In the week before Christmas and New Year’s, it is customary to write a column about Champagne and related species. And doing what is expected, occasionally a thorn in the paw of creativity, also keeps us focused in this time of hedonistic overload, when corks fly merrily and cheer is synonymous with alcoholic indulgence and the only reason you have a job in 2015 was that your boss was too drunk at the holiday gathering to remember what it was you said about his wife that made him want to fire you in the first place.
Thus, a little discipline is in order.
And thus, the stolid tale of three sparkling wines.
VallDolina Cava Reserva
Americans don’t drink enough Cava, and that which they do drink tends to be the stuff you find at 7-11 between the Monster Energy and 40-ounce malt liquors. If this was your introduction to Spanish méthode traditionnelle and you opted to pull the plug on future experimentation, you are to be forgiven: It’s as if your first dating experience was dinner and a movie with Lorena Bobbitt.
Nearly all of world’s Cava comes from Catalonia in Spain’s extreme northeast; in fact, the word ‘cava’ is Catalan, a language that in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar is said to be closer to French than Spanish. It’s the official tongue of Andorra, and in any case, ‘cava’ means cave. It was adopted by Catalan winemakers in 1970 to distinguish the product from Champagne, which must, by law, come from the eponymous region of northern France.
Like the language, Cava is a different beverage. The Holy Trinity of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; in Cava, it’s Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. Tasting notes in either category are as varied as the price tags, but in general—to my senses—Cava’s profile runs toward richer, baked apple flavors and Mandarin orange, and the earthier, croissant-like sweetness of yeast and butter—when experienced together, reminiscent of a fruit turnover. Champagne may seem more elegant up front, with crisper citrus notes, fresh apple in the nose and finer toast scents. Exceptions, of course, abound.
The Garraf Massif is a Catalan mountain range, and from its calcareous slopes come some of the world’s finest Cavas. Like chalky Champagne, these lime-rich, easy-draining soils are loaded with the remains of marine micro-organisms which may also act as a reservoir, providing the vines water even during drought. Such soils are said to impart a certain mineral quality to the wines they produce, and however much this can be disputed by geologists, the clean, slate-like quality in Garraf Cava cannot.
Considered one of the finest winemakers in Penedès (where the Cava DO is located) Raimon Badell of Cellar Masia Can Tutusaus produced organic Cava since 1998, adhering to the European Directive 2092/91. This nod toward an ecological future does not diminish Badell’s time-honored practice of manual disgorging without freezing the sediment, an arduous tradition requiring a special expertise.
VallDolina—a name that refers to the valleys that bisect the Garraf mountains—contains, beside the three primary grapes of the region, a small percentage of Chardonnay to add structure and ‘vinosity’—a buzzword that, like ‘minerality’, is hard to pin down.
Four years on the lees leaves an impression much easier to define: The wine opens with a full-flavored nose of apple custard and toasted brioche, leading into a palate balancing crispiness with cream. The acids are bright and omnipresent from beginning to end, tempered with nuttiness and dried apricot notes that may, in part, result from Cava’s climate, warmer than Champagne, allowing for the development of phenologically riper grapes. Plus, the years the wine spends sur lee allow for the emergence of complex autolytic compounds that heal too-aggressive acidity and provide the characteristic pastry and honey flavors.
The clear VallDolina advantage, of course, is price. At $18, this Cava Reserva, a robust and exquisite sparkling wine that can rival Champagnes—and even other high-end Cavas—costing three times as much.
Lancelot-Pienne Brut Blanc de Blancs à Cramant, NV
You say Crémant, I say Cramant—but let’s not call the whole thing off just yet. Crémant, of course, is a wine word used to describe sparkling wines with a bit less fizz, and may also refer to sparkling wines made outside of Champagne and from varieties other than those legally permitted in that region. Cramant is a place—a commune in the Côte des Blancs sub region of Champagne. Thus, all Cramant is Champagne, but not all Champagne is Crémant.
On to the wine:
The estate of Lancelot-Pienne’s history traces back 120 years when Jean-Baptiste Lancelot, then a vigneron for Mumm, put in the first of what is now 20 acres of vines. His son, Jean, took the reins after World War II and began produce his own cuvées. The third generation of Lancelot married into the Champagne family Pienne, and in 1967, the vineyards of both houses came into common ownership. Since then, the estate has produced wine exclusively from its own estate, releasing a tiny yearly average of 700 cases.
Gilles Lancelot has been the knight in charge since 2005, and the Blanc de Blanc—a 100% Chardonnay cuvée—comes from plots Grands Crus villages of the Côte des Blancs. These vineyards enjoy an optimal southeast exposure and are on steep gradients to maximize sunlight. About 80% of the base wine is vintage, with the remainder being steel-aged wine stored under a Solera system, blending freshness and finesse with complexity and richness.
Indeed, the wine shows a strikingly metaphorical nose, one suited to a Blanc de Blanc—everything I inhale is redolent of white stuff. White truffles, white peaches, pears, white stones. It’s followed by silken-textured mouthfeel filled with toasty, biscuity notes (white ones), an almost crystallized honey expression and a good show of textbook Cramant minerality. At around $40 a bottle, it is at an equivalent price point of the house blends which by their breeding—though meant to reflect a consistent style—tend to be generic and somewhat limited in complexity. Lancelot-Pienne Brut Blanc de Blancs à Cramant, by contrast, is filled with depth and lyrical character.
Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blanc Brut, 1999
With a beautiful vintage Champagne from a respected estate (not to mention a $160 price tag), I did what bubble purists might consider sacrilege: I blew it off for twenty-four hours after opening it.
The immediacy inherent in sparkling wine is part of its legacy, especially during this gimme, gimme season. Corks are popped and the wine is poured so quickly that frothy run-off is part of the tradition; Champagne screams ‘now’, and the quick dissipation of the sparkle is science of which there are not many ways around. Nor are there many reasons to want one: Champagne is for festive moments, shared celebrations, and five skinny flutes is about all you’ll get out of a bottle in the first place.
Except that flutes are all wrong, especially for a pricier Champagne. Trust me, if you don’t care about the sensory nuance that aged vintage Champagne brings—and plenty of arriviste Champagne fans don’t—save yourself the do-re-mi and go for the label’s standard $40 non-vintage bottling.
Mousse is a must, but an excess of theatrical lace tends to mask the wealth of aromatics that are vintage Champagne’s real calling card; rising carbon dioxide may showcase citrus and yeasty tones, but it doesn’t encourage the release of subtle esters, ethers and aldehydes; that happens when wine mixes with oxygen, and that’s the reason we swirl it in the glass.
And, of course, swirling a flute is a futile and messy endeavor, which is one of the reasons it is a silly choice for a Champagne glass. Flutes focus the bubbles while denying the bouquet sufficient space to expand. Wine should be a faithful messenger of the soil, and the soils of Champagne are so connected to its glory that to mute them is, to me, a far greater sin than giving them time to open up: Even the twenty-four hours I waited.
This time lapse was certainly at the expense of the lion’s share of the froth mane, but (a nod to the quality of the winemaking) not all of it. It created a wine in the style alluded to above: Crémant.
Not entirely the experience that the esteemed estate in Mareuil-sur-Ay may have intended, but I can, perhaps, be forgiven if I point out some of the deeper mysteries that revealed themselves in the wine when the fizz settled and the wine was given leisure to unzip itself:
The wine leads with a savory whiff of rich, buttery strudel—the dénouement of eleven years on the lees; the earthen crust gives rise to poached pear and waxy lemon peel with light undertones of ginger. The thickness—and this is not a pejorative—of the fruit is revealed with a tamed effervescence, showing a succulent array of apple peel, lemon chiffon, toasted almond and spice, finishing with a long, sensuous, bracing minerality and an acid spark.
You may not want to leave an entire bottle in the cooler overnight, but I suggest you save a single glass and try it the following day. See if you agree that there are dimensions to this delightful beverage–depths to be plumbed—that are often overlooked for the sake of instant gratification.