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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Light Snow
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Rating grocery-store Champagnes
A blind taste test brings astounding results

Boozy advent calendars are a thing in Madison this holiday season. I recently sampled Big Gin from Seattle out of a calendar devoted entirely to 24 days of craft gins. I thought, "This is how you win Christmas."

There are whisky calendars floating around as well, and it made me sad there isn't a comparable item for wine aficionados. Although, done poorly, it could mean a month of Sutter Home airplane bottles.

The ultimate liquid advent calendar would, of course, be of Champagne. Your home would transform into the set of Dallas, and you'd be '80s Larry Hagman, though there'd be one bottle instead of the five JR says he drank a day.

The holidays can turn Champagne from a want to a need, and the recommended dosage is a bottle of grower champagne made directly by a producer instead of a giant beverage conglomerate. But what about all those nearly identical-looking brands on store shelves? Which, if any, should you include in your calendar, if you attempt to make one?

To solve this riddle, a few friends and I formed a mutual aid society devoted to tasting as many commonly available champagnes as we could in one sitting, in order to compare and rate them. We suffered in the pursuit of knowledge.

All nine tasters involved are in the beverage industry in Madison — a mix of restaurant owners, distributors and sommeliers. Using the market's invisible hand, we purchased 11 bottles of the commonest Brut Champagnes. (This method left out a few notables; Piper-Heidsieck, Ruinart and Pommery did not appear either because they weren't on shelves or by sheer accident.)

We then bagged the Champagnes, numbered them and tasted three at a time in Riedel flutes. As some brands have recognizable bottle shapes, an independent pourer prevented taste-testers from touching the bottles.

We sampled Henriot, Taittinger, Perrier-Jouët, Roederer, Bollinger, Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Laurent-Perrier and Mumm. All are widely available for around $40, except for Krug, which is $150. Dom Pérignon was not included because it is sold as vintage Champagne, by year, and we wanted to compare non-vintage offerings (typically blends of multiple years).

Each taster had his or her own notes and rating system, but we forced ourselves to rank the Champagnes from best to worst. We then tallied these results to arrive at an overall ranking.

The first thing to note about these commonly available grocery-store champagnes is their remarkable consistency. In a large group they can be almost indistinguishable from each other. There are some variations in mousse — the bubbles — and in texture and color. But for the most part, they are bright and clean and dry, and more often than not extremely pleasurable — as they should be.

The consistency and relatively high quality are a feat of modern technology. This is not plonk. Consumers will get what they expect every time. However, our experiment resulted in a few surprises.

First, there was widespread agreement; all tasters ranked the bottles in roughly the same order.

Second, there was a statistical cliff between the fifth-ranked and the sixth-ranked bottles — that is, the top five bottles showed significantly better than bottom six.

Finally, there was a huge upset. Although the tally was close, Roederer beat out the far more expensive Krug for top spot. Even if Krug had "won," the closeness to its peers could indicate it may not be worth the additional cost.

Our ranking, in order from top to bottom: 1) Roederer, 2) Krug, 3) Pol Roger, 4) Taittinger, 5) Henriot, 6) Bollinger, 7) Veuve Clicquot, 8) Mumm, 9) Laurent-Perrier, 10) Perrier-Jouët, 11) Moët & Chandon.

That Moët & Chandon, the best-selling champagne in the world, placed last was not lost on the tasters. One said it smelled like a stinky armpit.

It is interesting that the widely known Veuve Clicquot placed in the middle. Henriot was a standout; even though it placed fifth, many tasters commented on its lightness and freshness on the palate.

Top-ranking Roederer "fooled" many tasters because it was an outlier. While Krug was rich and weighty, Roederer had uniqueness to it (for instance, I tasted a hint of seaweed, in a good way) that was compelling.

The tasting exercise confirmed that grocery-store Champagnes don't offer remarkable diversity. Or is it remarkable that they can all achieve similarly pleasurable taste and quality? It depends on your point of view. But if we have to argue about it, let's do it over bottles of Roederer and Pol Roger.

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