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BUBBLES – PART 2: CHAMPAGNE & PREMIUM SPARKLING WINES UNDER 75$

champagne and premium sparkling wine
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

Now that you have had a week-end to go out and taste test the 10 great value sparkling wines I offered up last week (if not, click here), it’s time to double down. Yes folks, today’s recommendations get a little pricier! I have, however, restricted the list to wines under 75$, to keep them within attainable gift-giving limits.

So, is it really worth spending 20$ to 50$ more? The short answer: YES!

That is not to say that all higher priced bubblies are better than their more affordable counter-parts. There are many excellent, small sparkling wine houses that are far superior to some of the major producers. There are also glaring examples of big brand Champagnes that are priced way over their true value.

I simply mean that a serious step up in complexity, elegance and finesse often comes when you lay down a couple of extra twenties.

Why is this?

It all comes down to terroir and winemaking techniques.

When making premium quality wine, grapes are generally sourced from the best vineyard sites, with ideal micro-climates, optimal sun exposure, mature vines, and highly prized soil compositions.

For instance, in Champagne the best Chardonnay grapes are said to come from the eastern-facing slopes of the Côte des Blancs. Experts will tell you that the chalky soils here give very fresh, light, elegant whites. The best Pinot Noirs are puported to hail from the western and northern flanks of the Montagne de Reims. Fragrant, robust reds are produced from the limestone soils here.

The grapes are harvested within very specific ripeness parameters to yield wines with the right balance of vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavours. Careful sorting in the vineyards and winery ensures that only perfectly healthy grapes make the cut.

The majority of premium-priced sparkling wines, including all the ones reviewed below, are made following the traditional method. Much of their complexity, and the key to what makes each wine unique, comes from these 3 key factors:

The blending. In traditional method sparkling wine production, blending is a complex process! The intial winemaking step, is the fermentation of grapes to yield a dry, still wine (aka “base wines”). Producers regularly keep back a percentage of each seasons’ base wine to age in their cellars. Non-vintage sparkling wines are a combination of the newly fermented dry wine from the years’ harvest, and older base wines from previous vintages. These matured wines are called “réserve wines”.

Réserve wines bring added nuance, especially in poor vintages! Depending on the age of the réserve wines, and how much is used in the blend, they can add interesting flavours of grilled nuts, dried fruits, and earthy notes. Once the winemaker feels he has achieved the right balance of fresh and matured nuances in his blend, the wine will be bottled to undergo its secondary fermentation.

The maturation. Premium sparkling wines tend to be aged on their lees for many years. This long cellaring period has several advantages. Firstly, as previously explained, they take on a powerful autolytic character (bakery/patisserie-type aromas, rich, creamy texture, and very fine, well-defined bubbles). Secondly, extended bottle ageing gives the various structural components of the wine time to fully integrate. Acidity softens, firm structure mellows, and flavours harmonize.

The dosage. Once the cellar master determines that the lees-ageing period should come to an end, a complex process takes place to move the yeast sediment to the top of the bottle so as to be expelled. The bottles are briefly opened, the lees are removed (aka disgorged), and the bottle space is filled with a mixture of wine and sugar called the “liquer d’expedition”.

The majority of traditional method sparkling wines today are “brut”, meaning that they have up to 12g/L residual sugar. A popular new trend is the move towards bone-dry styles such as “extra-brut” (6g/L residual sugar or less), or even “zéro dosage” (with no sugar added).

While you may think that you prefer your wine as dry as possible, know this: 8 – 12g/L residual sugar is barely perceptible against the searing acidity of many sparkling wines. The no/ low sugar styles can appear overly tart and austere to the uninitiated.

There is a wealth of other fascinating reasons why Champagne and other premium sparkling wines are so enticing. I could wax lyrical on the subject all day, but I think the real proof is in the bottle. So without further ado, here are my top 10, premium sparkling wines for this festive season!

Ca’ del Bosco Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta (Italy) – 89pts LW

Chardonnay dominant, with a seasoning of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Moderately intense, featuring attractive white floral notes, bosc pear and hints of buttery pastry. Very fresh, with vigorous bubbles and a broad, layered mid-palate and dry finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (41.95$), agent: . SAQ (43.00$), agent: Montalvin

Henry of Pelham Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blancs 2012 – 91pts. LW

Made from 100% Chardonnay, and aged on its lees for 5 years, this opulent sparkling wine offers a rich texture, and tempting flavours of baked apple, ripe lemon and toast. Wonderfully vibrant acidity and fine, persistent mousse balance the concentrated fruity, toasted core nicely.

Where to buy: LCBO (44.95$)

Champagne Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut – 92pts. LW

Very elegant for the price, with mineral nuances, white floral notes and orchard fruits on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied, with laser-like focus, and a zesty core of lemon and green apple. Bone dry, with lingering stony minerality.

Where to buy: SAQ (46.25$), agent: AOC & Cie

Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaïque – 93pts. LW

A richly textured style, blending the three major Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier. Enticing aromas of hazelnut, red apple and brioche on the nose. Medium bodied, with brisk acidity, a creamy, concentrated mid-palate, and very fine, lingering bubbles.

Where to buy: SAQ (47.25$), agent: Univins 

Benjamin Bridge Brut 2011 (Nova Scotia) – 88pts LW

Mostly composed of hybrid grapes (capable of surviving our challenging winters), Benjamin Bridge Brut is an incredibly vibrant, citrus-driven sparkling. Searing acidity and vigorous bubbles feature on the light weight palate. A zesty core of ripe lemon and subtle mineral nuances linger through to the clean, dry finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (49.95$). SAQ (49.75$)

Champagne Drappier Brut Nature Zéro Dosage – 92pts. LW

Somewhat restrained, developing tart orchard fruit, hints of red berries, and green almond notes upon aeration. This is a very clean, precise, bone dry Champagne with racy acidity and a long, mineral-laced finish. Well-delineated, elegant bubbles give breadth and elegance to this exclusively Pinot Noir based cuvée. Great choice for oysters!

Where to buy: LCBO (58.95$), agent: Kirkwood Diamond CanadaSAQ (49.75$), agent: Amphora Vins Fins

Champagne Taittinger Brut Réserve – 94pts. LW

This Chardonnay-led blend offers a lot of finesse for the price. Alluring aromas of grilled nuts and toast interweave beautifully with bright red apple and white blossom notes. Incredibly vibrant on the palate, with a firm structure, softened by the smooth, layered texture. The finish is long and wonderfully fresh.

Where to buy: LCBO (61.95$), SAQ (59.75$). Agent: Vins Philippe Dandurand

Charles Heidseck Brut Réserve – 93pts. LW

Charles Heidseck (not to be confused with Piper!) is a rich, golden hued Champagne crafted with 40% Réserve wine. This brings intriguing blend of bright yellow fruits and freshly baked bread, with attractive tertiary notes of dried fruits and toasted almonds. The palate is zesty, medium bodied, and very concentrated, with attractive, persistent bubbles. Bonus (if gift giving or trying to impress guests): the new label is very classy!

Where to buy: LCBO (69.95$), agent: Breakthru Beverage Canada (sold out in QC, enquire with agent).

Louis Roederer Brut Premier – 95pts. LW

One of my perennial favourites, Louis Roederer Champagne never fails to impress. This Pinot Noir and Meunier led blend is highly complex, featuring notes of brioche, delicate red berries, and orchard fruits, underscored by intriguing nutty aromas. Searing acidity, firm structure and vibrant bubbles, are expertly balanced by the rich, creamy texture and concentrated, toasty core.

Where to buy: LCBO (72.95$), agent: Authentic Wines & SpiritsSAQ (70.00$), agent: Le Marchand du Vin

Gosset Grande Réserve Brut – 95pts. LW

Very opulent, hedonistic style featuring equal parts Chardonnay/ Pinot Noir, and a small percentage of Meunier. Highly autolytic in character, with pretty yellow apple, ripe lemon, and ginger spice adding complexity. Zesty and firm on the palate, with a creamy texture, impressive depth of flavour, and very fine, persistent mousse.

Where to buy: SAQ (73.00$), agent: Réserve & Sélection

 

(What does LW stand for?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

 

 

Producers Reviews

PRODUCER PROFILE – DOMAINE QUEYLUS

Domaine Queylus Niagara Wine
Photo credits: Domaine Queylus

If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you will know that I come from a family of unabashed wine snobs. Our saving grace, and the reasons we still have any friends willing to imbibe with us, is our ability to revise our initial judgement calls.

Through out my childhood, my parents hosted an annual mulled wine party, and their well-mannered guests always came bearing gifts. I still remember my father snickering at bottles of Niagara wine received in the 1990s. They went into the “cooking wine” stock without a backward glance.

I was therefore duly shocked when, on a visit home from Burgundy 10 years later, he served me a Château des Charmes Chardonnay, declaring it ‘not half bad’.  And he was right.

It wasn’t until 2009 however that I made my first visit to the vineyards of Niagara. The company I was then working for in Gigondas had just merged with the large Burgundian négociant firm: Boisset, and my new colleagues insisted that I visit their Ontario estate: Le Clos Jordanne.

I will admit that I went into the visit with low expectations. Our appointment was for early afternoon, and we had tasted some pretty green, over oaked wines over the course of the morning. Pulling up outside a glorified shed made of corrugated iron did little to assuage my doubts. However, just 2 or 3 barrels in to our tasting, my opinion was radically altered. Here was elegant, expressive, balanced Pinot Noir that could ably hold its own on the world stage.

And I was far from the only enthusiast.

A group of friends and wine lovers from Québec were also following the successes of the Clos Jordanne, and its talented, Québecois winemaker Thomas Bachelder, with interest. So much so that they decided to pool their resources and purchase a 10-hectare orchard in 2006 at a site near Beamsville in the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation.

Armed with the knowledge that the choices made when preparing to plant a vineyard will dictate the quality produced for years to come, this band of brothers pulled out all the stops. Internationally renowned vineyard consultant Alain Sutre was called in to perform detailed soil analyses; to determine what to plant and where.

Though the project was intially set to be dedicated to Pinot Noir, the variable soils called for greater diversification. A pocket of heavy blue clay, similar to that found in Pomerol, was planted to Merlot. A cooler site, near the lake, was given over to Chardonnay.

Thomas Bachelder left the Clos Jordanne, and joined the Queylus team early on, as consultant, head winemaker and estate manager. He brought with him a wealth of experience and an uncompromising ambition to craft balanced, elegant wines in tribute to his years in Burgundy, though with a clear sense of Niagara terroir.

Today, the estate consists of 16 hectares spread across three appellations: the intial plot at Lincoln Lakeshore near Beamsville, Twenty Mile Bench near Jordan, and Vinemount Ridge in St Ann’s.

Over a sumptuous lunch at the always fantastic La Chronique restaurant in Montréal, I had the opportunity to taste the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Pinot Noirs from each of the three tiers of Domaine Queylus’ range. Much like in Burgundy, Queylus has segmented their wines into a Villages level (called “Tradition”), and Premier Cru level (“Réserve”) and a Grand Cru bottling (“Grande Réserve”).

My notes as follows:

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

   

Pinot Noir Tradition 2013 – 89pts. PW

Fragrant red berrry and cranberry notes on the nose, underscored by hints of white pepper. Lovely balance of crisp acidity, medium body and tangy, just ripe fruit flavours. Silky tannins. Easy drinking and fresh.

Where to buy: LCBO (29.95$), SAQ (31.00$)

Pinot Noir Tradition 2014 – 88pts. PW

Moderately intense red cherry, red berry and eucalyptus notes on the nose. Firmer and fuller bodied than the 2013, with a tightly knit structure and somewhat chewy tannins. Subtle cedar, spice notes linger on the finish.

Where to buy: coming summer 2017

Pinot Noir Réserve 2011 – 93pts. LW

I particularly like this vintage for its lightness of body, purity of fruit and freshness. Local growers might not agree however, given the challenges the poor growing season weather presented, and the heavy sorting that quality-minded estates like Queylus were obliged to undertake.

The nose is initially quite subdued, but shows lovely complexity upon aeration, with pretty raspberry, red cherry, floral, spice and tea leaf notes. Silky on the palate, with vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavours. The finish is long and layered, with well integrated oak and lovely fruit.

Where to buy: stocks running low, enquire in stores

Pinot Noir Réserve 2013 – 94pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of red cherry, red berry, musc and potpourri abound on the nose. The palate is crip, full bodied and firm, with an attractive velvetty texture and concentrated red berry flavours. Moderately chewy, yet ripe tannins frame the finish. Spicy, toasted oak lends further complexity on the long finish. Good, mid-term cellaring potential.

Where to buy: SAQ (47.25$), LCBO (coming soon)

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2011 – 93pts. LW

Elegant notes of violets, red cherries, dark fruits and a hint of white pepper define the nose. This fresh, medium bodied cuvée is moderately firm, with fine grained tannins and highly concentrated fruit flavours, with underlying savoury nuances. Vibrant, lifted finish. Ready to drink.

Where to buy: 1st vintage for the Grande Réserve tier; likely out of stock. Enquire with domaine.

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2012 – 94pts. LW

A riper, richer vintage than the 2011 or 2013, this 2012 Grande Réserve features sweet spice, stewed strawberry, ripe red cherries and subtle earthy notes on the nose. Full bodied and fleshy on the palate, with intense candied red fruit and oaked flavours (cedar/ spice). Quite tannic and taut on the finish, this vintage needs time in cellar to unwind.

Where to buy: SAQ (62.50$), LCBO (60.00$)

Pinot Noir Grande Réserve 2013 – 95pts. LW

A beautifully balanced, lovely wine all around. Just ripe strawberry and raspberry aromas are enhanced by chalky minerality and subtle tomato leaf nuances. Bright acidity lifts the firm structure and fine grained texture. Wonderfully vibrant, juicy fruit flavours play across the mid-palate and linger long on the layered finish. Great oak integration. Superior ageing potential. Bravo!

Where to buy: SAQ (set for an August 2017 release), LCBO (coming soon)

Cabernet Franc/ Merlot Réserve 2012 – 90pts. PW

Classic Cabernet Franc aromatics of bell pepper and just ripe raspberries feature on the nose, with deeper, riper cassis notes developping upon aeration. Fresh, full bodied and moderately fleshy across the mid-palate. Needs some time for the oak flavours to fully integrate. Highly drinkable.

Where to buy: SAQ (37.00$)