John Szabo’s 2017 Fizz Report

Twelve Occasions to Buy Sparkling Wine, with Buyer’s Guide  
By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s time for the annual fizz report, and this year I bring back my twelve essential occasions for which you’ll need to buy bubbly, with recommendations for each. All wines are currently available either at the LCBO, in consignment (agents are listed), or from the winery (go ahead and exercise your constitutional rights, which provides for the free flow of Canadian goods between provinces, and order directly from out of province wineries – see section 121). Feel free to mix and match recommendations and occasions, as the need arises.

If you’re planning a party and doing the cooking, check out my annual year end tasting panel report where you’ll find three terrific scallop recipes by Terroni’s Giovanna Alonzi along with their perfect wines (also available), as determined by serious experts.

May your upcoming holidays be positively sparkling!

John Szabo’s Twelve Occasions to Buy (and drink) Sparkling Wine

1. Lunch with long lost friends

There’s lots to talk about, so no time to fuss over precious wine. Besides, your out-of-touch friends may not be as enthused about wine as you are, and may not have evolved much beyond high school park party beverages. So reach for the old standard Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava, Spain (on sale until December 31st for $13.25). You won’t score points for originality nor change anybody’s world, but this Cava classic is a sure step up in depth and complexity from the company’s more basic (and less expensive) Carta Nevada, and better than most in the price category. If you are paying attention, it has textbook earthy-briny-green olive and green apple flavours, with sufficient toasty-biscuity flavours to add interest, and it’s crisp and very dry, and low in alcohol, so a useful ‘session’ wine.…

2. To Take to the Big House Party

Who knows whether you’ll be offered crystal stems or paper cups, if it’s a beer and cocktail crowd, or if a pack of rabid wine snobs may be lurking in the corner. But for all eventualities, the Hungaria Grande Cuvée Brut, Hungary ($12.95) has you covered. While it’s hardly a marvel of complexity, you’d be hard pressed to find a better wine for the money, so challenge the wine snobs to do better (they won’t). It has wide appeal with its pretty fruity-floral nose (jasmine, lemon blossom, lime, grapefruit) with just a hint of toasty almond character, and being just off-dry, fans of prosecco (and they’re everywhere) will love it. Tumblers or crystal flutes? Who cares. Down the hatch.

On the other hand, if you’re headed to new age, post yoga-class holiday party, you’ll want to consider the Parés Baltà Cava Brut, Spain ($17.99 via Noble Estates Wines & Spirits, 6/cs). It’s organically certified and vegan-friendly, and pretty damned good, and not available at the LCBO so nobody will know how much you paid. You can tell them that it’s a premium cava, crisp and dry, fruity and lightly biscuity, made by a company that cares for the environment and their customers. I’m feeling warm and fuzzy inside. Get the 6-pack. It’ll vanish like cookies on Christmas eve.

Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut CavaHungaria Grande Cuvée BrutParés Baltà Cava Brut

3. To Crack When Friends Drop By (unexpectedly or not)

You know its gonna happen, so be prepared – semper paratus as my Latin friends say. Nothing’s more welcoming to a long lost friend, or better for neighbor relations, than the gesture of cracking a bottle of bubbly. But champagne’s too expensive for my freeloading acquaintances and noisy neighbors, so split the difference with Labouré Gontard Brut Crémant de Bourgogne, France ($20.95) It’s is an attractively toasty, flavourful, mouth-filling crémant with impressive depth and length – close your eyes and you could well be in Champagne.

If it’s earlier in the day, however, which calls for something a little lighter and fresher, I’d suggest a prosecco from northeastern Italy. And I wouldn’t be alone – prosecco is the single greatest sparkling success story of the last 30 years, so some other folks must be saying the same thing. There are plenty to choose from, but I was particularly happy with a new discover this year: Paladin Prosecco Frizzante Brut, Italy ($19.00 via Barrel Select, 12/cs). It offers all of the usual fragrance of pears and apples on a light crisp and barely off-dry frame, but it’s a little less fizzy than the average, so you can, well, sip more without felling like a beer-guzzling couch potato. And bonus, it comes with a screw cap, so no fuss to get it cracked. The only downside is that you can’t saber it.

4. Family Dinner

Its’ the holidays so you’ve got a hall pass to get down to the cellar and pull out something a little more extravagant, but don’t go overboard just yet. For this occasion, something classy and mid-range is called for, like the Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut Sparkling, Okanagan Valley ($30.95). Canada is an emerging source of quality traditional method sparkling wine, and Blue Mountain makes a very fine range, including some scintillating late disgorged bottlings. This Pinot noir-based non-vintage brut (with chardonnay and a splash of pinot gris), is highly respectable to be sure, crafted in a rich style with notable sweetness and ripe fruit intensity, complete with creamy-leesy-lactic texture and flavour that softens up the hard edges.  It’s more of a wine for the table rather than pre-dinner sipping, and the complexity on offer deserves some equally sophisticated food to match. It’s still available in some stores and also in Ontario in consignment, via Rogers & Company, or, if you prefer to exercise your constitutional rights (see that section 121 again), order it directly from the winery.

Labouré Gontard Brut Crémant De BourgognePaladin Prosecco Frizzante BrutBlue Mountain Gold Label Brut

5. With Oysters

Let’s be clear: I’ve never had a bad champagne and oyster experience. Your budget is the only parameter here. But I’m always happy to find a champagne that tastes like a $300 prestige cuvee for $75.95. That’s right. It’s a real sport. And here it is: Larmandier Bernier Longitude Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 1er Cru Champagne, France ($75.95). This biodynamically-grown beauty is one of the best values going at the lick-bo. It’s oozing with charm and character, a very natural, toasty-mineral, chalky, complex and vinous grower champagne, full of class and elegance, from pure chardonnay grown on the Côte des Blancs in the villages Vertus, Oger, Avize, Cramant (the latter three are grand crus). These villages “form a line close to the 4th meridian” hence “Longitude”, which is “an allusion to the length and the very pure, frank and mineral style of these great terroirs, where the chalk is very close to the surface”, writes Pierre Larmandier.

6. For The Classy Brunch

What better way to start the day than with a high-class, boozy brunch? Pull out the fine china and silverware you almost never use, put name cards at the table for that personal touch, and as guests arrive, serve them Benjamin Bridge Rosé from Nova Scotia, Canada ($28.00 at the winery). BB has carved a niche as one of Canada’s top crafters of sparkling, and has quite literally put Nova Scotia on the world wine map in the process. Regale your friends with facts about the Bay of Fundy and its highest tides in the world, which help to create a perfect climate to grow grapes for fine bubbly as they sip this palate-tingling pick-me-up.

Then as you move to the table and prepare to serve the oven-roasted chicken, baked ham, crab cakes or seafood risotto, keep the sparkling theme but kick the weight up a notch. Benoit Gautier’s Vouvray Method Traditionelle, Loire, France ($23.55, via Le Caviste Importers) is a perennial favorite, and makes another appearance on this list. It’s a reliably rich and toasty sparkling chenin blanc loaded with autumnal fruit flavour in the typical varietal register. The technical specs list just 8 grams of residual sugar, but it comes across as being a touch sweeter than that (perfect for the above-mentioned foods), even if the weight of fruit and the sharp acids keep things even-keeled.

Larmandier Bernier Longitude Blanc De Blancs Extra Brut 1er Cru ChampagneBenjamin Bridge Nv Rosé Méthode ClassiqueBenoit Gautier Vouvray Method Traditionelle

7. For Contemplative Sipping

For moments more Beethoven than Mozart, the outstanding Louis Brochet HBH 1er Cru Champagne 2002 ($69.95) will keep your mind spinning like a 19th century Russian novel. Bottled in 2003, and disgorged in 2015, by my calculations that’s a staggering 12 years on lees. And it shows clearly in the very petrolly-mineral character, well beyond simple biscuity-leesy-autolytic flavours, and on into more exotic realms like maple syrup and curry. The palate offers terrific depth and length, and, evidently, also complexity. I’d recommend gently carafing it before you start the 9th symphony, to oxygenate and bring back a modicum of fruit, but this is, and will remain, an idiosyncratic style that won’t be to everyone’s taste. But even those who ultimately don’t like it will still have to contemplate it.

8. To Impress Your Fancy-Pants, Sparkling-Loving Friends

So your friends have had it all? I’d wager they haven’t tried the Desiderius Pongrácz Brut Cap Classique Sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot Noir, WO Western Cape, South Africa ($16.95). Be sure to pour it blind (i.e. don’t tell them what they’re drinking) and I bet they’ll guess something at twice the price – a feature of so many undervalued South African wines. ‘Cap Classique’ means traditional method in SA, and this is indeed a very toasty, decidedly oxidative style, with exceptional complexity for the money. The palate is mid-weight, dry and crisp and nicely balanced, with chiseled acids and ginger and barley sugar flavours emerging on the long finish.

Louis Brochet Hbh 1er Cru Champagne 2002Desiderius Pongrácz Brut Cap Classique Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot NoirDrappier Millésime Exception Champagne 2012

9. To Gift to someone you don’t know well

If you’re not close to the recipient and want to be sure to impress, you need brand recognition. Otherwise your “niche discovery” might be misperceived as a cheap substitute. Thus, nothing but champers will do. And a particularly respectable one with name brand recognition (without being too obvious) is the Drappier Millésime Exception Champagne 2012, France ($74.95). “This delightful 2012 is already showing considerable maturity on both the nose and palate, and lots of complexity, delivering a fine amalgam of maple syrup and toasty-caramel over ripe and fleshy, dried orchard fruit. The palate is dry and tightly wound, firm and succulent, with real energy and depth. I love the light salinity on the finish and the saliva-inducing acids that draw you back for another sip.” – John Szabo MS (Feel free to copy and paste this note on the card you send with the bottle, so you can lay the blame on me if your recipient isn’t impressed.)

10. To Gift to Someone You Know Well

On the other hand, for someone you know well, and who more importantly will know that your intentions are pure, give the gift of both discovery and quality, from somewhere unexpected. And believe it or not, ‘Ontario’ and ‘fine wine’ are still considered unexpected sentence-mates. You might be able to change that with a bottle of 13th Street Premier Cuvée 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($34.95 at the winery). The latest release of the Premier Cuvée is a 50-50 pinot noir-chardonnay blend, with a lengthy 48 months on the lees. The vintage was a warm one for Niagara, and the richness comes through here in the gently oxidative, generous autumnal fruit, all binned apples and dried pears, alongside a generous dose doughy-biscuity character. The palate is also generously proportioned, still framed by brisk acids in an essentially dry and crisp style, with impressive staying power.

11. To Sip During the Lead-Up To Midnight

Keep it lively in the lead up to the countdown with a brisk bubbly, crackling with energy: Sperling Vineyards Brut Sparkling Reserve 2011, Okanagan Valley ($49.95, winery). Five years on the lees gives this plenty of toasty maturity, but it’s the nearly bone-dry frame and lemony acids that will keep your palate awake until midnight. It’s a classy and sophisticated bubbly from Kelowna, one of the best BC bottlings.

13th Street Premier Cuvée 2012Sperling Vineyards Brut Sparkling Reserve 2011Dom Pérignon Brut Vintage 2009

12. To Ring in The New Year

Hello 2018, it’s time to go all in and start the year in impeccable style: Dom Pérignon Brut Vintage 2009 Champagne ($231.95). Now, you may say that DP is not terribly original, and that it doesn’t take a master sommelier to recommend a decent $230 bottle of wine. But I’d like to say that this is one of very few wines on the planet that might actually be worth that much money. Simply put, the 2009 Dom Pérignon is exquisite. The vintage was warm and generous, aspects that cross over into this rich and voluptuous expression; champagnes rarely attain this degree of intensity and ripeness while also retaining a marvellous sense of balance and precision, proportion and finesse. Biscuity-brioche flavour is seamlessly integrated into the ensemble, and the texture, soft and round, mouth filling but tightened up by fresh acids, is fully beguiling, and length is excellent. Squarely in its 1st “plénitude”, this is a brilliant bottle right now, but also one to follow over the next couple of decades, if you opt to purchase a few for the cellar…

Happy New Year! That’s all for this report. See you next year, around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS



Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava