I only drink champagne when I…

I only drink champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.
- Lily Bollinger

My name is Paula De Pano, and I am addicted to bubbles.

Prosecco, Cava, Sekt, Sparkling Wine, Franciacorta, Cap Classique, and especially Champagne – as a certified bubblehead, I love them all the same. I can say that I have never refused a glass of bubbles in my life. And so it goes without saying that this season is my favorite. Though I echo Lily Bollinger’s wise words, November to January are the times the corks pop the most prolific.

Some of my holiday favorites are a mix of grand marque houses, farmers’ fizz, and beautifully interesting oddities.

The Grandes Marques, the Big Houses, of Champagne
Or in Somm speak, negociant-manipulants, wherein these Champagne producers not only own their own vineyards to farm, but also source some of their fruit from grape growers. They are best recognized for their Non-Vintage Brut style of Champagnes since they are able to produce, year after year, a consistent style and flavor for their wine because of their capacity for storing reserve juice.

Two of the more recognizable Grandes Marques are Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Ruinart is widely known as the oldest continually running Champagne house since 1729, and Dom Ruinart is their cuvee prestige, which is always a Blanc de Blancs in style (100% Chardonnay). The Dom Ruinart 2002 is the latest release from this Champagne house, being cellared for 9-10 years on average.

I had the pleasure of tasting this gorgeous Champagne a couple of weeks ago, and despite being part of a flight of four other bubbles, this was the one that stood out the most. Due to its extended cellaring, the wine was already full of luscious yellow fruit – plums, apples, and golden pears – layered with some toasted scones, candied ginger, and hazelnuts. The secondary aromatics of this Champagne were completely intoxicating with every sniff revealing something new.

With its recognizable yellow label, Veuve Clicquot doesn’t need a lot of introduction. The Gold Label Reserve 2004 is made of all three Champagne grapes, with Pinot Noir dominating the blend, which makes this wine a little fuller bodied than the Dom Ruinart. Silky and buttery on the palate, with some honeyed apricots, honeysuckle, and marzipan candy. The perlage was lively and persistent as well.

Farmers’ Fizz, From the Vines to the Glass
Also known as recoltant-manipulant, or grower-producers, these bubbles are hand-crafted by smaller artisans. They wholly own the land they farm, and their production numbers are quite miniscule compared to the larger Champagne houses. Some grower-producers are also part of the Club Tresors, a group that banded together to raise awareness on the originality shown by smaller vintners by packaging their Champagnes in the same manner and only produce them during exceptional years.

The Champagne Houses of Henri Goutorbe and Pierre Gimmonet are both members of the Club Tresors. Henri Goutorbe is primarily based in the Grand Cru vineyards of Aÿ in Vallee de la Marne, while Pierre Gimmonet is based in the premier cru vineyards of Cuis, with holdings in the Vallee de la Marne as well.

Henri Goutorbe’s Prestige Cuvee is mostly composed of Pinot Noir, giving it that extra rich palate structure. Even though it is a non-vintage wine, it is already quite expressive showing off its autolytic characteristics well, with notes of toasted brioche, gingerbread, tangy lemon curd, and fresh cut nectarines and mangoes. It has an impressive minerally finish as well.

Pierre Gimmonet might just be my favorite producer of farmer fizz ever since I got to try the 2007 Blanc de Blancs that we used to have at the Fearrington House. It was a combination of ethereal lightness, yet with so much bright citrus-driven acidity and chalky minerality that it just made my palate dance upon first sip.

The Paradoxe bottling by Pierre Gimmonet is wonderfully and fantastically different from his Blanc de Blancs. Paradoxe is primarily made of Pinot Noir sourced from vineyards a little up north in Mareuil and Ay, thus giving it a bit more fullness and roundness on the palate. Instead of lemon notes, it’s more peach pit and blood oranges, chamomile, yellow berries, and even caramel apples! It definitely packs a powerful flavor punch, without losing its elegance and lively acidity. I wouldn’t mind having this with turkey, or rib roast, or roasted suckling pig, or fried chicken, or baked fish, or French fries…You get the idea.

Sparkling Wines Other than Champagne
Sea Smoke has long been known as a Pinot Noir producer hailing from Sta. Rita Hills in the Central Coast of California. Shot to fame by the movie Sideways, they have been dubbed as the “Grand Cru of California” and are now considered highly sought after by Pinot lovers all over. The Sea Spray 2011 vintage that we carry here at the Fearrington House is the second bottling of this producer. It is made of 100% Pinot Noir, making it a Blanc de Noirs with aromas of creamy yellow fruit and fresh red berries, and some lavender floral tones.

This is a sparkling wine that I would enjoy mostly with richer style of food. It has been aged for six months in French oak, giving it a rounder, fuller mouth-feel, and a stronger structure that can hold up a few slices of Thanksgiving turkey smothered with some velvety liver gravy or an orange glazed roasted duck.

Weingut Peter Lauer is another producer who is better known for his highly-sought after cult Rieslings from the Saar region in Germany. Unlike other great estates in the Saar, his wines focus more on the drier styles of this noble grape. We are fortunate enough to be able to annually get hold of his wines here in North Carolina. His Rieslings display intense purity and minerality, highlighted by a razor sharp acidity complemented by delicate fruit tones and spring blossoms.

In this particular sparkling wine, called Sekt in Germany, Riesling’s unmistakable characteristics shine through beautifully. The telltale stone and tree fruit tones and citrus blossom florality combined with the honey and petrol aromatics make this sparkling wine the ultimate Riesling and sparkling wine aficionado’s celebratory wine. No wonder sommeliers all over fight tooth and nail to get hold of this producer’s wines.

So hopefully, this helps out a bit in choosing your wine for this season’s bubbles of choice. Our wine list has over 70 different sparkling wines for you to choose from, from the negociant-manipulants to the grower producers, to the amazing oddities from Italy, Spain, Germany, and even Hungary! We can’t wait to share all their stories with you so don’t forget to ask us about them when you join us for your special evening at The Fearrington House.

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  1. Splendid to read this from a superb sommelier. A question and a comment: If the SeaSmoke is 100% Pinot NOIR, how is it also a Blanc de Blancs? Or, maybe better put, why isn’t it a Blanc de Noirs? The comment: Winston Churchill (who was quite a good chum of Lilly Bollinger as well as a notorious fan of Champagne–hence Pol Roger’s Cuvee Winston Churchill) said of Champagne that, for him, it “was necessary in victory and essential in defeat.”

  2. Oh wow, I completely missed that typo! :) I will be fixed shortly. :)