Battle of the Bubblies: Joseph Perrier vs Jules Bertier

joseph perrierI’ve often wondered if this whole Champagne thing really means anything.

I’m referring to the huge fuss that’s been made about using the word “Champagne” on a bottle of bubbly: that it can’t be used as a generic term for sparkling wine and can only be used to designate a wine from the Champagne region of France. The Champagne folks act like the Keepers of the Holy Grail, as though any bubbly besides theirs is swill not fit to drink and can therefore not bear their name.

So I was excited when I stumbled across a bubbly challenge. I had recently served a sparkling wine from France (but not Champagne) and got rave reviews from everyone who tried it. I heard comments such as, “I don’t usually like champagne, but I like this one.” Now, I can’t take those comments totally at face value: In America, most people drink sparkling wine only at weddings and New Year’s Eve parties, and tend to lump everything with bubbles under the name “champagne,” including cheap domestic stuff made in giant concrete vats, and sweet stuff from Italy. But the point is, the folks who drank my non-Champagne bubbly meant, “This stuff is good.” ‘Nuff said.

Then I was given a sample of a true, blue, honest-to-God Champagne, and decided to do a taste-off to see if the Champagne label really did bring with it a distinct style and superior quality. Here are my results.

Jules Bertier Premiere Cuvee Blanc de Blanc is a non-vintage sparkling wine from France’s Loire Valley. This region is best known for the white grape Chenin Blanc. Caves de Grenelle, which produces this cuvee, grows Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. Since this wine is called “Blanc de Blancs,” which indicates an all-white-grape blend, this must be made from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. The winery has a long tradition, founded in 1859, and is known for producing fine Cremant de Loire (sparkling wines from the Loire region).

The nose of the Jules Bertier was delicate and clean, with nice bubbles that weren’t overly fine (the best quality Champagne is supposed to have very fine bubbles rising from the bottom of the glass in a steady stream). But the palate was quite delightful — light and crisp with hints of green apple and peaches. There was nothing challenging about this wine, and it would be fun to pop a bottle as an aperitif or brunch wine.

Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale Brut Champagne NV is from a venerable champagne house that dates back to 1825. It’s been in the family for five generations, and even the Cellar Master is third generation (he oversees two-thousand-year-old caves buried in their hillside in Chalons de Champagne). They grow the traditional Champagne grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — and this Cuvee Royale is blended with 35%, 35%, and 30% of those grapes. So how does it compare?

The nose was rich and yeast-y, with tapioca notes and lots of tingly bubbles. The color was more golden, and the palate was dominated by caramel, with hints of citrus and bread dough. Now, you may have noticed that most of these are classic descriptors for Champagne, although the Jospeh Parrier was lighter on the yeast and heavier on the caramel/butterscotch than most I’ve tasted. I suspect it’s an older Champagne, because the caramel, etc. reminded me of the slightly maderized flavors I’ve tasted in older White Burgundies.

But without getting technical about it, here’s how these two sparkling wines measured up. I liked the true Champagne. It  was richer and more complex, but also carried a price tag more than double the Loire wine. Its style will make it the favorite of those used to drinking $50 sparkling — but it will not be the favorite of most American wine drinkers. The average American wine drinker doesn’t like “yeast-y and bread-dough-y,” even though Champagne lovers do. (I can’t tell you how many of my customers have said, “I spent all this money for a bottle of Dom Perignon and I didn’t even like it.”) The average palate likes the crisp, clean, easy-drinking style that you’ll find in a Cava or domestic sparkler. (My go-to sparkler is Gruet, made right here in New Mexico, and everyone I’ve recommended it to has come back for more).

So let’s return to the Sparkler Challenge. Did the true Champagne have a distinct style? Yes. Is it by definition a superior-quality wine? Not necessarily. Most of my customers don’t care about anyone’s definition of quality– they’d just rather drink the Loire. The fact that it saves them $25 is just icing on the (sparkling) cake. Cheers!

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