Toasting Life's Happy Landings

(By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, June 11, 2008; Page F05

"If you'll excuse me, I've got a date with a bottle of champagne." That's what William Boynton said at the jubilant gathering on May 25 when NASA announced that its Phoenix spacecraft had landed safely on Mars.

His words sent our imaginations soaring: What extraordinary sparkling wine would a rocket scientist pop open to celebrate such an extraordinary feat?

Perhaps it was the multi-vintage La Caravelle Premier Cru Brut ($35 at Potomac Wines & Liquors), which had recently wowed us with its richness and delicious notes of butter, nuts and lemon. It's made from 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent pinot noir grapes (from the 2002, 2001 and 2000 vintages), and its very fine bubbles carry its toasted-brioche flavor through to a surprisingly long, creamy finish.

Might it have been the 1998 Pol Roger Brut Vintage ($85)? Featuring the opposite blend of grapes (60 percent pinot noir, 40 percent chardonnay), this wine has the power to transform sushi and foie gras pâté into a celebration.

Or perhaps it was something from an even better vintage. We recently joined winemaker Stanislas Henriot for a 200th-anniversary tasting of some of his company's finest, including the 1995 Champagne Henriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs ($190) and the same wine's 1976, 1964 and 1959 vintages. The perfectly balanced 1996 Champagne Henriot Brut Millesime ($84) left us looking forward to any festive excuse to taste its lemonlike acidity and remarkably creamy finish again -- ideally with the same caviar-topped scallop tartare.

If any occasion called for an over-the-top prestige cuvee, surely it was the Mars landing. G.H. Mumm releases its Cuvee R. Lalou only in truly exceptional vintages. This year it introduced the extraordinary 1998 G.H. Mumm Cuvee R. Lalou ($160). The first vintage release since 1985, it is a 50-50 blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes from seven of Mumm's best vineyards and represents the apex of the art of making champagne.

Five days after the Phoenix had landed, a news release crossed our desk suggesting that shuttle astronaut and Navy commander Kenneth Hamm was planning a toast with Schramsberg sparkling wine after the completion of his Space Shuttle Discovery mission, which launched May 31. He is such a fan of the stuff, the release went on, that he decided to carry Schramsberg corks and labels on board among his allowed personal items.

Maybe Boynton, too, had uncorked the dry, toasty 2005 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut ($35), which has notes of lemon curd. It works as well as a refreshing aperitif as it does later in the meal with seafood, including fried calamari. Then again, perhaps in honor of the visit to the red planet, Boynton had opted for something rosy-hued. Andrew's pick this week, the 2005 Schramsberg Brut Rosé ($40), filled with strawberry and raspberry notes and bearing a refreshing lime finish, was one of the best rosés we've tasted this year.

Overcome by curiosity, we finally contacted a mutual friend, who let us know that Boynton's date had in fact been with "a $6.99 bottle of Freixenet" cava, a choice Boynton verified when he later e-mailed us. "I bought six bottles for the group and whoever else was around," he had explained to our friend. "It was not really a time to savor the delicate flavor of a good champagne."

Of course. Even more than flavor, popping the cork at a celebration is about sharing a ritual. And though a top-of-the-line champagne can offer a one-of-a-kind experience, any bottle of bubbly enables participation in this time-honored custom.

For $15 or less, you can open one of two delightfully creamy apple- and pear-noted sparklers: The delicately well-balanced NV Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blancs Brut Cremant d'Alsace ($15) is made from pinot blanc; the refreshing, fruit-forward NV Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay ($10) from South Eastern Australia has a wonderful whisper of sweetness on its finish.

And don't overlook Boynton's choice: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to calculate the bargain offered by the beautiful bang-for-the-buck bubbly that is also Karen's pick this week. Made using the traditional method for French champagne, the NV Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava ($10) is softer in acidity than other sparklers, but its big, bold bubbles refresh the palate after fried and salty foods. It can stand up to heavier dishes or even to the addition of chilled fruit juices to create summer cocktails.

Boynton told us he's planning to launch a few more corks into the sky "at least one more time following the successful analysis of Mars soil and ice." We hope today's column helps him and his team -- and other summer revelers -- discover other options we've test-fired and think are out of this world.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and the forthcoming "The Flavor Bible," can be reached through their Web site, http://www.becomingachef.com, or at food@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company