BY JUSTIN DILLON
Embrace your ignorance. It’s not just the rallying cry of the Kennedy School–it’s also the first rule of learning about wine.
Take this week’s column, for example. When the editor of the RECORD asked me to do a column on sparkling wines, I told her that I really didn’t know much about them. I know the technical stuff — how they’re made, what to look for when telling good ones from bad ones — but it’s kind of like what Mr. Miyagi told Daniel in the first Karate Kid movie: “Show me … paint the fence.” Or more to the point, “You learn from book?”
In wine, as in karate and love, “learn from book” will get you only so far, and at the end of the day Billy Zabka will still kick your ass and take your girlfriend.
To learn wine, you have to pull corks — which brings us to the question of how exactly you do that. Although “popping” the cork sounds cool, when you open sparkling wine correctly, you should get more of a hiss than a pop. Remove the foil, then slowly ease out the cork. Right when it’s about to come out, tilt the cork so that you let the air in the bottle escape from just one side of the cork. That hissing sound means you haven’t lost much of the carbonation — which is, alas, what happens if you “pop” the cork. So if you’re drinking something you paid good money for, avoid the temptation to go for the festive sound.
Unless you’re celebrating a World Series win and are drinking straight from the bottle, you’ll need to drink the wine from something else. If you can’t lap it off the belly of a supermodel, use a glass.
And here, there’s a clear rule: flutes only. Flutes are the tall, thin glasses, not the flat, round ones said to have been molded from the breast of Marie Antoinette. The latter are terrible and should never be used, as their large surface area allows the wine’s bubbles to dissipate too quickly. Flutes, by contrast, allow the wine to keep its effervescence and allow you to see the fine trail of bubbles flow up from the bottom of the glass. One indication of quality, in fact, is how those bubbles appear: the smaller the bubbles, the finer and smoother the wine. A sparkling wine should not foam like Sprite when it hits your mouth.
(Glass-clinking tip: If you want that fine crystal “ding,” only fill up the glass halfway — otherwise the wine will muffle the sound.)
Once you’ve hissed out the cork and poured it in your flute, what should you drink it with? Sometimes, nothing. Sparkling wine is, in my intermittently humble opinion, the world’s greatest apertif, and you need not pair anything with it if you’d just like to drink and clink.
If, however, you’re having it with cheese before dinner — which is what I did with each of the wines I tasted — consider softer cheeses like Brie, Camembert or something from the Champagne region itself. The bubbles in the wine do a neat job of cutting through the unctuousness of the cheese.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try an older wine with a hard, old cheese, like aged Parmesan Reggiano or aged Asiago. I drank the Pol Roger discussed below with a creamy cheese from Champagne (remember that Champagne is place that makes one kind of sparkling wine; it’s not a generic term) and a hard, five-year-old Asiago (a Borenkaas), and the interaction with each made for an interesting study in contrasts.
So why, after all this, am I telling you to embrace your ignorance? Because tasting wine is all about context — about being able to taste a wine and compare it to others you’ve had. That’s why, once you’ve drunk enough of a certain kind of wine, you can taste a new one and tell whether it’s “good” or not — because you know what “good” tastes like, at least to you, and you have some way to rank the wines in your head.
Because I haven’t tasted many sparkling wines, I drank all the sparklers below with someone else who could offer a second opinion and who knew even less than I did about sparkling wine. But the interesting thing was that with every wine, we came to similar conclusions about taste, mouthfeel and quality. The blind led the blind into something like knowledge. Although ignorance may be bliss (have you ever met a Canadian?), overcoming ignorance by sharing good wine with a friend — well, that’s nirvana.
Tasting Notes:Perhaps the most interesting of the four sparklers was the Brewer-Clifton Blanc de Noirs 1993, which cost $31.99 at Marty’s. A Blanc de noirs is made from Pinot Noir, a red grape, which makes it a deep gold color (but not red, since it’s not fermented with its skins). I wrote at the time that it didn’t taste like a sparkling wine, but like “wine with bubbles.”
Distinction without a difference? Perhaps, but what I mean is that the wine was so rich and so subtle, the effervescence kind of snuck up on you, more in counterpoise than domination. The bubbles were small but not tiny, the nose had the yeastiness of fresh bread, and the mouthfeel was creamy, with snatches of grapefruit, hazelnuts and even a hint of apricot. Simply wonderful.
Next in line and more than twice the price was the Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay 1988, which cost, pause for effect, $79.99 at Marty’s. (Pol Roger is one of the world’s top Champagne producers.) The bubbles were fine and tiny and tickled the tongue. Because it was made from Chardonnay, the color was blonder and the taste subtler than the Brewer-Clifton. Nuttiness and yeastiness were present, and fruit had an apple-cidery twang to it. An excellent wine; perhaps I slightly preferred the Brewer-Clifton’s comparative brawn because I don’t know enough to appreciate the Pol Roger’s subtleties.
Third on the list was the Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut, which cost $17.99 at Marty’s. Much less expensive, but still very good; Roederer is one of the top American producers of sparkling wine. This wine was a bit more foamy but still subtle enough to yield a taste of apples and fresh bread.
Finally, a Prosecco, which is an Italian sparkling wine that’s hard to beat in terms of bang for the buck. (Cava, from Spain, is a close second in that category.) This was a Nino Franco Rustico NV, which cost $14.99 at Marty’s and is about as expensive a Prosecco as you’ll find. I drank it after finishing off the Pol Roger, so of course it had to suffer by comparison. It was paler than the Pol, somewhat foamy and rather straightforward. If you’re going to spend around $15, I’d put down a few extra bucks for the Roederer; otherwise, go down in price and grab a $10 Prosecco, which you can down without feeling guilty.