Sparkling Wine Showdown

If you want to improve your palate, the only way to do so is to sample more wine. To help me in this quest I invited a group of friends over so we could blind taste sparkling wines from around the world.

I’m a believer in the adage “the brown bag doesn’t lie”. It’s easy to go into a tasting with pre-conceived notions, so to make things fair we bagged all the wines – even going so far to tape the necks of the bottles up. Fortunately, we had a good spread to choose from.

  1. Afton Mountain Vineyard 2017 Bollicine (Monticello, Virginia)
  2. Paul Launois NV Composition #3 Grand Cru (Champagne, France)
  3. Trump Winery 2014 Blanc de Blanc (Monticello, Virginia)
  4. Mirabella Satèn (Franciacorta DOCG, Italy)
  5. Thibaut-Janisson NV Extra Brut (Virginia)
  6. Argyle 2017 Sparking Brute (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

The strong Virginia representation was no coincidence. Not only am I a fan of drinking local, Virginia is making outstanding sparkling wines.

Patricia Kluge of Kluge Estate (now Trump Winery) started the trend for high-end Virginia sparklings by inviting French winemaker Claude Thibaut to Virginia as a consultant, leading to the release of their first Blanc de Chardonnay in 2007. Today, Claude is half of the Thibaut-Janisson partnership which is one of the best-known sparkling wines in the state.

I was thrilled to have a Thibault-Janisson in the lineup, but the other Virginia contenders were also very strong. Trump Winery is a two-time winner of the San Fransisco Wine Chronicle’s “Sparkling Sweepstakes”, perhaps North America’s most prestigious wine competition. When I saw their 2019-winner 2014 Blanc de Blanc I was fast to grab it.

I discovered Afton Mountain’s sparkling this year at a Virginia wine media event that featured multiple sparklings and it was my favorite of the day. Obviously, I was excited when someone offered to bring it this evening.

The other sparklings I wasn’t as familiar with, but having bottles from Italy, France, and Oregon made this blind tasting especially interesting. Extra props to the guest who offered to bring a Grand Cru champagne.

We didn’t do the reveal until the winner was announced.

Round 1 / Bracket 1:

  • Wine #1 / Afton Mountain (1 votes)
  • Wine #2 / Paul Launois (5 votes)

The Afton was very bright and approachable. We sensed tart green apple notes. “Bright, effervescent” were mentioned.

The Paul Launois had a dough-y note to it. There was also more weight, and it had a longer finished. Very well balanced as well.

Don’t get me wrong – we enjoyed both. We thought the Afton was a very good crowd-pleaser, but the Grand Cru champagne won out.

Winner: Paul Launois

Round 1 / Bracket 2:

  • Wine #3 / Trump Blanc de Blanc (3 votes)
  • Wine #4 / Mirabella Satèn (3 votes)

The Trump Blanc de Blanc is something of a ‘cerebral’ sparkling. It was initially a bit musty but that blew off. It had a bready note on the palate, and some noticed a spice note at the end. We felt it needed a lot of swirling to get the best out of it.

The Mirabella was exceptionally bright – almost too much so. Green apple, lemon-lime, and honeysuckle notes were mentioned. High acid up front but not on the end. At least one person mentioned an almost milky note, with some brioche.

We were evenly divided on this round. At first nobody seemed to love either, although #3 improved as it opened up. Since it was tied and I was the host, my vote was the tiebreaker and we went with Trump Winery.

Winner: Trump Winery

Round 1 / Bracket 3:

  • Wine #5 / Thibaut-Janisson (6 votes)
  • Wine #6 / Argyle (0 votes)

There was a lot going on for the Thibault-Janisson, all of it great. It was easy drinking but complex. Well balanced. It had a brioche note in exactly the right proportion. Someone mentioned notes of spice cake or star anise. “Tastes like Christmas” was also mentioned. On top of all that, it had a wonderful golden color.

The Argyle was also very popular, and we commented on how unfair it seemed for this wine to be eliminated early. It was bright and easy drinking; perhaps an especially good wine for those starting to drink bubbles. Everything seemed well proportioned.

This was by far our most popular round, and we immediately viewed the Thibault-Janisson as the likely winner. That said, the Argyle was maybe our 2nd favorite of the evening. I gave the Argyle a wild card advance into the next round.

Winner: Thibault-Jannison (but the Argyle also advanced to the next bracket)

Round 2 / Bracket 1:

  • Wine #3 / Trump Winery
  • Wine #5 / Thibault-Janisson

We felt the Trump wine noticeably improved since we last tried it. One other guest and I started to go back and forth on a favorite; another guest refused to pick a favorite because she loved them both. But the Thibault-Janisson was just so good we gave it the win here.

Winner: Thibault-Janisson

Round 2 / Bracket 2:

  • Wine #2 / Paul Launois
  • Wine #6 / Argyle 2017 Sparkling Brute

No notes here; the winner was the Argyle by a large margin.

Winner: Argyle

Round 3: Winner’s Round

  • Wine #5 / Thibaut-Janisson
  • Wine #6 / Argyle

We basically predicted these two wines to be the final contenders as soon as we tasted them earlier in the evening. No new tasting notes here; we happily finished both bottles.

It may have been an informal competition, but all of the guests were definitely winners.

Favorite bottle of the night: Thibault-Janisson Extra Brut

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