Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blind Tasting 15 Champagnes

Alex Halberstadt, a Brooklyn-based writer who covers wine for The Faster Times, an online newspaper, recently invited me to his house to participate in a blind tasting of Champagne. There were 9 of us in total, and 15 wines. Not bad for a random Monday night.

The point of tasting blind is to remove information that can bias the taster during the experience of tasting. But how much information should be removed? Obviously, tasters do not know the identity of the wines they taste. But there are varying degrees of "blind." Imagine, for example, that you wanted to do a tasting of Pinot Noir with friends, and your idea is to compare new world wines to old world wines. Do you tell people the theme and ask them to categorize the wines as they taste? Do you instead tell them only that it is a Pinot tasting, and see where the discussion goes? Do you tell people that they are drinking two types of Pinot, but not tell them what types? There are many ways to do this, and each has its merits.

We knew nothing whatsoever about the Champagnes we tasted - Alex decided to share the theme of the tasting only after we discussed the wines. We went through all 15 wines and then discussed each one. As you would expect with a group of 9 people tasting of 15 wines, there were many different opinions. But there were a few things that everyone seemed to agree on: no one loved the wines as a group. Everyone found a few wines to like, but as a group, no one was overly excited. When asked what we thought of the overall quality of the wines, Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, said "They were fine, but I drank some great Champagnes last week, and none of these stands up to any of those."

I felt the same way - there were several wines I liked, but as a group I was not terribly impressed. I felt that the wines lacked any kind of soil character. None of them were chalky. And none of them showed any real individuality. They actually resembled each other a lot in terms of character and flavor profile. Maybe this was a symptom of drinking 15 Champagnes in a row, maybe not. What had Alex done, here? What were we tasting?

I had an idea about halfway through, but I wasn't sure. At the end of the discussion, Alex said "Bloggers and wine writers all seem to be writing about grower Champagne now, and you never read anything about the other wines. I thought it would be interesting to do a tasting of the Grand Marque Champagnes, the wines you are most likely to encounter in any given store." I understood immediately why Alex kept the theme a secret. If I knew that I were tasting these 15 wines, I would have been biased. Not that I would dislike them automatically - I'm a more honest taster than that, but I would have approached them differently, with low expectations. Alex wisely allowed us to approach these with whatever expectations we as individuals bring to a tasting. I, for one, want to like the wines at a blind tasting. And I found some things to like in this tasting.

Here are the wines we tasted, all non-vintage wines, presumably disgorged and released recently:

1) Piper-Heidsieck
2) Henriot
3) Deutz
4) Pol Roger Pure (this was a mistake - Alex meant for this to be Bollinger)
5) Gosset
6) Taittinger
7) Pol Roger
8) Delamotte
9) Lanson
10) Veuve-Clicquot
11) Laurent-Perrier
12) Charles Heidsieck
13) Louis Roederer
14) Moet Brut Imperial
15) Alfred Gratien

I liked the first wine I tasted better than anything else, the Piper-Heidsieck. It felt like it had been bottled at low pressure, it had lovely dark fruit, it had finesse, and it was very expressive. I loved it. I remember thinking, "Could this be a Cedric Bouchard wine?" I wonder if this wine been the 8th wine in the lineup, whether or not I would have liked it as much. By wine #8, I understood that I wasn't crazy about whatever it was we were tasting - the "I'm about to taste 15 Champagnes, and I love Champagne" magic had worn off. But I liked it enough during this tasting so that I will make a point of drinking it again.

My other favorites included Roederer, Henriot, Pol Roger, Taittinger, and Lanson. I would gladly drink a glass of any of those wines, should they be offered to me. But I don't think that I'm ready to start using any of my already meager Champagne budget to buy these wines. Before doing that, I'd like to do a blind tasting that includes these wines and an equal number of wines from producers like Boulard, Billiot, Diebolt-Vallois, and Brigandat. That would be most interesting, especially if I didn't know the theme while tasting.

I will also confidently tell you that the worst wine of the tasting, and almost everyone agreed on this, was the Moet White Star. It was just very bad.

I'm so glad to have participated in this - it was a great idea, Alex. It's silly to dismiss wines because they're not popular (an odd thing to say about Grand Marque Champagne, but I mean popular among the wine circles I hang out in), but I think we all do it. I tend to be dismissive of exactly these Champagnes, and perhaps I shouldn't be. I really liked that Piper-Heidsieck. Maybe I'll buy one and drink it next to a comparable grower Champagne, both served blind.


Lenn Thompson | said...

Neil: First, happy holidays. I hope you and the family are doing well. It's been far too long since we caught up.

Next, there may be nothing I enjoy more than doing blind tastings. Educational, fun and (usually) humbling on some level.

What made the Moet White Star such a disappointment for the group?

Brooklynguy said...

hi Lenn - thanks, and happy holidays to you and your too.

The best way to say it is that the Moet was disappointing because it smelled and tasted bad.

elwoodwiles said...

Ha! I was at a blind tasting that featured both growers and houses. It was interesting as it confirmed most of my biases. What was also interesting was the Moet White Star was also included in the lineup. And just like your group, our group rated it dead last.

Joe Manekin said...


You just lost all your hipster champagne and wine cred with me, buddy.

I'm disappointed, confused, lost, and contemplating giving up bubbles for makers and schweppes.

Brooklynguy said...

elwoodwiles - yet they sell millions of bottles every year, so go figure.

Sorry Old Skool, didn't mean to mess with your head like that. I wish you a speedy return to equilibrium, and back to things vinous from highballs.

Alex Halberstadt said...

Thanks for participating, Neil. As it turned out, in preparing for the tasting I mistakenly omitted not only the Bollinger, but Jacquesson No. 733 as well. I tasted these a few days later and both showed beautifully, especially the Jacquesson; they would have made an interesting addition and, I think, may have influenced our general impression of the wines for the better. Perhaps not surprisingly, these turned out to be the two priciest bottles. Ah, hindsight.

My take on the tasting is up, too, here:

Wendy said...

What no Krug???
Sounds like fun though!

Joe Manekin said...

Neil - all seriousness, I believe it's important to occasionally taste blind, without expectations and pre-conceived notions, as objectively as possible. I wish I made more time to taste in this manner. I can see how it might be the last thing you'd want to do as a professional critic, but as an interested drinker reporting on wine and posting personal TN's it should be required 'work' every now and then.