The Art of Champagne Tasting: Thornton Winery

December 19th, 2011

Thornton Winery Sparkling Lineup

By Linda Kissam

I never really understood Champagne until I had the really good stuff. Like most people, I tasted wine at weddings, New Year’s Eve galas, and retirement parties… but just didn’t get what the fuss was all about. The fizzy part was kind of cool, but other than that I just didn’t get it. However, once I understood the art of enjoying premium Champagne’s, the light went on—big time.  I now continue to seek out opportunities that guide my understanding of what Champagne has to offer, which I must say, is not an easy task. There are very few opportunities to taste a lot of Champagne’s side-by-side, even if you are a member of the trade.  As a consumer and even as a wine writer such opportunities are incredibly rare, compared to the relative frequency of opportunities to taste, still wines.

All of which brings me to a Champagne tasting I recently attended at Thornton Winery (Temecula California.) Presented as an opportunity to engage in a guided tasting with winemaker David Vergari this social media outreach event provided an incredible opportunity to taste some of the world’s best Champagnes side by side, poured by one of the world’s most knowledgeable wine expert, and attended by owner John  and Steve Thornton and  nine other press people.  As we went over each sparkling wine, Executive Chef Steve Pickell also presented food pairings so exquisite we all became instant fans.  We all blogged, Tweeted, or wrote on Facebook as we tasted each of the wines.   The give and take of each writer’s opinions, the Thornton’s insightful comments, and Winemaker Vegari’s tutorial brought the tasting to a whole new level of interaction and exchange. More wineries should offer this kind of program.

The wide range of styles, blends, and bottle age produced thought-provoking comparisons that helped the learning along for many of us, especially me, who as I have said has not spent nearly enough time experimenting and learning more about these Méthode Champenoise wines. The best Champagnes and sparkling wines are made by Méthode Champenoise which requires a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This secondary fermentation is accomplished by adding a mixture of sugar and yeast. Quality sparkling wines are usually left on their yeast for several months, even up to six years. The important thing to remember is that secondary fermentation happens in the bottle in quality sparkling wines. If you see the word “charmat” it means the secondary fermentation happened in a large tank, an indicator of a lesser quality wine.
Here is a descriptive line up and approximate prices: 

Thornton 2004 Brut Reserve ($38): Blended from the best individual vineyard lots of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir, this special Cuvée was assembled and finished in 2010. It shows delicate apple and toasted yeast in the nose…and ohhh those lovely fine stream of dancing bubbles certainly enhance the overall tasting experience. Very food friendly.

Thornton Non-Vintage Brut ($24): A blend of chardonnay and Pinot Blanc this wine presents crisp fruit characters including apple, pear and tropical aromas.  A long creamy finish is a bonus.

Thornton Non-Vintage Blanc de Noirs ($24): This is a rich, complex sparkler made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes.  Expect rich melon fruit and nutty yeast characteristics alongside citrus and apple notes.

Thornton 2005 Brut Rosé ($29): A light garnet hue sets the stage for delightful indulgence.  I know you’ll enjoy the complex aromas that conjure up lilacs and wild cherries, ending with a creamy mousse-like finish.  Perfect for the holidays, hostess gifts, or when you want to make a statement about your own exploration of fine Champagnes.

Thornton Non-Vintage Cuvée Rouge ($26): Grapes for the primary cuvée were hand-picked and tank pressed as whole clusters. The term cuvée refers to a blended batch of wines. In Champagne, the large houses create their traditional (and very secret) house-style cuvées by blending various wines before creating the final product via Méthode Champenoise.  Unbelievably good with turkey, ham and lemon desserts.

This tasting left me with three valuable lessons:

 1. Champagne is magic: Use it to pair with any kind of food.  From sweet to spicy, Champagnes make the culinary journey more fun and interesting. As John Thornton told us, “Who could be sad when drinking Champagne?!” And hey, be gentle with removing the cork.  Gently ease it out so that it sounds like an angel’s sigh.

2. Great Champagne is affordable:  Champagne has become more affordable over the years.  Thornton sparklers are beautiful examples of a premium product at an affordable price. Buy it at the winery or online.

3. Champagne, of all wines, is an indulgent everyday treat:  Find the style you like and drink it.  Regularly.  As in every day.  Be adventurous!  Try the Thornton 2004 Brut Reserve ($38) with Chinese food or Thai instead of a Gewürztraminer.

If you are interested in giving yourself a little education when it comes to Champagne, or if you’re educated already and simply want to soak yourself in a few bubbles, then head out to Thornton Winery for a Champagne Flight tasting.  Cost ranges from $12-$17, and you can download a 2 for 1 tasting coupon (good Sunday – Fridays) at http://www.thorntonwine.com/specialoffers.html

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