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Wine and Food Wednesday
Our Picks for Toasting the New Year

By Stephen Eliot

At this time of the year, we are constantly asked the question of what we will be drinking on New Year’s Eve. Well, the answer is sparkling wine, but less because it is the traditional drink and more because it is simply so good with so many different foods. We talked about sparkling wine’s remarkable versatility with food a few weeks back, and there is no question that this time of year, more than any other, sees a bounty of varied dishes making their ways to our tables. The New Year’s meal is for us more often than not geared to small plates of every imaginable type; less a sit-down dinner as much as it is an evening of conversation and wandering from dish to dish with glass in hand. There are lighter, Blanc de Blancs with which to wash down the oysters and more delicate fare richer, and anything with bubbles is an ideal foil to fried tidbits ranging from tempura to pakoras to old-fashioned chicken wings. Creamy pastas and mild cheeses are welcoming partners to the brightness and cleansing acidity that are the very essence of fine sparkling wine, and, an entirely new world of wine-and-food options opens up when richer Rosés find their ways to the table.

So, just which bottles have our eye as 2011 nears? As we have sipped our ways through a good number of bubblies over that last couple of months, we have been struck by two noteworthy truths. First, the most expensive and prestigious names of them all are by no means orders of magnitude better than many of considerably more modest cost, and that, second, there are wonderful values to be found at what might best be called entry-level prices. Yes, we enjoy the likes of Dom Perignon, Roederer Cristal and Krug, but Laurent Perrier’s Grand Siècle is second to none, and the outstanding efforts from growers like Moineaux and Saves seem like out-and-out bargains by comparison. The compelling mid-priced offerings of Mumm DVX and Schramsberg deliver world-class quality and value alike, and one would be hard pressed to find better bubbly for the money than J’s Cuvee 20 and Mumm Brut Rosé. In all honesty, our list of favorites is a long one to be sure, but we would like to recommend a few recent and standouts that earn a special nod.

95 LAURENT-PERRIER Grand Siècle Brut Champagne $175.00
Long a CGCW favorite, Laurent-Perrier hits the mark once again with a wine that fully lives up to its Tête de Cuvée billing. Deep and wonderfully layered with flashes of fruit peeking through its lavish appointment of yeast and sweet cream, it is charged by a wealth of fine bubbles and is impeccably balanced as only top-flight Champagne can be. As inviting and involving as it is at the moment, it still very vital and will keep beautifully for a good many years down the line.

95 MARCEL MOINEAUX Blanc de Blancs Champagne 2004 $70.00
Very few Champagnes in our experience can top this offering for out and out value, because, even at the price, it delivers good yeasty complexity backed up by the refinement, balance and full chalky minerality that we hope to find in Blanc de Blancs. It is, by all measures, a seriously good bottle of bubbly.

96 MUMM DVX Napa Valley 2002 $55.00
Here is a wine that has one foot in California and both feet on the way to France. So intriguing is this wine that it simply has more going for it than can be found at first try. It begins with correct aromas of chalk, yeast and entirely austere yet ethereal fruit and continues on the palate with flavors that are both rich and subtle, both nuanced and keenly focused, both inviting and demanding all at the same time. No easy sipper this, its crackling acidity calls for a partnership with small oysters like Miyagi or Kumamoto in a shallot mignonette. Bring it on!! And note, one can find this wine in 1997 vintage magnum on the winery website. At $225, it is a exceptional treat.

95 J WINE COMPANY Vintage Brut In Magnum Russian River Valley 2002 $90.00
It is a well-known fact in sparkling wine circles that fermenting and aging bubbly in magnum often enhances the final product. This wine is a case in point. As good as the other J offerings are, this one is simply deeper, more polished, more ethereal than its siblings. It is also a lot of sparkling wine and needs to be reserved for very special events when there are enthusiasts aplenty in the house. And given the prices being asked for Champagne and even for California sparkling wine of the same quality, this magnum is a veritable bargain.

95 SCHRAMSBERG J. SCHRAM North Coast 2003 $100.00
Once again, Schramsberg's flagship bubbly winds up at the right end of the leaderboard. Its bold, complex blending of toast, caramel, yeast and crème brûlée takes it far beyond the realm of primary fruit, and yet, for all that the wine possesses, it succeeds because it has energetic, briskly focused fruit at its heart. With its creamy mousse of small bubbles and its rich, developed flavors in the mouth, it is a wine to serve with a first course of a fois gras crème caramel or a finely crafted lobster mousse because nothing less decadent will bring out all that is on offer here.

94 SCHRAMSBERG Brut Rosé North Coast 2007 $41.00
From its cherry pink color to its ample fruit and fine sense of vinosity, this deep and flavorful sparkler is every inch a true Rosé. It hints at cranberries and at cherries here and there and shows lots of creamy, autolyzed yeast. Its combination of solidity, scant astringency and a firm acid spine make it a wine that is a very much meant to partner foods like grilled salmon or ahi tuna, but it has plenty of richness to match up famously with refined recipes involving duck breast or pork loins as well.

93 CAMILLE SAVÈS Cuvée Rosé Champagne $60.00
A walkaway favorite in our tastings, this one smells of yeast, toast and all the bakeshop reminiscences that one expects of top Champers and adds in nuanced but evident suggestions of orange peel, Meyer lemon and strawberry. It is explosively bubbled and insistent and stays on the palate forever. This one competes well with the big names.

93 J WINE COMPANY Brut Rosé Russian River Valley $35.00
As expected from sparkling wines from J, this bright, briskly balanced bottling shows a real sense of refinement and grace from its fruity, mildly cranberry-like nose to its delicately bubbled palate. It comes with a nice complement of yeast and intimates tart cherries from beginning to end, and, if not so weighty as classic rosés can be, it is never so light than it cannot do fine service with foods ranging from grilled salmon to crispy chicken.

92 GLORIA FERRER Sonoma Brut in Magnum Sonoma County $38.00
Once again, the larger format proves to be a real boon as this involving effort shows far more richness and reach than its smaller-sized mate. Its intense, creamy, bake-shop aromas literally leap from the glass, and its layered, wonderfully well-integrated flavors of Meyer lemon, vanilla, yeast and freshly toasted bread exhibit a striking sense of depth. It is frothy and flush with abundant, very fine bubbles, and it offers up nothing short of outstanding value.

91 SCHRAMSBERG Blanc de Blancs Brut North Coast 2007 $36.00
2007, it seems, was a quite good year for Schramsberg, and this brisk, almost austere Blanc de Blancs joins the winery's Blanc de Noirs and Rosé in winning very high marks. It is less a stand-alone quaffer and more a taut, acid-edged wine that wants for food, and, while we see it as a fine choice for washing down sundry light seafoods, we expect that it will show at its most brilliant when served alongside fresh oysters on the half shell.

91 MUMM Brut Prestige in Magnum Napa Valley $50.00
It has become clear to us over the years that some special magic seems to happen when fine sparkling wine is fermented in magnum, and when compared to its 750 ml Brut counterpart, Mumm's big bottle proves the point. Rich in well-defined yeast with lots of small bubbles and a long, very crisp, mineral-laced finish, it displays plenty of classic champenized character and will prove to be a fine choice when the occasion calls for more than one bottle of bubbly.

91 MUMM Brut Rosé Napa Valley $22.00
We have long been fans of Mumm's Napa Valley Blanc de Noirs and Rosés and found them to be quintessential expressions of gregarious and outgoing California fruit, and so again is this an irrepressibly fruity working even while showing a full range of yeasty, autolyzed richness that lifts it into slightly more serious realms. Its strong theme of strawberries is overlain by a bit of vanilla, brioche and sweet cream, and its frothy mousse never quits. It is not so vinous as some Rosés, shows not so much of a hint of astringency and can be successfully quaffed on its own or teamed with a wide range of foods.

89 J WINE COMPANY Brut Cuvée 20 Russian River Valley $22.00
Yeasty, chalky lemony and crisp, all in the manner of J wines if a touch shy on full-blown champenization, this wine comes with a fair complement of medium-sized bubbles and sets its slight edge of palatal sweetness alongside energetic fruit that drifts into lemon and lightly vanilla-tinged notes. Try it alongside oriental flavored bites like rumaki or pork buns.

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