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Best Bubbles for This--Or Any--Season
By Michael Franz
May 15, 2012
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It is well known that an overwhelmingly large percentage of sparkling wine is purchased and consumed during the last six weeks of the calendar year.  In my view, this fact should be lamented as widely as it is known, since high-quality sparkling wine is no mere a celebratory prop, but rather one of the world’s most delicious and versatile wine types.  I don’t think a special occasion is required to bust into the bubbly, but since graduations and weddings abound in late spring, now is a good time to stack up multiple reasons and strike a blow in favor of year-round enjoyment of excellent sparklers.

Here are nine exemplary wines that will take you beyond the mass-market selections that dominate sales in North America.  They are listed in escalating order of price, and you’ll see from the head of the list that there are some wonderfully appealing choices requiring only a rather modest outlay of cash:

Peñalba López, Cava Brut Nature, Aranda de Duero, Spain, 2008 ($15, imported by Grapes of Spain):  This remarkable Cava is unusual in several respects, not the least being that it is sourced from north-central Spain (above Madrid) rather than the greater Penedes region near Barcelona that produces over 90% of Cava.  It is also a vintage-dated wine, and one that is essentially hand-made (by comparison to standard-issue Cava, which is made in mind-blowingly vast quantities by the major producers), and one that is made without any dosage (or sweetness added after disgorging as the wine’s processing is finished, a procedure required to cover flaws and achieve balance in lesser wines).  In short, this is a special wine--as you would have know if you’d tasted it before I got to you, as no explanation is required to comprehend its deliciousness.  Fresh and pure but still quite complex, it features lovely fruit recalling apples and lemons along with subtle yeast notes, along with texture that is marked by energetic but delicate mousse.  90

Rebuli, Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Extra Dry, Treviso, Italy, NV ($17, imported by Kysela):  It is certainly a welcome development that Americans have caught on to Prosecco (which has been widely appreciated in Europe for years), and the only down-side of the recent wave of popularity it that a flood of rather cheap and overtly sweet renditions has overwhelmed the high-quality wines that come from the prime growing areas around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.  As this wine proves, however, one need not shell out big bucks for an example of exceptional quality.  It shows highly expressive aromatics, excellent depth of flavor and a fresh, focused finish despite being an off-dry sparkler.  It is a very attractive value, but also an excellent wine when regarded simply on its merits.  90

Mont Marcal, Cava Brut Reserva “Extremarium,” Penedes, Spain, NV ($25, imported by Classical Wines):  This is a stop-you-in-your-tracks Cava, and that’s exactly what it did to me.  Whereas most Cava is rather rustic, with a wet straw character that is less endearing on the third sniff-and-sip than it is on the first, this wine is clean and fresh and engaging in both aroma and flavor.  And in texture too:  Even prestige-level Cavas can be notably coarse in effervescence by comparison to fine Champagnes, but this wine has a marvelously creamy feel.  That really enhances the soft, generous aromas and flavors of the wine, which show a gorgeous lemon chiffon character as well as a baked apple backnote.  It is absolutely gorgeous from stem to stern, and an object lesson in winemaking excellence.  92

Ayala, Champagne Brut “Majeur,” France, NV ($49, imported by Cognac One):  For more than a year I’ve been hearing about how good the wines of Ayala have become from my WRO colleague Ed McCarthy, and yet I was still not adequately prepared for the experience of this wine.  It is the single most impressive standard-issue non-vintage brut Champagne that I’ve tasted in years.  An extraordinarily dramatic wine, it is explosively aromatic, and virtually billows with scents of fresh bread crust and baker’s yeast, along with toasty, nutty notes.  The flavors are mature in their ripeness and depth, and the wine’s relatively deep color also indicates the presence of a significant portion of reserve wines (or a long span of ageing sur pointe, or both).  Despite all of these dramatics, it remains admirably fresh and balanced rather than heavy or excessively oxidized, and the finish is clean and detailed.  To be clear:  This tastes for all the world like a cuvée prestige, and yet is priced at about half of that category of wines, making this a stunning value in addition to being a stunning wine.  94

Lilbert-Fils Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut, France, NV ($51, imported by Vintage ’59 Imports):  If there is a producer in Champagne making more impeccably fresh, stylish Blanc de Blancs wines today, then I am unaware of it.  I have loved these wines for years, but--being an admirer but also a critic by profession--have always been on guard for a bottle that would show a dip in quality.  I’ve never seen one, and indeed the two bottles of Lilbert NV that I tasted during the past three weeks were among the best I’ve ever tried.  The key to the excellence of Lilbert’s non-vintage wine (a vintage-dated Grand Cru Brut is the house’s only other offering) is a precise balance between austerity and generosity, and the accent here is on the word, precise:  On one hand, this is a subtle, restrained, linear, sharply focused wine rather than an in-your-face blast of fruit and yeast.  On the other hand, the wine is never stingy, but rather subtly satisfying, showing a focused and persistent beam of fruit recalling green apples and ripe lemons.  Faintly toasty accents and a hint of minerality lend complexity to the finish, which is exceptionally persistent and refreshing, thanks in large part to very fine mousse that is stylistically in keeping with the wine’s overall flavor profile.  If I’ve made myself clear here, you’ll understand that this is not a bombastic wine and not the best choice for bowling over a novice.  It sounds snotty to say so, but this is a connoisseur’s wine, a Champagne of exceptional refinement.  94

Pol Roger, Champagne (France) Brut Reserve “White Foil” NV ($55, imported by Frederick Wildman):  Pol Roger is not a small Champagne house, and yet this widely available non-vintage release always seems carefully crafted, complex and classy.  Moreover, it always seems to combine richness and depth of flavor with an uncanny delicacy and freshness.  The current non-vintage batch in the USA is terrific, showing a satisfyingly rich texture and quite deep flavors, yet it retains an impressive lightness and freshness thanks to near-perfect balance of acidity and sweetness and impressively fine mousse.  92

Barnaut, Champagne (France) Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru NV ($65, imported by Vintage '59 Imports):  Blanc de Noirs bottlings of sparkling wine are not terribly unusual in California, but I see very few of them from Champagne.  The quality of this extraordinary wine will make me look much more closely to see if I can find others that will measure up to it--though I'm not optimistic about that given how high this bottling sets the bar.  Both the aromas and flavors show great depth and breadth, with a generous richness that almost makes the wine seem vaguely “meaty” (in the sense of having a layer of flavor recalling a perfect piece of carpaccio).  Despite this sense of meatiness, there's a freshness and lift to every aspect of the wine from the first whiff to the end of the very long finish, a freshness that keeps it from seeming heavy or graceless.  This aspect will enable it to work perfectly in aperitif mode, but this is also a Champagne that could really excel at the table. 92

Besserat de Bellefon, Champagne (France) Blanc de Blancs Brut "Cuvee des Moines" NV ($65, imported by Winesellers, Ltd.): This wonderful Champagne is made with slightly less effervescence than standard bottlings, and has a softer, creamier texture as a result. This works especially well in the house's Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs, which is supremely delicate and refined. Aromas and flavors are complex but focused, and the basic components of fruit, yeast, sweetness and acidity are beautifully balanced against one another.  This is a sublime, intricate, feminine Champagne and a nearly peerless aperitif.  92

Bollinger, Champagne (France) Rosé NV ($85, imported by Terlato Wines International):  This non-vintage rosé bottling from the great house of Bollinger is relatively new, and it is definitely a worthy stablemate to Bollinger’s famously delicious non-vintage Brut.  Although it is fair to say that the rosé releases from many houses are really just unremarkable wines that are beefed-up and colored with a shot of still Pinot Noir, this is a carefully crafted wine that shows real distinctiveness while also reflecting the style of the house.  As one would expect from Bollinger, the wine is full-bodied for a Champagne and very deeply flavored, yet it never seems heavy or obvious, as the dosage is very well integrated, the effervescence is quite delicate, and the finishing acidity provides lift and freshness.  This is a very impressive wine that excels at the table but can also be sipped on its own with great pleasure. 93