For the fifth non-consecutive year, the Young Winos of LA are proud to be hosting our almost-annual March blind tasting tournament. Billed as “March Madness” in its 2007, 2009 and 2010 incarnations, the tournament at one point included six weeks of variety-by-variety blind tasting (Sauvignon Blanc one week, Syrah the next, etc.), followed by a two-week “championship” series of multi-variety blind white tasting and then blind red tasting.
This year, to allow for our increasingly busy schedules and the demands of our non-wine commitments, the proceedings won’t be as lengthy and regimented as years past. In what we’re calling our first-ever “March Craziness” tournament, we’re basically just running a semi-random series of blind tastings that feature pairings or groupings of similar and/or frequently-confused wines. So far, we’ve done “Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot,” “Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Blanc,” and “organic vs. non-organic.” This week, we’re blind-tasting four major sparkling wines of Europe and attempting to identify them based on their method of production.
Everyone’s heard of Champagne, that storied sparkling wine of France. Next door, in Germany, they make a sparkling wine called Sekt, and although Germans drink a fair amount of it, it’s never gotten anywhere near as much international recognition and acclaim as Champagne has (a point which has historically been the main source of hostility between the two countries). A bit further south, the Italians have perfected a lively little bubbly called Prosecco that many consumers have embraced as a less-expensive alternative to Champagne. And on the Iberian Peninsula, the Spaniards make a sparkling wine called Cava that offers terrific character at reasonable prices. All of these four wines are fair game for Wednesday’s tasting.
But what makes these bubblies different, and how is a blind-taster supposed to tell one apart from another? The biggest clue, in my opinion, will be the method in which they’re fermented. There are two major methods in which European sparkling wines undergo their secondary fermentation, and it’s not terribly difficult to apart wines made using these two methods while blind tasting. Specifically:
–Champagne and Cava are both made using the Champagne Method (in French, the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionelle). In this ancient, time-consuming method, the sparkling wine ferments individually inside closed bottles. As the yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol, it releases carbon dioxide, which is then suspended in solution within the sealed bottle. Once the bottle is opened, the carbon dioxide appears as bubbles. Wines made in this method often taste bready or yeasty, as the wine spends a great deal of time in the bottle with the dead yeast cells.
–Prosecco and Sekt are both produced in the more contemporary Charmat Method (or Metodo Italiano). Rather than fermenting in individual bottles, the wine in Prosecco and Sekt is instead fermented in large pressurized tanks. Just like the Champagne Method, the sealed container suspends the carbon dioxide in solution, but these wines won’t have as much of that bready or yeasty flavor, as they don’t spend as much time in contact with the yeast. This results in a lighter, spritzier, livelier wine, with none of the frothiness that we typically associate with Champagne and Cava.
In Wednesday’s March Craziness round, all you have to do to get a point is to guess the production method: is it a Méthode Champenoise bottle (i.e. Champagne or Cava), or is it a Charmat bottle (i.e. Sekt or Prosecco)? With a bit of careful attention, the “yeastiness” or lack thereof should allow you to make that determination fairly dependably. In addition, you can score an extra half-point by guessing the specific type of the four wines in question, which will probably be a little more difficult. Therefore, you’re eligible to win up to 1.5 points per bottle, which should definitely allow for some big scores if we have eight or nine bottles present!
To participate in this week’s tasting: please bring a bottle of one of the aforementioned types of European sparkling wine: Champagne, Cava, Sekt or Prosecco. If you’re able, bring it in a brown bag or other opaque container so that no one sees your bottle ahead of time. Or, as always, feel free to bring a $10 no-bottle donation instead.
A few years ago, the Winos did a sparkling wine episode for our short-lived web series, in which my co-host Chelsea and I tasted examples of Cava, Prosecco and Sekt, and discussed the method of production for each bottle. If you’re curious which bottle to bring for Wednesday’s tasting, perhaps our reactions to the bottles we tasted will inspire you one way or the other.
Wednesday night’s meeting will be held at Noah and Sasha’s place, and spots will be assigned on a first-come-first-poured basis. The RSVP system functions like this: if you want in, you click on this link and tell me so (don’t forget your full name, e-mail address, and a cute message conveying to me your intentions), and I’ll send you a confirmation e-mail with the address. Once you’ve received your confirmation, go find an interesting bottle of Champagne, Prosecco, Sekt or Cava — or, as always, simply bring ten dollars. See you on Wednesday at 9pm.