IF YOU have not bought French champagne since last year, you are in for a shock. Prices have gone up 20 to 30 percent. Nonvintage (NV) bottles now start at $12 to $14 and vintage champagnes with prestige labels go for $25 to $50. Another price increase of about 25 cents is expected again in early 1981. But holiday celebrants needn't despair. Very good champagne-style wines can be had for $5 to $8 and decent sparkling wines can be bought for $4. Moreover, prices of champagne's competitors, like those of champagne itself, can be shaved by 10 to 20 percent during a sale.
Most wine-producing countries make sparkling wines. There must be at least 50 different, dry, champagne-style wines on sale in the Washington area and a few score of sweet ones. They come from California, New York, Germany, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, France (but from outside the region named Champagne) and Chile, among others. Many of these are made by the laborious methode champenoise which requires that the second fermentation -- the one that puts the bubbles in the wine -- take place in the bottle in which the wine will be sold, just as French champagne is made.
From what I have seen, French champagne will be facing stiff competition, especially for the glasses of those people who do not drink labels. Recently I put some of these upstart sparkling wines to the test. A panel composed of wine experts as well as casual wine drinkers tasted and compared 19 dry sparkling wines regularly selling for $10 or less and a highly rated Nv French champagne selling for $16.50. All were labeled either "brut" (pronounced like the English word brute ), the driest form of champagne, or "extra dry," the next-driest form. The panel was instructed to evaluate each wine on its own merits as well as to compare it to various styles of champagne. All wines were tasted double blind. Panelists did not know the names of the wines in the competition nor the names of any wines in their glasses.
The panel praised six of the 19 sparkling wines selling for les than $10 and found five more acceptable. Of those 11, five provide very good value for the money. The good values are:
Bouvet , brut, NV, at $7.25 to $8 (highly recommended);
Hans Kornell California Champagne, brut, NV, at $7.25 to $8 (highly recommended);
Freixenet Cordon negro, brut, NV, at $5 to $6 (highly recommended);
Cordorniu Brut Classico, 1977, at $5.50 to $6.25 (recommended);
Monarch Wine's New York State Champagne, brute, NV, house champagne of many Washington wine stores. Our bottle was from Riverside Liquors. Labeled Chateau Pierre-Leon, it sold for $4. (Acceptable.)
The panelists unanimously agreed that the French champagne, Veuve Clicquot, ponsardin, brut, NV, was slightly better than the rest. The difference in quality, however, was hardly worth the $8 difference in price.
Although most of the wines were labeled "brut" they varied in sweetness from very dry to slightly sweet. Check the wines' descriptions below for degree of dryness.
Of the 20 bottles tasted, three had gone bad, apparently through mishandling at the winery, in transport or in storage. This was particularly annoying since one of them had come highly recommended. While I have not kept careful tract, it seems that at least one out of 15 bottles I encounter at tastings has gone bad. The risks are probably higher with sparkling wines, which are subject to erratic seasonal sales.
The major signs of bad sparkling wines are a lack of carbonation and/or sherry-like qualities: dark golden color and sherry-like aroma and taste. Strong odors and tastes of petroleum, rotting wood, rotting vegetables or rubber that do not disspate after 10 to 15 minutes are other signs of bad wine. rIf you get a bad bottle, return it with the wine -- and the cork, if possible -- to the dealer from whom you bought it. But remember, there are differences in what people like. A wine cannot be returned merely because it is not to your taste.
Here are the comparisons of the wines. They are rated highly recommended, recommended, acceptable or disliked. A votre sante and Happy New Year! r HIGHLY RECOMMENED
Bouvet, brut, NV (French), $7.25 to $8. Pleasant fruity aroma with vanilla and nutty overtones. Tart, very dry; simple, pleasant flavor with some fruit, and a good finish. Finely carbonated.
Hans Kornell California Champagne, brut, NV, $7.25 to $8.25. Appealing, fruity-flowery aroma. In the mouth it was very dry, well balanced, with a good fruity flavor showing a hint of pears; nice finish.
Freixenet Cordon Negro, brut, NV (Spanish), $5 to $6. Light, pleasant aroma, hint of lemons; dry, tart, simple, but with some light vanilla and lemon peel flavors; good finish, easy to drink.
Cordorniu Brut Classico, 1977 (Spanish), $5.50 to $6.25. Rich aroma seemed lightly off initially but improved with a few minutes airing.Good flavors, moderately intense for a champagne-style wine; good fruit, and nutty, smoky, yeasty flavors especially in the finish. The carbonation was lighter and the bubbles larger than most others tested.
Angelo Riccadonna Spumante, President Brut, Riserva Privata, Nv, (Italian), $6.50 to $7. This wine is made in the style of a heavy champagne.Intense smoky-yeasty aroma; dry and tart with a heavy nutty, smoky flavor; good finish. A cleansing wine with lots of character but which may not appeal to everyone.
Blanc Foussy Vin Vif de Touranine, brut, NV, (French), $8.50 to $9.25. Pale yellow color. Pleasant saroma and flavors, with some complexity. Some panelists found it too carbonated and too acidic. ACCEPTABLE
Almaden Blanc de Blancs, 1977 cuvee, (California), $6.50 to $7.50. Had a yellow cast and a sweet, candylike aroma. Flavor with simple and light. The bubbles were not as fine as those of better wines tested. This one went flat fast.
Chandon Napa Valley Brut, NC, (California), $9.25 to $10.25. This wine foamed up like beer when it was poured; some people found it too carbonated for their taste. It had a moderately intense aroma which had woodsy and vegetal components. In the mouth it was dry and very tart; flavor was light -- some would say thin.
Chateau Pierre-Leon New York State Champagne, NV, house brand of Riverside Liquors, produced and bottled by Chapelle Wine Cellars, distributed by Monarch Wines, $4. This wine was apparently made from hybrid grapes, for both its aroma and taste have what is called a "foxy" quality, a characteristic of some American grapes and foreign to French champagne. This wine was not brut, but slightly sweet. It was pleasant and mildly fruity, with low acid; easy to drink. This was the only sparkling wine out of the 20 we tested that came with a screw-off cap. Opening it could be a letdown for those who enjoy the sound of corks popping. Monarch supplies house champagnes to many of Washington's wine stores. If you want to try this wine but can't get to Riverside -- 2123 E St. NW, at Virginia Avenue near the State Department -- ask your local wine merchant if he or she carries Monarch's brut New York State Champagne.
Remy-Pannier Vin Mousseux, brut, NV, (French), $6.25 to $7. This wine was virtually clear except for its fine bubbles. Light floral and slightly sweet aroma; good flavor that is lightly fruity and flowery, suggesting apricots and apples; not completely dry but good tartness.
J.-M. Monnmousseau Vouvray, Extra Dry, NV, (French) $8.50 to $9.25. Color was slightly yellow. Light and pleasant with some off flavors and aromas; not completely dry; too tart for some. DISLIKED
Mirassou Vineyards Monterey Champagne, au nautrel, 1977, (California), $8.50 to $9.25. Moderately intense petroleum ordor; foul rubbery taste. One of my colleagues said this was a bad bottle of a fine wine.
Vue. A. Aubin Vin Mousseaux, cuvee reserve, NV, (French), $4 to $4.75. Although this wine had fine carbonation, its dark-gold color and sherry-like aroma indicated it had been made from oxidized wine. Apparently a shipment of wine had been sent to stores before it was discovered it was bad. The distributor has tried to replace the bad bottles with good ones but has not been entirely successful.
Wine Masters California Champagne, NV, $3.25 to $3.50. Slight off aroma; sweet, soft, and lacking tartness. This wine was made by Charmat Process.
Taylor New York State Champagne, Very Dry Brut (sic), NV, $5 to $5.75. With its strong flowery aroma this wine smelled and tasted like perfumed detergents to manay panelists. Though some thought it well made, all disliked it.
Furst von Metternich Riesling Sekt, NV, (German), $8.50 to $9.25. Relatively dark color; vegetal and petro-chemical ordor; odd taste.
Bernard-Massard, Cuvee de l'Ecusson, brut, NV (Luxembourg), $7.50 to $8.50. Weak carbonation; light, interesting but unappealing.
Korbel, Extra Dry, NV, (California) $7.25 to $8. Unappealing vegetal aroma; not well balanced.
Valdivieso Chilean Champagne, brut, NV, $5 to $6. Flat and oxidized.