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Toast 2020's Departure with Some Unique Sparklers
By Rich Cook
Dec 15, 2020
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As we look to the close of what has certainly been the most tumultuous year in recent history no matter where you might be in the world, your thoughts may be further than usual from the annual thought of selecting the perfect bottle to ring in the new year.  I don’t know about you, but in my household, sparkling wine isn’t the only option for the event, but it certainly will be on the menu.  As you look back on the things that popped out as silver linings – the good side of the unexpected consequences of pandemic restrictions, political upheavals, and so forth – take a look at these unique offerings from the world of bubbly, where silver linings and individual character abound.  I’ll throw in a couple of widely available, budget friendly gems as well, in the hope that everyone can locate a toast-worthy bottle or two.

Uniquely Aromatic

2016 Argyle Blanc de Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, $35:  This sparkler announces its singular qualities at the rim with delicate notes of strawberry and sarsaparilla accented by stony minerality.  On the palate, a lively entry has the strawberry mingling with citrus and subtle spice.  It finishes long, with mouth-watering acidity and nuanced complexity.  Argyle has been at this for a while now, and this is one of their best.  94

Uniquely Delicate

2012 Mumm Napa “DVX” Sparkling Wine, Napa Valley, California $70:  It’s been a while since I’ve tasted Mumm Napa’s premium offering.  My loss, no doubt. The 2012 continues the wine’s heritage as a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and as usual, it gets at the best of both worlds.  The nose is delicately yeasty, allowing strawberry, apple and lemon equal billing.  On the palate, a fine mousse helps to translate the aromas into flavors, with a stony mineral streak knitting the delicate flavors together.  The wine sets itself apart from its domestic competition with that delicacy and a little spiced pear note that pops in the finish, and a price that only one of its competitors can beat.  A fitting tribute to founding winemaker Guy Devaux, and a fitting wine for your favorite guests – if you’re in the mood to share.  94

Uniquely Exotic

2015 Sea Smoke Blanc De Noirs “Sea Spray,” Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County, California $80:  More famed for its Pinot Noir, especially since a 2004 movie in which it got a full-screen label shot, Sea Smoke has been quietly making this sparkler for some time, and it’s always got something new to offer.  A fine mousse and mild salmon tinge provide initial attraction, and are followed by aromas of flowers, brioche, quince and a hint of honey.  The crisp palate brings a mix of lime, strawberry and kiwi flavors that mingle in your head with the aroma notes, all finishing together with layered complexity.  If you’re looking to go beyond the average sparkling wine profile, this is custom built for you.  94

Uniquely Lively

2015 Tongue Dancer Brut Rosé, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, California, $70:  Imagine my delight at learning that winemaker James MacPhail decided to take his expertise with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay into the realm of sparkling wine.  Sourced from Ordway’s Valley Foothills Vineyard, it’s a stunning sparkling Rosé composed of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir.  The cool Anderson Valley climate delivers the numbers needed (pH 2.99, TA 8.6 g/l) for shimmering bubbly, and James delivers the rest, with 4 years of lees aging in the bottle before disgorgement and deft blending for layered complexity.  The result is just what you’d expect: a wine alive with acidity, texture and flavor that’s worthy of its branding.  Effervescent strawberry, citrus and stony mineral notes dance across the palate with zesty flash and leave a lasting impression – and a bottle that’s empty too soon.  It’s a very small production effort, so get it on your dance card quickly!  96

Uniquely House Styled

Louis Roederer Champagne “Brut Premier” NV, France $55:  Among the major houses in Champagne, when it comes to the big production non-vintage workhorse, house style is key, and no one delivers more consistency across their portfolio than the house of Roederer.  While I am more familiar with the winery’s California project, once in a while I’ll virtually cross the pond for the heritage offerings.  It’s always a worthwhile trip, and the Brut Premier shows the winery foundation with clarity, balancing apple, pear and toasty brioche on the nose and in the mouth, with freshening acidity pushing the bright flavors through the long lively finish.  From a house founded in 1776, it’s a particularly politically perfect selection if that’s what got the most of your attention in 2020.  Vive l’alliance!  93

Uniquely Age-Worthy

2012 Louis Roederer Champagne Brut Nature “Phillipe Starck” Blanc, France $88:  Here’s a wine that is as tightly wound as you might be after this year’s events.  It’s going to take quite a while for this to fully resolve, but it’s headed for greatness along with the previous vintages.  The collaboration began with the 2006 vintage, bringing a zero dosage wine into the house portfolio for the first time (Brut Zero is enjoying a moment in the sparkling wine world at present, largely thanks to this bottling) and adds a no dosage rosé to the lineup as a partner to this “Blanc.”  Carefully selected fruit from limestone rich sections of top vineyards goes into the cuvée, and it delivers soft yeasty notes along with tart lemon and stone mineral aromas.  On the palate, it’s presently quite tart and stone driven in flavor, and shows the acidic structure for a slow but brilliant unwinding.  This is one of few “birth year” bottles I’d recommend for your progeny’s future college graduation.  Phillipe Starck’s trademark minimalist “democratic design” art label slyly winks and lets you know that the art is really inside the bottle.  Of course, all this doesn’t mean you can’t open it now!    97

Uniquely Unique

2013 Nyetimber Tillington Single Vineyard, England $155:  While sparkling wine production has been going on in England for some time now – Nyetimber has been at it for over thirty years – it’s fairly recently that it has made a splash in the wider world.  True to its heritage, this bottle doesn’t have to shout for your attention – it grabs it in understated fashion and then holds on tight.  A shy, delicate nose of pear, nut and brioche entices, and a fine mousse greets the palate with bright flavors of tart apple, pear and spice with a creamy texture belying vibrant acidity.  Elegantly balanced, it’s just beginning its long life.  My 2020 travel to the region was cancelled, and this virtual trip has me hungry to reschedule.  95

Uniquely Italian

2014 Rotari Rosé, TrentoDOC, Trentino, Italy $20:  This budget-friendly bottle of pink fizz speaks specifically to the region it hails from, with a stone mineral vibe that is unmistakably TrentoDOC.  While the radiant light salmon color and gentle bubbling get you started, think of what mountain elevation purity of water and air would smell and taste like, and you’ll have a good idea of the foundation of this Rosé.  Add tart cherry and interwoven toasty notes to the aroma profile and lemon, strawberry and cherry flavors carried by refreshing acidity, and, well, there you are.  Nice price to boot!  91

Uniquely Assembled

2013 Roederer Estate “L'Ermitage” Anderson Valley, California $55:  Sometimes referred to as “California Cristál” and always a supreme value by comparison, this is a long-time favorite of mine, and I’m happy to report that the ’13 vintage carries on the French parent company’s California tradition that started back in 1989.  This bottling gets about 4% reserve wine in the cuvée, and it provides depth to a creamy glass of bubbles, where a fine mousse carries aromas of brioche, nut and quince, all translating beautifully mid palate on a rich texture that finishes with a toasty apple push.  Once again, among California’s best.  95

Uniquely Undervalued

NV Kirkland Prosecco, Asolo DOCG Superiore, Italy $7:  I don’t know how they do it, but Costco’s all-value-to-the-consumer business model might hit its highest note with this offering.  From a tiny area within the larger Prosecco DOC, Asolo DOCG Superiore produces sparkling wines of class and character, with some bottlings fetching over forty dollars.  This Extra Dry comes in on the dry side of its spectrum, and it delivers pear, nectarine and wet stone aromas that translate nicely on the creamy midpalate, with lingering zesty but soft citrus in the long finish.  If you fancy yourself a bubbly aficionado, you need get your hands on some of this.  It’s fine as a festive sipper, and it upgrades an Aperol Spritz nicely.  My cart usually doesn’t leave the warehouse without two or three bottles.  91

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I hope this column has you thinking of the silver linings that you may have come across in 2020, and how you might continue to celebrate them into the new year.  As always, a little taste of something unique from the world of sparkling wine -- be it from the hills of Champagne, northern reaches of Italy, the Isle of England or the wild west of the USA – can only add to the joy.  May your 2021 be uniquely peppered with silver linings, both in and out of the glass.  Cheers!   

More columns:    Rich Cook
Connect with Rich on Twitter at @RichCookOnWine