Sparkling Wine Blind Tasting
Having finished recording a series of ten podcast episodes on sparkling wine, I hosted a blind tasting of four sparkling wines from around the world at San Francisco Wine School. This was designed to help WSET Diploma students preparing for the sparkling wine exam on 6 March. In that exam, students have three short theory questions to answer and three sparkling wines to taste blind. These wines could by organised by any theme - same style (e.g. traditional method) from different regions, different styles (e.g. traditional and tank), or varying levels of quality.
Blind tasting is always difficult and often humbling. All preconceptions have to be put to one side; any prejudices, whether positive or negative, about a producer, a region, or a style of wine, have to be forgotten. And you have to prepare to be embarrassed when a wine you rated as very good turns out to be an inexpensive, mass-market brand.
I was tasked with setting the students four wines to taste. I decided to choose wines made in the same way - the traditional method historically associated with champagne production - from different regions and at different price points. The students had to identify the region and the price.
what to look for
Tasting traditional method sparkling wine is not easy because they are not aromatic wines. This is especially the case for champagne, which is produced in a cool climate. Instead, you have to look for two things: the structure of the wine, particularly the acidity and the level of sweetness, and the complexity of the lees aromas.
All traditional method sparkling wines are aged in the bottle in contact with the dead yeast cells left over from the second fermentation which produces the bubbles. But regulations differ across the many regions these wines are produced in. In Champagne, non-vintage wines must spend 12 months on their lees, vintage 3 years. For Crémant, an alternative to champagne made across France, the minimum time is 9 months; likewise for Cava. Franciacorta, Italy's premium region for sparkling wine, has a minimum of 18 months, rising to 5 years for riserva wines. Meanwhile, outside Europe only South Africa has any regulations for ageing (12 months), meaning you're never quite sure what you're going to get in places like Australia or California.
The warmer climates of South Africa, Australia, and California mean that, although the wines are made the same way as in Champagne, the acidity will not be as high and any sugar in the wine will be more noticeable - getting that balance between acidity and sweetness is much harder.
The first wine of the blind tasting was vintage champagne, from 2006. The key indicators for identifying the wine were its maturity (mushrooms, nuts, bruised apples, some oxidation), its high acidity still very refreshing despite the wine's age, and the complex lees aromas. Few wines from any other region would show such maturity, complexity, and freshness. Nevertheless, the first wine in a blind tasting is always the hardest, and it was only when students came back to it that they recognised its superior quality - which is why it’s a good idea to smell all the wines in a line-up before tasting them. Wine: Pierre Moncuit Brut Millésime Blanc de Blancs 2006 ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪).
The second wine was a Crémant d'Alsace. Alsace has a similarly cool, though much sunnier, climate than Champagne, and it is making increasingly good sparkling wine. However, precisely identifying that this wine is from Alsace is hard. The various Crémants of France are all made with different grape varieties in various climates and there is no recognisable style to Crémant generally or specifically within each region. But nonetheless there were some pointers to this being a Crémant (in this case made from Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois): good quality, fruity with citrus and green apples, high acidity, and light lees aromas indicating some ageing - though nothing like Champagne. Wine: Rieflé Bonheur Festif Brut NV ($25; ✪✪✪✪).
The rules for Crémant and Cava are very similar and the basic styles can be difficult to distinguish. However, Cava uses grape varieties indigenous to Catalunya, which often lead to unpleasant rubbery aromas especially when the grapes are picked too early - and these aromas were evident in this wine. Tasting a very commercial wine in a blind tasting is always a challenge. These wines are often successful because they are very upfront in their aromas, which on first examination can be mistaken for complexity. Students called out smoke and petrol aromas, wondering if the wine had been made from Riesling. At the same time, they were confused because the wine didn't match up to those smoky aromas. The answer: the aromas were of cold mushrooms and burnt rubber and not much else, with an overly sweet palate trying to compensate for the unpleasant flavours. When tasting a wine like this, think about the depth and concentration of the aromas not just the pungency. Wine: Freixenet Cordon Negro NV ($10; ✪✪).
The final wine was the most similar in quality to Champagne but again there were certain key indicators that it was from another region. Firstly, the acidity was nowhere near as searingly high as in a champagne and didn't quite balance the slight sweetness. Secondly, the aromas were much fruitier (stone and tropical fruits) and the body fuller. These factors point to a warmer climate. Getting more specific than that is difficult because producers in Australia, South Africa, and California make sparkling wines in a very similar manner, usually from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and from similar Mediterranean climates. In this case, one student guessed it was from California and she was right! The most important element here is not so much identifying exactly where the wine came from, but analysing its overall structure to conclude it’s from a warmer climate. Wine: Roederer Estate Brut NV ($23; ✪✪✪✪).
Blind tasting is rewarding because it forces you to focus on the structural elements of a wine in order to identify it. It also makes you concentrate on the quality of the wine - which, ultimately, is what I need to know when tasting, buying, or drinking a wine. And being able to distinguish between a vintage champagne and basic cava is integral to an appreciation of wine and understanding the relationship between price and quality.