Champagne tastes, beer budget -- Spanish sparkling wines are bridging the gap. Low in price and increasingly high in quality, these wines have all the right ingredients for festive holiday quaffing: lively flavors, respectable complexity, and lots of frothy bubbles. The question is, which are the best?
Most sell for around $6 a bottle, and the number on the market has mushroomed in recent years. The options are dizzying, with the choices including blanc de blancs, extra-drys and bruts (but curiously, few rose's), from many different cavas (the Spanish term for a champagne house). None is Dom Perignon, but they may be an even better choice for the office Christmas party, casual holiday get-togethers with friends, or any occasion for which a prestige label is neither within the budget nor necessarily called for.
Consumers first discovered these wines about a decade ago with the advent of a soft, slightly earthy, brut-style wine in a distinctive black bottle. Freixenet Cordon Negro was neither the first nor necessarily the finest Spanish sparkling wine to hit the market. But its combination of appealing, easy-going style and slick black-and-gold packaging introduced large numbers of wine drinkers to the pleasures of low-priced wines that were for the first time made by the same method as expensive French champagnes.
The difference between these me'thode champenoise and the mass-market, tank-carbonated brands such as Andre' Cold Duck and Jacques Bonet was obvious from the very first sip. Instead of flat, vaguely sweet, utterly one dimensional flavors, Freixenet and arch-rival Codorni'u offered yeasty, clean, surprisingly lively flavors. Most important of all, they offered a plethora of tiny bubbles that danced on the palate in a way that no tank-carbonated product could ever equal.
They were not as good as true champagne, but they were more than tasty enough to scare the French. The Champenois fought for and finally obtained a European Economic Community ruling to prohibit these upstarts from calling themselves "champagne." For the time being, however, the EEC authorities still permit these wines to use the term me'thode champenoise, which indicates that they are made by the same painstaking process of true champagne. That process includes bottle fermentation, riddling (rotating the bottles to collect the yeasty sediment) and degorgement (any icy bath followed by the forceful expulsion of the frozen sediment through the opened neck of the bottle).
Unlike the French product, however, Spanish sparklers are not made from chardonnay and pinot noir, but rather, from Spanish varietals called parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo. Experiments with chardonnay are underway, however, and promise to give the French even more to worry about in the future.
Today, the two pioneers, Freixenet and Codorni'u have been joined by a large number of feisty, high quality rivals from their home country, including Lembey Brut, Paul Cheneau, Segura Viudas and many others. At the same time, the two giants have vastly expanded their own product lines, creating even more choices.
Although the weak dollar has forced prices of some offerings up since last year, there are still tremendous values among the best Spanish offerings. But there are also distinct differences in style and quality, and just like the supposedly consistent French champagnes, Spanish sparkling wines do show a certain amount of year-to-year variation.
The following ratings -- listed in order of preference -- were based on blind comparison tastings of the current, fresh shipments from leading producers presently available in the Washington-area market. Most are widely available and, except where noted, your retailer can order through the wholesaler in brackets (Maryland and Virginia wholesale distribution may differ). Prices are approximate.
Paul Cheneau Brut Blanc de Blancs ($5-$6): Full flavored with light, active bubbles, creamy mousse. Yeasty, biscuity aroma and flavors reminiscent not just of French champagne, but of the so-called luxury cuve'e style epitomized by Dom Perignon. Of course, it's not truly in a class with the courtly Dom, but then again, it costs roughly one tenth as much. (Forman)
Mont Marcal Brut ($7): Frothy mousse, well balanced, slightly earthy, fresh, less yeasty than the traditional Spanish style. A fine wine at an excellent price. (Exclusive at Calvert Woodley in D.C. Availability may differ in Maryland and Virginia)
Lembey Brut 1983 ($5-$6): Winemaker Jose' Domecq Jr. orders that the native parellada grapes used in his wine be picked early. The result is a frothy, light sparkler with excellent acidity that seems very French. Though still quite fine, the '83 showed slightly better last year when it was a tad fresher. Where's the '84? (International)
Fleur de Nuit Brut ($4-$6): Very clean, well-balanced and fresh, excellent length, only a slightly too-neutral style kept this wine from finishing at the top. An obscure brand, but it clearly outshone all but a handful of the big sellers. (Kronheim)
Gran Codorni'u Brut Reserve 1983 ($12): More mature style, quite dry, with active bubbles, somewhat coarse, but good full flavors. (Washington Wholesale)
Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad ($12): Hands down the heftiest bottle in tasting, complete with a built-on, silver-colored coaster on the base; unfortunately, the wine inside is a bit heavy as well. Not that it's not a reasonably good wine, with active bubbles and obviously mature, well-aged wines in the blend, but at $12, there are many better choices from California and France. (Forman)
Codorni'u Blanc de Blancs Brut 1984 ($6-$7): Crisp, dry and refreshing, with nice refinement, and fortunately, without the mustiness that has marred so many of this big producer's sparklers of late. (Washington Wholesale)
Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut ($6-$7): Fresh, fruity style; soft, clean flavors, but not very champagne-like and frankly, well behind the times in terms of style. But fans of the wine in the black bottle needn't be concerned that its makers are likely to change its style. With an estimated 1.2 million cases sold in the U.S. last year, they're too busy running to the bank. (Forman)
Freixenet Carta Nevada Brut ($5): Earthy, smoky aromas. Toasty yeasty, flavors, noticeably sweet, slightly less refined than some, but full flavored. (Forman)
Codorni'u Brut Clasico 1984 ($6); Codorni'u Extra Dry Clasico 1984 ($6): Though still acceptable, both are marred by off-tasting, musty, weedy aromas and flavors. Why does a firm like Codorni'u allow its product outside the cava with these obvious flaws? Serve cold. Very, very cold. (Washington Wholesale)
The armagnac producers of France are offering a free booklet, "Welcome to Armagnac Country," that provides useful information on this relatively unknown, high-quality French brandy. The booklet explains the terms on armagnac labels, provides a bit of the region's history, and gives tourist information. Send a stamped, self-addressed business size envelope to "Armagnac Country," c/o Food and Wines From France, 24 East 21st St., New York, N.Y. 10010.
Although a final assessment will have to await the first tastings of the new wines next spring, the 1987 Bordeaux vintage will not approach the quality of the last two vintages, according to Peter A. Sichel, owner of the "super second" growth Chateau Palmer and author of the highly influential Vintage and Market Report newsletter. Heavy rains that pounded Bordeaux in early October reduced what could have been an excellent year to one that will be little better than average at best, comparable to the 1980s or 1981s, said Sichel. The cabernet sauvignon, which is picked after the merlot, showed the most damage. Though there was little or no rot, the rain swelled the grapes, diluting the flavors. Faring better was the merlot, much of it picked before the rain. Overall, Sichel predicts a "useful vintage" for early consumption, but one that will lack the concentration and body of the previous two vintages and 1982 and 1983. There are good reports on the dry whites, such as graves and entre-deux-mers, all of which were picked before the rain.
Sichel was in town to promote what has to be the finest generic red and white bordeaux on the market, his own Le Bordeaux Prestige ($9, imported by Calvert Woodley). Although it is only entitled to the lowly appellation contro~le'e "bordeaux," the wine shows how good winemaking can transform rather ordinary raw materials into something exceptional. The luxuriously soft, 100-percent se'millon 1985 white ($9) is a perfect choice for any light meat or fish dinner. The show stopper, however, is the 1985 red, which has a marvelously spicy vanilla and oak bouquet, lush flavors and a wonderfully silky opulence on the palate. Although both sell for around $9, they are well worth the asking price, particularly at a time when Sichel's best wine, Chateau Palmer, is hard to find at less than $40 a bottle.