"You must be drowning in bubbles right about now," a public-relations specialist wrote by e-mail last week. She represents a B.C. winery and was responding to a query about the availability of a fine sparkling wine. I wasn't drowning, exactly, but swimming merrily, I'd say, having sampled sufficient froth to fill a splash pool – or at least five columns worth of pre-New Year's reviews. It's tough to whittle it all down to a few selections that cover a range of prices (though you can find additional reviews here in a column published in early December).
Having a regular excuse to sip good bubbly may be the best part of a job like mine. Like most wine critics, I adore Champagne in particular. If public swimming pools were filled with Cristal or Dom instead of chlorinated water, I might be in better cardiovascular shape than Michael Phelps. But, like all other wine critics, I can't possibly swallow everything I need to taste. It's more of a Mark Spitz situation, if you catch my drift.
Debatable though this assertion may be, I'd submit there is no wine style on the planet more consistently successful from producer to producer than Champagne and "Champagne-style" sparkling wine. And it's not just because of the cheerful bubbles they have in common. The double fermentation technique pioneered by the French, in which each bottle receives a dose of yeast and sugar to generate natural carbonation and toasty-bready characters under pressure for many months, sometimes years, calls for special care and expense. In the case of small wineries, that often means manipulating each bottle by hand. It's not a project for winemakers who like to leave the job early to hit the golf course.
That Champagne-style category – typically represented by the bone-dry "brut" style – includes not only authentic Champagne but also France's more affordably priced crémants as well as most premium bubblies from the New World, including Canada. (Italian prosecco is another story; the vast majority is refermented in large tanks and is designed for easygoing pleasure – often with a touch of sweetness – rather than meditative sipping.)
And what impressive strides Canada is making, as several selections below will attest. Well, strides or breaststrokes – take your pick.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Vintage Champagne 2004 (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $93.95
As the price might indicate, this is a step up from Veuve's hugely popular non-vintage wine in the supermodel-magnet yellow-label packaging. Most premium sparkling wines are assembled as blends from several harvests to create a predictable flavour representing the house style, which is why they don't carry a vintage-date stamp on the label. When very good growing seasons roll around thanks to exceptional weather, many producers turn out "vintage" bubblies made from that single year's fruit, as is the case here. The 2004 displays a rich core of cooked apple, brioche, dry sherry and cherry liqueur. And there's a wonderful toasty nuttiness running through it. Well-balanced, it's complex and nicely evolved for 10 years, though it could improve with perhaps five more in a cool cellar. $94.95 in B.C., $93.47 in Manitoba, $99.50 in Quebec.
Lallier Rosé Champagne 1er Cru (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $56.95
"Pink Champagne on ice." If you're old enough to remember that Eagles line, your savings account might have earned enough interest by now to afford a bottle of this good champers. The colour comes through the transparent glass, above the minimalist label, making for a fetching package. Pale strawberry in hue, it also suggests strawberry, among other things, on the palate. Those other things: baked bread, lemon and red apple. The acidity is lively but not severe. Available in small quantities in Ontario and at various prices in Alberta. The Grand Cru Grand Reserve Brut from Lallier is very fine, too, and available in B.C. and Manitoba for $69.99 and $54.54, respectively.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier Champagne (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $69.95
Sadly, Brut Premier is forced to live in the shadow of its bling-bling big brother, Cristal, an icon of hip-hop culture. Same producer, same cellars, same quality control but about $200 cheaper. There was a time when this cuvée dipped slightly in quality, I think, but it's made a comeback, like Eminem. Here we are with a fine, elegant non-vintage brut, which sings a medley of orchard-fruit flavours, showing good mid-palate density and a long, minerally finish. $69.99 in B.C. (on sale for $64.99 at BCL DB Stores till Jan. 3), various prices in Alberta, $65.69 in Manitoba, $65 in Quebec, $69.29 in Nova Scotia.
Haywire Secrest Mountain Vineyard The Bub 2012 (B.C.)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25
Haywire is the house brand of Okanagan Crush Pad, a winery in Summerland, B.C., which offers production facilities and marketing services to outside winemakers. It's a cutting-edge operation experimenting with various styles, including this excellent sparkler, sealed with a beer-bottle-style crown cap. The pinot noir and chardonnay grapes are sourced from a cool hillside site further south in Oliver. The wine, made according to the traditional champagne method, is bone-dry and bursting with orchard-fruit flavours, including green apple, peach and tart lemon. Hints of doughy bread and mineral lend elegant complexity. Available direct from okanagancrushpad.com.
Blue Mountain Brut Rosé R.D. 2010 (B.C.)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $32.90
The colour is an enticing delicate rose-petal pink, like a faint blush on a pretty face. It's serious bubbly from one of Canada's best sparkling wine producers, aged for 36 months in contact with the bottled yeast prior to having the sediment disgorged. Bone dry in that electric Blue Mountain style, it shows bright lemon, green apple, berry and toasty baguette flavours over a satisfyingly chalky texture. Available direct through www.bluemountainwinery.com.
Tawse Spark Brut 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
The second vintage of this blend combines the classic champagne mix of chardonnay and pinot noir with 13-per-cent pinot gris. The froth is lively, bubbling away to reveal notes of apple, brioche pastry and a punch of razor-sharp, zesty citrus.
Steller's Jay Brut 2009 (B.C.)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.99
Once a part of the Sumac Ridge stable, Steller's Jay – named after British Columbia's official bird – was recently decoupled from that winery's lineup as a standalone brand. (Sumac Ridge, owned by U.S.-based giant Constellation, has been refocused as a value-oriented line of still table wines.) So, the bird has been set free to fly, so to speak, as a premium product, unencumbered by Sumac's new affordably priced image. The 2009 edition of this B.C. favourite, just starting to hit shelves, comes across with crisp green apple and underripe peach, gentle yeastiness and active effervescence. Discounted to $21.99 at BC Liquor Stores for December. Various prices in Alberta, $27.20 in Saskatchewan.
Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Henry of Pelham takes its bubbles seriously, emphasizing long cellaring on the yeast, in this case about 30 months versus the 18-month minimum for standard champagne. Tart apple leads the way in this chardonnay/pinot noir blend, with a minerally essence not far behind and toasted bread and lemon curd bringing up the rear. It's classic Canadian fizz. Available direct through henryofpelham.com.
Wolf Blass Gold Label Pinot Noir Chardonnay Sparkling Wine 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
There's a goût anglais to this wine – that slightly sherried, oxidative quality said to be favoured by some British fans of champagne exposed to air or long-term cellaring. It's subtle and attractive here, supporting notes of red apple and citrus. $24.99 in Manitoba, $24.99 in New Brunswick.
Ferrari Brut (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $25.95
Though it hails from northeastern Italy, land of prosecco, this Ferrari takes things slowly, as in the traditional bottle-fermented, long-cellared champagne method. It's also made with chardonnay rather than the glera (or prosecco) grape. Complex like champagne it's not, but the balance is impressive, with the faintest hint of sweetness beneath flavours of pear, citrus and apricot.