I examined the Aroma Wheel with amusement. Wet wool, wet dog, burnt match, wet cardboard, skunk, cabbage. Diesel, kerosene, plastic and tar found a place opposite to sauerkraut, lactic acid and “horsey.” The wheel of scents jumped all over the olfactory map from figs to charred toast to soy sauce to soap.
And this was our introduction to the Sparkling Wine Challenge at the Summerhill LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). My brother, Dax, had secured tickets for us in keeping with our mutual appreciation for “experience gifts” at Christmas. Ironically, I had bought him champagne flutes, so clearly we were thinking in synchronicity.
I laughed when I first “received” my gift, as it was a verbal one. This is to be expected now with Dax. Rarely does a gift present itself in a wrapped form. “We’re going to do a Champagne tasting,” he announced with his familiar Cheshire cat grin.
Champagne has figured prominently in our family gatherings in the last couple of years. It’s a shame that it still has a New Year’s Eve stigma attached to it, because it creates daytime fireworks on any given Sunday afternoon for us. Dax decided that we should extend our affection for bubbly by educating ourselves properly about our choices. I was intrigued and slightly intimidated to be shut inside a room with snooty sippers with leather-bound tasting note journals and a penchant for bottles over the $50 price point.
The tasting room at Summerhill was a hen house when we arrived on a Wednesday night. The demographic was largely manicured thirtysomethings with money to blow on designer jeans, Coach clutches and Veuve if the moment was right. The tables were set with six flutes at each chair. Dax and I were joined by his wing women—Carol, Karen and David. We ate most of the warm bread placed in front of us before the tasting even began.
Sommelier Janet Nastamgu hushed the crowd that was already as bubbly as the sparkling wine poured into the glasses. She breezed through the instructions at a break-neck speed, referring frequently to a sheet where we were to record the colour, nose, body and finish of the six samples in front of us. At the end, the identity of the bottles would be revealed.
There would be a cava, a prosecco, a Champagne and a few sparklers. I filled the margins of my cheat sheet about feeling acidity along the sides of my tongue. That cold climate wines had more acidity and ‘stronger’ bubbles. Warmer climate wines had more sugar. I instantly felt like Peppermint Patty sitting behind know-it-all Lucy in math class.
I scribbled notes like I was back in college and the information would only be shared once. Cavas were sparkling wines endemic to Spain. Proseccos, Champagne’s sexy Italian cousin, hailed from Italian tank fermentation methods. ‘Artificials,’ aka the cheap plonk a la Baby Duck and Spumante, were the result of carbon dioxide injected into equally cheap white wine. Champagne, of course, hailed from Champagne, in the south of France.
Janet explained with animated hands how the traditional Champagne-making method involved adding rock sugar and yeast to white wine to create the bubbles. The bottles then lay for a year and are turned mechanically every couple of days. Expensive brands like Dom Peringon are still turned by hand.
“Tiny is better,” Janet informed us. And how long the bubbles floated indicated whether it was cheap or not. Cheap? The bubbles dissolved quickly. Expensive? The bubbles are aggressive.
Before being told so, our table had already sipped the first sample. The bread was decimated as we had all rushed straight from work to attend the event. We examined our bubbles as we were told, so closely it seemed like the whole room was suddenly on an intense acid trip. We were asked to describe the colour. Darker, deeper hues indicated age. Oak could also influence the colour due to oxidation.
My bubbles were aggressive. The colour was pale. But what did I taste?
I looked at the Aroma Wheel we had been provided with. Geraniums? Cut grass? Filter pad? (What the hell did that smell like?) Molasses? Janet pushed us along as we were still trying to determine whether the first sample was pale, blonde or straw-coloured.
“Do we taste concrete?”
Somebody asked Janet how that was possible. “Think of the smell of wet pavement, how it smells after a good rain.” I swirled, sniffed and tasted again. And I tasted wet pavement! I nodded in full agreement—I was in tune with the concrete! Carol shook her head, she didn’t get the concrete.
We talked about the finish. Was it long? Did it burn? Was it sweet on the nose and dry on the palate? I was still wondering what filter pad tasted like.
We moved through the next couple of samples and learned that Ontario sparkling wines have an obvious punch of apple. Argentina could be pegged with “warm fruit” flavours. And Australia? Dead giveaways if you sense lime.
By the fifth sample we were in the concrete groove. We were even tasting minerals and candied bananas. Dax sensed sourdough. I tasted brie rind. My notes were becoming more extensive as smells were evoked and I documented the aggressive bubbles. I noted the chardonnay base vs. the pinot noir grape. Duh, that was easy. I detected yellow apple and screamed inside that I knew which sample was from Ontario!
We were guided through the last sample and Janet suggested smells and tastes. We swirled and nodded in amazement that she knew that we were tasting clay and shavings. Yes! I tasted lead! Biscuity and yeasty! Yes, me too!
I was feeling experty and equally tipsy by the end. Carol had pushed the remains of her samples over to the rest of us for some unknown and unquestioned reason. Karen, David, Dax and I greedily grabbed our favourites. Yes, we could still differentiate despite the pleasant hum inside our heads.
Janet revealed the bottles one by one. Sugura Viudas Cava (Spain), Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot Noir (Australia), Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catherine Brut (Ontario), Nino Franco Prosecco, Mumm Cuvee Napa (California), and ooooooh, ahhhh, Veuve Cliquot Champagne!
And the winner was Veuve, with its “pale straw colour, elegant mousse, toasty aromas with a hint of bread dough and citrus finish($64.95). And the close second for Sunday afternoon gossiping in the spring sun? Italy’s Nino Franco Prosecco ($18.95).
Validate what Benedictine monk Dom Perignon discovered with his first sip of champagne, as we did that night at Summerhill: “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars.”
*Special thanks to Dax for making this tasting and sparkling education possible!