Tis the season to be jolly and what better way to enhance the jollity than with a flagon of festive fizz, so sayeth our wine scribe Jim Walker. Here he recounts his experiences with bubbles of many types and origins as he sets the stage for the holidays.
As far back as I can remember our family always had a bottle of Henkell Trocken with our turkey on Christmas. I would tag along with Dad to our local LCBO store a few days before where he would fill out a form and slip it to a clerk at a counter. The stolid fellow would vanish into a back room and eventually reappear with our festive fizz hidden away in a plain brown bag. It all seemed so clandestine to me.
Henkell, a German firm, has been producing sparkling wines for over 160 years. Trocken (dry in German) is but one of six styles of bubbly Henkell fashions – the others being Rosé, Blanc de Blancs, Halbtrocken, Alcohol Free and Brut. And, Henkell Trocken remains readily available at the LCBO for just $15.00 the bottle (in other sizes too). It is well worth the price.
The next effervescent elixir to enter my life was Mateus, a Portuguese rosé (also produced in other iterations). Concocted since 1942, Mateus was a date drink in my adolescence but at 11.0% alcohol by volume it seldom produced any amorous results. It is still sold at the LCBO for a measly $10.95 the bottle (also available in 250 ml and 1500 ml sizes). I really must muster up the courage to try it again – for old times’ sake.
After my brief infatuation with Mateus, I pretty much abandoned fizzy libation in favour of still wines of all shapes, sizes and colour. But then a trip to Australia (see ‘Fair Dinkum Discovered Down Under’ for all the Antipodean details) brought me back into the fizzy fold. Every dinner party I attended there was kick-started with a glass or two of Aussie bubbles. What a grand way to begin a pleasant evening. And, the Australians made a plethora of delightful sparkling wines. One of my favourites was the inexpensive Seaview Brut that can still occasionally be found on the LCBO shelves.
Upon my return to Canada I sought out reasonably-priced bubbles to launch my own soirées. I discovered that there were likely candidates from all corners of the world. Cavas from Spain – Freixenet being a popular example (recently available for $18.80 at the LCBO). Then there are the lovely Proseccos from Italy like the very decent one made by Ruffino currently available at the LCBO for $18.95. And certainly not to be overlooked are the numerous Crémants from France – Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bordeaux and Crémant de Jura to name but a few. The LCBO carries a ton of them. One of my favourites is the Louis Bouillot Perle d’Aurore Brut Rosé currently on sale for $20.95.
I became pleasantly acquainted with another French sparkler, the beautiful Blanquette de Limoux when we became the Ontario agents for Château Rives-Blanques (read all about it in my ‘Who Knew Limoux’ post). The Limouxois claim that fermentation in the bottle was first developed there, long before it was practised in Champagne. The monks at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire supposedly began producing cork-stoppered sparkling wines in 1531. This might be true, but Blanquette de Limoux sells for a fraction of what Champagne commands demonstrating where the best marketers come from.
Some really delightful sparkling wines come from California. Right at the top are those from Domaine Chandon. It was here during a visit and after lunch in their splendid restaurant that I was taught a great way to uncork a bottle of fizz. Simply loosen the wire that covers the cork, but leave it in place – it will improve your grip on the cork. Tightly hold the cork, clutch the bottle equally as firmly with your other hand and twist. Ease the cork up and it should come out quite easily – not with a loud pop but with a controlled fizz (appropriately enough). By the way, the last time the Domaine Chandon Brut appeared at the LCBO it cost $31.75.
It might be hard to fathom, but some quite decent fizz is being produced in England. Take for example the non-vintage Henners Brut that I wrote about in my last Gentleman’s Portion contribution. At the $64.95 charged by the LCBO, it seemed a tad pricey – but it did sell out.
Now then I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t extol the virtues of Canadian bubbles. We have come a long, long way since the days of Andrès Baby Duck (still for sale at the LCBO for the princely sum of $12.60 the magnum!) and Bright’s President Dry Sparkling (also at the LCBO for just $10.95 for a bottle).
My favourite Canadian effervescent wine is the splendid Tradition from KEW Vineyards Estate Winery. It is available for a very reasonable $29.95, but only from the winery which is located near Grimsby, Ontario. I assure you that the trip is worth the effort.
A quartet of divine fizz comes from the Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars in the south Okanogan Valley in British Columbia – Gold Label Brut, Brut Rosé, Blanc de Blancs and Brut Reserve. All are vintage, but they don’t come with the rations. My favourite, the Brut Reserve is $49.90 a bottle at the vineyard. Blue Mountain will ship anywhere in Canada in cases of six.
And then of course there is Champagne. Our wine club sessions, which spanned many years, usually began with a bottle or two of Champagne. Thus I became quite familiar with this glorious libation in its many forms and guises. But my appreciation for Champagne ramped up many notches when we began our wine importing business. For you see, one of our first three wineries was Champagne Forget-Brimont. Hélène and I visited the region on several occasions as the result and fell in love with it, particularly the principle cities of Épernay and Reims. Take a gander at ‘A Tale of Two Effervescent Cities’ to appreciate our infatuation.
In another Gentleman’s Portion post that I wrote to mark a previous festive season, I included a fair amount of Champagne trivia including quotations from famous folks. One item I failed to mention was the Champagne glass. While there is an endless variety of vessels that can be used to hold and dispense the luscious liquid, the most common are the flute, the tulip and the coupe (also known as the vintage or saucer). Dad always served the Henkell Trocken in the latter, said to be fashioned after Marie Antoinette’s breast – a titillating notion indeed.
The main point of a Champagne glass is to present a persistent stream of tiny bubbles. The coupe doesn’t do this very well. It creates an initial explosion of mousse that quickly dissipates. The only thing to do is to empty it at once (not necessarily a bad idea). My favourite is a variation of the flute with a rim that tilts inward. You can see it in the KEW photo as well as in the one of our daughters. They are by Mikasa, a division of Lifetime Brands, Inc. and were a gift from our old friend Bob Edgar.
My most memorable Champagne encounter was with a magnum of Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé to which Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Château Lynch-Bages in the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, treated us way back in 1988 (see ‘Oh Bordeaux – A Day in Pauillac.’ The question is – was it the Champagne or the occasion? I suspect it was equal measures of both.
Champagne is expensive and marketing plays an abetting role. You don’t think that Jean-Paul Gauthier lets Piper Heidsieck clad its bottles in his plastic corset for free, do you? But one can reduce the sticker shock by eschewing the big names and opting instead for Grower Champagne. These are small, family-owned firms that grow their own grapes and produce their own Champagne. They can’t afford big advertising budgets and we save as the result. Moutard Père & Fils Grand Cuvée Brut is a good example. It sells at the LCBO for just $48.95 the bottle.
Over the years Champagne has become our family’s favourite festive fizz. No Christmas, birthday or special occasion would be complete without it. As Mark Twain noted: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”
Whatever it is you select to enhance your holiday celebrations, we wish you much happiness, good health and prosperity to go along with it.
PS: Click here to find out about our current wine club offerings; a sensory treat awaits!
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This is Jim’s 67th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Check out more under the Wine category.