Shooting for the Stars: The Key Criteria in Analyzing Champagne

Shooting for the Stars: The Key Criteria in Analyzing Champagne David Rosengarten

I contend that Champagne is harder to judge than many other wines. Heavy reds, light reds, acidic whites, fruity off-dry whites…these all make some people go “yuck,” and some people go “yay!” The point is: judgments are easy to make. But get a flute of champagne in front of you…and the judgments don’t flow so freely. Most people just go…”Ah, that’s nice!”

But I have an ulterior motive in sharpening up your bubble sense. I am so happy and proud to announce that after a year of a thousand little steps, my first import of Champagne from France has arrived on these shores. And we are ready to start selling, just in time for the holidays. In another space, I’ll tell you more about the extraordinary and venerable house of Michel Gonet, whose owners have placed their wines and their trust in my American hands. For now, I just want to show you the three wines, with my notes…so you can put them in an evaluative context.

If you’re interested in buying any, all you have to do is visit my shop here. Use code TASTE20 for 20% off for a limited time.

The Champagnes are:

2002 Michel Gonet Grand Cru, Blanc de Blancs

I’m a great fan of aged Champagne…and this Champagne yields all of the miraculous flavors I adore, at a reasonable price for such complexity. There is yeast and grilled bread, of course…but also aged Cognac, licorice and vanilla. The style is the typically tight, elegant Gonet style, borne of vineyard aristocracy: 100% rated Grand Cru vineyards in Oger and Mesnil, 100% Chardonnay. I love this wine with light-to-medium-bodied foods that also have earthy tones: a good cured ham, a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you’re in heaven.



2004 Michel Gonet Grand Cru, Blanc de Blancs, “The Nude”

If you enjoy the racy, nervy balance of a great wine from the Mosel…you will love this tense, electric, Chardonnay-based Champagne, made from 50-60 year-old 100% Grand Cru vineyards on the dynamic slope of my favorite town, Mesnil. The name refers to the relatively low dosage; this is a clean, sleek, bursting-with-life Champagne, with aged nuances, that is a palate-igniter at the start of a meal.




2004 Michel Gonet, Grand Cru, Blanc de Blancs, Cuvée Prestige

All of these Michel Gonet wines are sourced from Mesnil, the same magical village that provides the grapes for Blanc de Blancs made by such superstars as Krug and Salon. But this is the Gonet that steps up to those majestic heights. Richer than the other Gonets, with more power and a sumptuous mousse, this wine is sheer luxury and elegance—plus a great admixture of pain grillé and other stimulating flavors of age. Good for rich dishes…but if you’re looking to impress (at an absurdly reasonable price for quality of this kind!), this is a magnificent dinner-party-opener.



And now, let’s dig into the categories behind the descriptions!

Here are the eight things I always look for when judging a glass of Champagne:

1. Bubbles and force
Champagne is supposed to be “elegant,” above all—and that’s why tiny bubbles are aesthetically preferred to large bubbles. Imagine the bubbles of Canada Dry Club Soda in a flute of Champagne…it wouldn’t work! Tiny bubbles have a sexier, gentler feel on the palate. Also, a Champagne may be very bubbly, very forceful (“lots of pressure”), or it may seem a little low in force (“lacks pressure.”) The latter quality is sometimes found in older Champagnes…so if your Champagne is older, make sure there’s enough “pressure.”

2. Texture and mousse
The factors above, plus the lightness/richness of the wine, lead to observations about the texture; old pros often refer to the feel on your mouth as the “mousse.” You don’t want it to feel like Coca-Cola. Great Champagne has what’s often described as a “creamy” mousse; yup…it almost feels like cream on your palate, though it’s foaming.

3. The fruit/toast continuum
Young Brut Champagne is made from young stocks of Champagne, generally speaking. This kind of Champagne stock, maybe just a few years after harvest, has an aggressive “fruitiness” to it. As Champagne ages it develops another kind of character—heading towards the aroma that the French call “pain grillé” or “grilled bread,” or “toast.” To me, the toasty character is a million times more appealing than the fruity character!

4. Complexity
Now, when that toasty character is joined by other characters—a taste of the yeast used in making Champagne (often called “the autolysis character”), a touch of positive oxidation, plus sometimes vanilla, or old brandy, or licorice—then you’ve got a complex Champagne in your hands. This is what I love best of all…and I’ve had Champagne as old as 1914 that was drinking beautifully!

5. Dryness/sweetness
One of the first things you notice in tasting Champagne is how sweet or dry the wine is. When Champagne is readied for the market, the producer puts a little “dosage” in the wine before sealing the cork—a mixture that includes sugar. According to French law, a Brut may contain anywhere from 0.00 grams of sugar per liter…all the way up to 1.5 grams of sugar per liter. Most producers use maybe .8 grams per liter, or one gram per liter. You can tell the difference. My favorite Champagne houses are into low dosage—I like my Champagne dry, steely. Some of my Gonet Champagnes are as low as .3 grams of sugar per liter.

6. Acidity
Of course, any discussion of sweetness in wine must be tied to a discussion of acid; as in a great German wine, sweetness and acidity must balance each other. For me, however, I don’t like acidity simply as a balancing element. I like acidity! I’m an acid freak! So I’m always judging Champagne, no matter how sweet or dry it is, by the amount of snappy, crisp, vibrant, electric acidity in the wine. Helps open the palate!

7. Balance
So…at this point you look at everything above, and make a judgment: Is the wine balanced? Does everything fall together perfectly? No edges sticking out?

8. Length
And then, as you enjoy your Champagne, notice how persistent the flavor is. Its flavor payload may be “short”—just a few seconds. Or, you may find profound flavors lingering on your palate for a minute or more. This is “length!”

To your health…happy holidays!!!!!

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