Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne (AOC) region of France. Some of the most famous wineries in the world are located there. They deserve their fame for consistently producing some of the most ethereal wines anywhere. These wines can be expensive so it is important to have a strategy in mind when making purchases.
To learn the history of Champagne, the region and the developments in Champagne, please see Part One of this series.
One issue with buying Champagne is storage. Champagne is delicate and improper storage can easily hurt the wine. When a consumer sees a bottle either in a store or on a restaurant’s list, how do they know what condition the bottle is in. Of course, in a restaurant setting, the patron, if they have enough confidence, can send the bottle back, although that is not always easy to do.
In the case of vintage wines, the consumer at least has some idea when the bottle was likely released. With non-vintage wines, however, how does a consumer know how long the wine has been sitting in the wine shop or restaurant? Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell. If the store is too warm or the bottle is under bright lights that can be an issue.
One method is to look for the European Union Lot number. The last two digits of the year the wine was released are often in this number. The best solution, however, is to buy from a trusted merchant and one that has high turnover.
There are quite a few producers of Champagnes with many different business configurations. It helps to know the structure of the producer.
Champagne is produced by large Nègociants who buy grapes from many different farmers and make their own wines usually in very large quantities. Sometimes, these Nègociants may also own some of their own vineyards.
At the other end of the spectrum are the “Grower” Champagnes. These are individual farmers who have taken to making and bottling their own wines.
In recent years, this has become more common as importers such as Terry Thiese have been discovering and marketing these vignerons. Some of them are excellent and they represent real value to the consumer at what typically are lower prices.
The label will indicate the status of the producer:
NM, Négociant manipulant, includes the large Champagne houses that buy grapes from individual growers and make the wine.
CM, Coopérative de manipulation, are co-ops whose members are the growers and the grapes are pooled together under the name of the Co-op.
RM, Récoltant manipulant, is one of the fastest rising producer groups of Champagne. These are also known as Grower Champagnes because the vineyard owner uses their own grapes and bottle under their own winery name.
SR, Société de récoltants, are growers who band together but are not officially a co-op.
RC, Récoltant coopérateur, are members of a co-op selling under their own label.
MA, Marque auxiliaire, are those wine made for another label such as a restaurant or supermarket chain.
ND, Négociant distributeur, are wine merchants with their own private label.
If you drink enough Champagne you will probably develop preferences based on house style and how much money you want to spend.
For non-vintage dated Champagne I enjoy a few different houses. Egly-Ouriet makes one of my favorites. It runs around $50 and can be drunk right away but will improve if aged in a cellar for a few years. Duval Leroy makes a very good non-vintage wine at a fair price. Its “Paris” bottlings has a Leroy Nieman designed, gold etched art bottle that is very good, which for around $35 makes a great holiday gift. Finally, any time I see Terry Thiese’s name on a bottle, I trust that the wine inside will be good.
Moet & Chandon is one of the largest producers of Champagne. They make wines at a variety of price points from the ubiquitous White Star for around $30 to the luxury Dom Perignon. I find them to all be very nice.
Dom Perignon may be the most famous luxury Champagne. The shield shaped label is often spotted in movies and on television. Some may deride it, but I find it to be excellent. It is seemingly available everywhere and that is one of its strengths. I don’t think there is another wine, made at this quality that is also made in this quantity. Exact figures are unknown, but there seem to be millions of bottles made and each one is consistent and excellent. With a bit of shopping it can be found for around $110.
Charles Heidsieck makes a variety of Champagnes at different price levels. Their Mis en Cave series are non-vintage wines, but they carry the date of disgorgement on the label. This is not the year the grapes were grown but the date the final wine was put into bottle. Usually available for under $50, the date is nice because it gives you some idea of the age of the bottle.
One of my favorite producers is Billecart-Salmon. They make a very nice non-vintage Brut. The Blanc de Blanc and Brut Rose are even a bit better. While their vintage designated wines are all very good, their prestige cuvee Elizabeth Salmon is fantastic. It is a Rosé wine that can age easily for ten years or longer.
Another favorite house of mine is Henriot. This venerable house is a Nègociant while they also grow a portion of their own grapes. The non-vintage is very good and available for around $50. They also make a vintage and prestige cuvee. The Enchanteleurs is one of my favorite prestige cuvees although I have not seen it since the 1995 vintage.
Pol Roger makes very good Champagne. Their regular non-vintage is good and priced reasonably at around $40. They make a very good vintage Champagne that was supposedly Winston Churchill’s favorite. So much so that they named their luxury cuvee Winston Churchill after him. It is quite good but the price has skyrocketed in recent years now costing around $200 a bottle.
Bollinger is one of the grand Champagne houses. They make a variety of different wines. I have not been a fan (for the money) of their non-vintage wines, but I love their Grand Annèe vintage dated Brut (both Rosé and regular versions). In 2003, the vintage was so atypical that they could not achieve a house style and released a wine called 2003 by Bollinger. It was interesting and I applaud them for trying something different. The wine was very good; although I am not sure it was worth its plus $100 price tag.
No discussion of Champagne would be complete without discussing Krug. This large house makes some of the best Champagne. Their non-vintage wine, called the Grande Cuvee, is better than most vintage dated Champagne. At around $120 a bottle it is priced like that too. The Krug vintage Champagne is always one of the best around, and costs over $300 a bottle.
Krug also makes two super luxury wines from single vineyards. The Clos du Mesnil is a Blanc de Blanc from a walled-in vineyard that may be the best Champagne has to offer. I have only had a taste once and found it to be stunning in complexity and length. At $1,000 or more a bottle, I am not expecting to have a second taste.
Krug has recently introduced an even rarer wine called Clos d’Ambonnay. Krug doesn’t seem to even try to sell this as being better than the Mesnil. Rather, they sell it on rarity. And it seems to work as it gets $3,500 a bottle and only from Krug’s best customers. Krug Champagne is iconic. It is worth trying it, at least once, at whatever level you can afford.
Finally, I want to mention Salon. They make my favorite Champagne in the world. Unfortunately, the world has caught on and its Blanc de Blancs is now recognized as such and priced accordingly. It routinely sells for $300 a bottle or more now. This is a bottle that needs to be cellared for a few years, but can last for twenty years with no change.
There are many more Champagne houses that make great wines. J. LaSalle, Montaudon, Nicholas Feuillatte, Perrier-Jouët, Pierre Peters, Pommery (especially the Cuvee Louise), Louis Roederer (makers of the famous Cristal), Ruinart, Tatinger, and Veuve Clicquot are just some of them.
Ideally, vintage Champagnes are only made in good years. Therefore, any vintage Champagne should be excellent. Some years are better than others and there is a clear difference in vintages. Right now, the 2002’s are coming to market and that was a very good vintage. I have perhaps under rated it a bit in the Champagne Vintage Chart.
Good vintage Champagne will age very well for a dozen years. After that, it will continue to age but it will change. The wine starts to lose it bubbles and gets a bit of an oxidative quality. Many people love older Champagne although it is an acquired taste.
The popping of a Champagne cork is closely identified with celebrations. This notoriety is proving to be a double edged sword. Sales of Champagne are cyclical. During good economic times, people will pay more for a bottle of wine and have more celebrations at which Champagne is bought. Of course, as the economy goes thru good and bad times, so does the fate of Champagne.
This is unfortunate because Champagne may be the most underrated wine when talking about food pairings. It really is quite versatile and goes with almost anything. It is obviously great as an aperitif, it also goes well with seafood, pork, chicken and is even surprisingly good with meats.
This holiday season and in fact, all year round, I hope you try some Champagne at all levels. It’s great to raise a toast for celebrations, but just as great to share with family and friends for no reason at all. I would love to hear about your experiences.