagree on whether the latter method is better. The extra steps also mean that these wines tend to cost more than their less-colorful counterparts, so let’s just chalk the increasing popularity up to the pleasure principle: Rosé bubblies look great in the glass, and they make us feel festive.
Which doesn’t mean that they’re equally alluring. Two out of 10 bottles tasted failed to make our 13/20 cutoff, one being a non-Champagne sparkler, the other coming from a big-name Champagne house. We were hosted in this somebody’s-gotta-do-it ordeal by Philippe Placé of Coco Chocolate Lounge and Bistro `whose restaurant you’ll find reviewed in the December 23, 2008 Current`. The other, equally august, panelists were Kristene Bainbridge of Prestige, a wholesale distributor; Dan Bryant of Domains and Estates, a wholesaler associated with Glazer’s; and Walter Chelmis, wine guru at Gabriel’s No. 8 at Callaghan and I-10.
Omniboire has sampled a couple of additional brut rosés recently, all in the holiday spirit, of course. Coco’s favorite pour is the Piper Heidsieck Brut Rosé Sauvage, a brightly acidic wine that changes substantially with food. The Duval Leroy Rosé de Saignée Brut (tasted at Zinc Champagne and Wine Bar) has pretty sour-cherry and strawberry notes and a nice, yeasty nose. But whatever your choice, know that in choosing a sparkling wine you’re in good company. “I’ll drink Champagne with anything, anytime,” declares Placé. “It gets the night started.”
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé, $53
Bright and delicate, wild strawberry notes, complex yet light
“I liked it a lot and I don’t usually,” said Chelmis, citing its “fine bubbles, nice perfume, and lean, yeasty,” quality. “Its tastes developed,” thought Bainbridge. “It has a beautiful color and nice complexity,” noted Omniboire. “It’s high-toned,” Bryant concluded succinctly.
Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Rose Top Brut, $59
Strawberry, raspberry, and forest-floor notes, great balance
“Overall beautiful wine, with great balance between fruit and acid,” Bainbridge said. “It has an umami quality, like deteriorating leaves” Chelmis added. Omniboire can usually sense when the pro tasters are going to like what we find forest-floor funky — in a good way, of course. “It has a touch of sulfur, but really nice — anybody can put fruit in a wine,” Bryant offered. If you keep tasting, maybe one day you, too, can be seduced by sulfur.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Vintage Rosé 2002, $70
Beautiful color, rich, deep, best with food
“It has a deep, yeasty nose; I thought it was vintage,” said Bryant. Placé detected “an older nose,” while Chelmis demurred with thoughts of California. “I found it candied; it seemed manipulated,” he sniffed. Bainbridge, however, thought it “complex, and dense,” cited its “beautiful color,” and enjoyed its “very satisfying mid-palate fruit.”
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, $80-$110
Yeasty nose, strawberry/cherry fruit, elegant but unbalanced
Normally listed at over $100, the Billecart-Salmon was by far the most expensive. Fortunately, it happened to be on serious special at Saglimbeni Fine Wines, for “years ago I saw stars, but this time … ” mused Bainbridge. “I thought it a little muddled on the nose, had little definition, lost a little on mouthfeel … `yet it was` elegant and rich,” offered Chelmis. Bryant determined it to be “a little awkward: big upfront but hollow in the middle,” while Placé knocked it off for what it was, saying “This is the celebration wine in the Placé household. There are too many good memories not to give high numbers.” (Saglimbeni suggests that this is a wine to lay down for a year or so; the patient and well-heeled are encouraged to do this and report back for the rest of us.)
Philipponnat Brut Reserve Rosé, $59
Classic, nice mousse, slightly funky nose
“I may have had palate fatigue, but I found a funky nose and heavy mouthfeel,” Bainbridge said. Chelmis and Bryant found it “classic,” however, and Bryant especially liked the bead — a fancy term for the size (small is good), number (more is better), and duration (long is desirable) of the bubbles.
Jansz Tasmania Premium Rosé NV, $22
Lean, pretty, light strawberry fruit
Time for a geography quiz: all who know where Tasmania is, raise your glasses. Very good. Now, all who were aware that Australia’s southern island state produced sparkling wine, hoist your flutes. (Omniboire didn’t know either, if it’s any consolation.) Our sixth-ranking sparkler is produced in the Pipers River region of Tasmania. France’s Louis Roederer Champagne house has had a hand in the production, and the comments reflected the liaison. “Racy and lively,” Bryant said. “Loved the color and acidity,” commented Placé. “It’s made for people who prefer a lighter-bodied wine,” observed Bainbridge. Chelmis and Omniboire agreed that we both liked it better after food, an opportunity that was presented with the arrival of foie-gras tidbits and other assorted amuse bouches. Tough job — though serious amateurs with flexible schedules may feel free to apply. `Ed. note: I assume that’s a serious offer. Omniboire tastings take place mid-month. If you’re an interested pro-am, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and she’ll forward your info to Ron.`
Grüet Brut Rosé Méthode Champenoise, $15
Dark, developed fruit, big tastes but less finesse
Always dependable — and a perfect party wine — the Grüet garnered comments such as this from Chelmis: “very forward fruit (strawberry and raspberry) … huge in all respects but not fine” — a perfect summation.
Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2000 Rosé, $70
Slightly flawed but with some spice and cherry flavors
A couple of tasters detected banana (not a good thing) and Bainbridge noted “a slight cork taint at the end,” suggesting that the bottle may have been flawed but that good breeding allowed it to eke out a show regardless. •
Most wines can be found at Central Market, Saglimbeni Fine Wines and other specialty wine shops