I recently interviewed a foreign winemaker who adores Champagne. He neither makes the stuff nor comes from France but he told me he'd been agonizing over whether to buy a couple of bottles of Dom Pérignon Rosé 2002 while staying in Toronto.
That's an iconic vintage, hailed by some critics as the finest Dom Rosé ever, rivalling the legendary 1990. In hockey terms, that puts it on a par with, say, the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers or 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. Sold out in many markets around the world, the limited-edition wine is selling here for the best price the Champagne-collecting winemaker had seen on all his travels: $299.95 a bottle.
That decimal's in the right place, I'm afraid. Like many of you, I immediately thought: It must be nice to lead a jet-setting existence where $300 is a bargain for a volume of wine short of a 225-litre barrel. (For the record, he took a pass, mainly because of limited space in his luggage.)
One need not spend three figures to find good sparkling wine, of course. But sometimes, like the guy in my story, you have to be willing to seize the day because the best fizz tends to come in small allotments. I usually start scavenging for interesting holiday bubbles in October, when stores start stocking up for fall party season. Come December, it's going to be a madhouse. You'll be elbow-to-elbow with the masses picking over an ever-dwindling selection. Permit me to spark some early-bird thoughts.
Dom Pérignon Rosé Champagne 2002, France
It's been compared to 1990 and 1996, two other storied vintages of Moët & Chandon's prestige cuvée named after a 17th-century monk. The influential Wine Advocate newsletter scored it 98 out of 100 as it was being distributed a year ago after a typically long maturation period in cellar. It does not disappoint even if the price is far beyond the reach of all but the very few. Shimmering copper-pink in colour, it's a fine balance of fruit, yeastiness and minerality. Think toasted baguette with apple, cherry jam and chalk dust – in a good way. With the potential to improve for up to two more decades in bottle, it's barely starting to show a pleasant note of amontillado-sherry oxidation. $288.88 in British Columbia.
Cygnus Brut Nature Reserva Cava, Spain
Brut nature refers to the driest style of sparkling wine. Almost all bubblies get topped up prior to final corking with a mixture of sugar and wine. This step, known as dosage, counterbalances the wine's naturally high acidity. Brut nature, or zéro dosage, wines skip this step to achieve the ultimate in bone-dry effervescence. It's an under-appreciated category and holds great appeal for acid heads such as yours truly. This one carries flavours of apple pie, roasted nuts and honey-lemon tea. It's made from organic grapes, too. Available in Ontario.
Paul Clouet Sélection à Bouzy Brut Champagne, France
Here's a small house that delivers quality comparable to or better than many of the non-vintage-dated big-brand Champagnes, and it's $10 to $20 cheaper. Bone-dry and tangy, with a satisfyingly fleshy mid-palate, it offers flavours of sweet apple and lemon meringue pie. Available in Ontario.
Aimery Grand Cuvée 1531 Crémant de Limoux, France
There's remarkable complexity here for the price. Limoux in the south of France was producing bottle-fermented sparkling wines before the technique was refined in the northern Champagne region. What the district lacks in luxury prestige it makes up for in we-were-first cachet. This is complex, layered froth, with notes of peach, green apple and lemon underpinned by fresh bread and subtle toastiness. Razor crisp, with excellent length. Available in Ontario.
Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rosé, California
German immigrant Jacob Schram founded this historic Napa winery in 1862 and had Chinese labourers carve three kilometres of cellar space into the volcanic rock of Diamond Mountain. Robert Louis Stevenson spent time sampling the wines in the cellars and chronicled the experience in The Silverado Squatters. The estate later was mothballed under Schram's widow when the Prohibition police came a-knockin'. Revived in 1965 by Jack and Jamie Davies, it has adopted the slogan "America's House of Sparkling Wine." The Mirabelle displays a pretty salmon hue and the palate is substantial and bone-dry, with bright berries and crisp citrus joined by bracing minerality. Available in Ontario.
Sumac Ridge Steller's Jay Brut 2008, British Columbia
A very fine Champagne-style sparkling wine, this white is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot blanc. Medium-bodied for a bubbly, it comes across with baked apple as well as fresh green apple, with hints of brioche, toasted nuts and flowers. Good mid-palate weight, which can often be lacking in sparkling wine. $24.99 in B.C., $27.20 in Saskatchewan, $23.49 in Manitoba, $24.99 in Nova Scotia.
Featherstone Joy Premium Cuvée Sparkling Wine 2009, Ontario
The packaging is novel and smart. Featherstone uses no corks on its still wines, just screwcaps. When it came time to produce a sparkling wine, owners Louise Engel and David Johnson ditched the mushroom cork and instead used a simple crown cap. For elegant flair, there's a G-string-like red ribbon draped over the cap and glued down at two points on the neck. It means you've got to slip off the ribbon before popping the cap, which is a nice ceremony. The wine's elegant, too, dry but with subtly sweet citrus flavour and a pleasantly chalky finish. Available in Ontario LCBO stores beginning Oct. 26; featherstonewinery.ca.