Champagne vs Virginia: Blind Blanc de Noir Sparkling Tasting

Sparkling wine is one of the fasted-growing segments in the beverage industry, and Virginia is no different.

10 years ago only a handful of wineries offered bubbly. But the growing popularity of relatively easy-to-make pét-nats and availability of businesses (such as the Virginia Sparkling Company) that produce Méthode Champenoise sparkling for smaller customers has given wineries of all sizes the ability to sell sparkling in-house.

Most of Virginia’s sparklings are blends or Blanc de Blancs; only a minority are Blanc de Noirs (red grapes made into sparkling wine). To the best of my knowledge only Trump Winery, Ankida Ridge, and CrossKeys produce a pinot noir-based Blanc de Noir, although others use cabernet franc, norton, and even a tannat (from Horton).

I’d previously did an entire lineup of Blanc de Blancs, so this time we compared Blanc de Noirs with wines from CrossKeys, Keswick, and Trump.

I admit I had some trepidation over a France vs Virginia comparison of Blanc de Noirs. Nearly all of France’s Blanc de Noirs come from Champagne; no matter how much I may love Virginia wine, this is a tough act to beat.

But this was done in the name of science, so I figured we’d give it a go anyway.

The contestants:

  1. Eric Rodez Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Champagne; $63 on wine searcher)
  2. 2019 Crosskeys Blanc de Noir (Shenandoah Valley; ~$40 when it was in stock)
  3. 2016 Trump Blanc de Noir (Charlottesville; $55 at the winery)
  4. Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir (Champagne; $60 at Total Wine)
  5. Keswick Vineyards Amélie (Charlottesville; $39 at the winery)
  6. Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (Marne Valley, Champagne; $38 on wine searcher)

We randomly paired the Virginia and French wines and bagged them in pairs. Bottles that won their flight advanced to the next round.

As always; this event was the product of THIS night with THIS group. On another day, we may have had different favorites.

Round 1 / Flight #1:

  • Wine 1: Eric Rodez Blanc De Noirs Grand Cru: 5 votes (winner)
  • Wine 2: 2019 CrossKeys Blanc de Noir: 1 vote

Eric Rodez comes from Ambonnay, one of 17 villages in Champagne authorized to label their sparkling as ‘Grand Cru’. I don’t know much more about them, other than any wine from champagne automatically has a serious rep to uphold.

CrossKeys is located in the ‘upper’ (southern) Shenandoah Valley. It’s made with pinot, which is grown specifically for sparkling production. This particular wine won “Best in Show” at the 2022 Atlantic Seaboard Wine competition.

PS – if you haven’t tried Shenandoah sparklings you should; the region’s cool climate makes it a good place for higher-acid wines, so sparkling are a good match.

Comparing the color and aromas of the two, the Grand Cru had more of a yellow hue with a funkier nose, while the CrossKeys was lighter with some light brioche.

On the palate the Eric Rodez had more complexity and we found it to be especially well balanced. The CrossKeys was easier drinking; lots of lemon notes. Someone mentioned a tad of vanilla, although it wasn’t from any barrel aging.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #1; liked the depth
  2. Lieven: #1; well balanced and overall drinkability
  3. Lindsay: #2; felt it was easier drinking
  4. Matt: #1, based on the greater complexity
  5. Sarah: #1 enjoyed the brioche notes and the yeastiness
  6. Stephanie: #1; noted the flavor carried through from the beginning to the end

Round 1 / Flight #2:

  • Wine #3: 2016 Trump Blanc de Noir: 5 votes (winner)
  • Wine #4: Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir: 1 vote

Trump Winery’s sparkling shouldn’t need any introduction, as it makes some of the most famous sparklings in the state. You might even argue that its predecessor Patricia Kluge paved the way for local sparkling production in Virginia as she brought in Claude Thibaut (now one of the state’s premiere sparkling producers) as her winemaker.

The Mailley is another of Champagne’s Grand Cru villages. I couldn’t say much about it but hey…champagne!

The coloration of both were extremely close, but the noses were different. The Trump wine had yellow apple on the nose and was a little bready. It also took time to open up, although it never displayed any strong fruit notes.

The Mailly was smoky, and oddly enough seemed to get even smokier as it opened up. It was the drier of the two, although that’s not to say the Trump didn’t seem dry. It initially had a very displeasing cardboard note to it but that dissipated after about 10 minutes. It also had some tartness on the back end.

We felt the bubbles on both dissipated faster than we would have liked.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #3; felt it was more drinkable
  2. Lindsay: #4; once the funk came off, thought it was more complex
  3. Lieven: #3; based on the balance and drinkability.
  4. Matt: #3; I had a tough time choosing between the two and I probably couldn’t give you an exact reason why, but I just liked #3 better
  5. Sarah: #3; also felt it was more drinkable
  6. Stephanie: #3

Round 1 / Flight #3:

  • Keswick Vineyards Amélie: 3 votes (tie)
  • Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut: 3 votes (tie)

Keswick’s sparkling is made with cabernet franc, which is arguably the most versatile red grape in Virginia (as well as its most planted). It’s also available for purchase now (and I think it would make a great Thanksgiving wine).

The Albert Lebrun was different from the other two champagnes in that it was made of pinot meunier, which is usually used in Champagne as a blending grape. While it wasn’t planned, I liked that a cabernet franc and a pinot meunier were paired against one another, as neither style of sparkling is easy to find.

Sadly I didn’t capture as many notes on this round as I wished. I can say that while they both had strong starts, both changed in the glass in even more enjoyable ways as we enjoyed them. The Keswick had a vanilla nose and a palate that changed from vanilla to maybe orange notes. Some also detected a sense of petrol.

The funniest tasting note was someone mentioned that ‘it tasted like a donut’ in that the front and end palates were very enjoyable, but there wasn’t so much in the middle. Those who follow Keswick’s winemaker might laugh at this, since ‘donut’ is one of his favorite tasting phrases.

No notes for the Albert Lebrun, which is sad because this was one of the favorite wines of the night.

I took the votes and…it was a tie! I thought about using my place as host to cast a tie-breaker, but truth was I loved both equally. So I gave Keswick a wildcard and both went to the final round.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #6; thought it was approachable, although he noted the shorter finish
  2. Lieven: #5. Thought #6 was a little rough, while #5 was better balanced.
  3. Lindsay: #5; no particular reason other than she just gravitated towards it. Thought #6 had lots of interesting things going on, though.
  4. Matt: Split vote; ½ point for each; loved both
  5. Sarah: #6. Thought the way #5 presented was ‘circular’ while also weightier, with lots of yellow apple and vanilla. #6 had more brioche-y notes.
  6. Stephanie: Split vote; ½ point for each

Round 2 / Finalist Round

Normally we would have the single ‘best in flight’ wines go to the finalist round, but we enjoyed the third flight so much that we added both to the finalist round.

We tasted them side-by-side and rated them most-to-least favorite.

  1. Alex: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Trump (2 points), Eric Rodez (1 point)
  2. Lieven: Eric Rodez (4 points), Trump (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Albert Lebrun (1 point)
  3. Lindsay: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Eric Rodez (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  4. Matt: Eric Rodez (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  5. Sarah: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Trump (2 points), Keswick (1 point)
  6. Stephanie: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  • Wine #1: Eric Rodez: (17 points)
  • Wine #3: Trump Blanc de Noir (10 points) 
  • Wine #5: Keswick Vineyards Amélie (15 points)
  • Wine #6: Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (18 points; finalist)

So a caveat; we liked ALL of these wines (admittedly I personally wasn’t a fan of #4, but that’s a personal preference). One thing I did find interesting is the favorite ones tended to be some of the less-costly ones. None of them were especially fruity, which is something that often separates Blanc de Noirs from Blanc de Blancs.

In retrospect I might have opened them sooner so these wines had time to open up (I felt the CrossKeys definitely improved the following day). Sadly, my tasting events have a time limit.

So were we surprised that Champagne won? Not at all. That said, it wasn’t a blowout either.

The price point of these Virginia wines were on the whole comparable to these mid-priced Champagnes, and 2 made it to the final round. Two of my group selected the Keswick sparkling as the overall favorite of the night.

As far as I’m concerned, that Virginia was able to hang tough with a comparison to Champagne is a win in itself.