Navigating bubbling flood of choices

VINTAGE POINT

June 07, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

There was a time, not too long ago, when wine consumers had a rather limited choice when they wanted to indulge in a bottle of true French champagne.

About a dozen well-known brands - names such as Moet & Chandon, Mumm and Taittinger - dominated the market. Connoisseurs of esoterica could choose from another two dozen small producers - if they could find a bottle.

That has all changed in a big way. Recent years have brought a flood of new names into the champagne market. Even the experts are having a difficult time keeping up with the profusion of choices.

To try to catch up with a market that had overtaken him, one supposed "expert" recently assembled a group of champagne brands he had never tasted before.

These were the truly obscure brands. Even such esoteric producers as Egly-Ouriet, Tarlant and Nicolas Feuillatte (all fine producers, by the way) could not make the cut.

It soon became obvious that some of these new names are just made-up names used by large champagne dealers to sell marginal wine at cut-rate prices.

At a time when the nonvintage brut (dry) wines of the well-known brands are fetching $28 and up, a $20 champagne might seem to be a value. But many of these wines fall far short of the quality consumers can find in a $15 California bubbly. But the news isn't all grim. Some of these lesser-known brands offer exceptional quality at very attractive prices. Consumers need to shop carefully and ask questions when they encounter an unfamiliar brand at a bargain price. One clue to quality is the reputation of the importer, but my tasting showed that this isn't a foolproof guide.

Some of the brands might be difficult for consumers to find because they sell out quickly and then disappear until the next vintage. Others are sold only at such "warehouse" wine shops as Beltway Liquors in Towson and Corridor Liquors in Laurel.

Certainly, no tasting can be considered a disappointment when it uncovers such a sleeper as Paul Goerg.

Clearly, the best of the group was Goerg's Brut Blanc de Blancs, found at Corridor for $20. It's a rich, full-bodied style of champagne with a complex, nuanced blend of toasty, yeasty and nut flavors. It compares favorably to such well-known names as Louis Roederer Brut Premier.

Goerg also triumphs with an excellent Brut Tradition, also $20. It's more of a medium-bodied wine with a slightly fiery quality. It's an intense wine with the requisite toast and yeast flavors, along with a touch of pear and almond.

Another exceptional find came from Terry Theise, the renowned importer of German wines from artisan-producers. Theise, who has branched out into champagne in recent years, has uncovered a gem in Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs ($23).

The Gimmonet is a distinctive, elegant wine with a bracing acidity reminiscent of Theise's German selections. It offers flavors of nuts and fresh-baked bread, and its generous effervescence fills the mouth and lingers on the palate. Current supplies of this wine are tight, but it's a name worth remembering.

Another Thiese import was less successful, possibly because the bottle had languished for too long on a bottom shelf. The A. Margaine brut ($23) showed early signs of oxidation. The lesson for consumers: Shy away from dusty bottles.

Another successful import was the brut champagne from Ernest Rapeneau ($22). It's an elegant, light-bodied wine in the style of Taittinger, though not quite of that quality. You can find California sparkling wines of comparable quality for less, but they won't be able to replicate this style.

The Montaudon Brut ($28) received a big push in the market recently when the Wine Spectator gave it an astronomical score for a nonvintage champagne that is not a luxury blend.

Either my palate was missing something or the Spectator got hornswoggled. The Montaudon in my tasting was a light, elegant champagne with a touch of earthiness - decent but not outstanding.

The Louis Chaurey Brut ($20) is a clean, crisp wine in a light- to medium-bodied style. Its greatest virtue is that it typifies the style of champagne. Its drawback is that the flavors aren't all that distinguished. It's as good as the Montaudon, however, and the price is more attractive.

The Aubert & Fils brut champagne ($20) was similar but even more transparent. It's clearly champagne, but the paucity of flavors made me yearn for a Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs from California.

The Seconde-Collard Grand Reserve Brut was aggressively priced at $34, but it was hard to discern why. It's a full-bodied, yeasty wine, but there's a coarseness to the flavor and it doesn't finish well. It's drinkable, but dozens of California sparkling wines can beat it for half the price.

The prettiest label in the tasting was that of the Trouillard Cuvee 2000 ($23), which is imported by the usually exemplary Kysela Pere & Fils. Unfortunately, the bottle contained the ugliest wine - a funky, somewhat tart wine that reminded me of a bad Spanish cava.

If it had been corked, one could write it off as a fluke, but that did not appear to be the problem. Retailers with a stock of this wine ought to taste a few bottles to make sure it's sound.

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