It's that time of year again ...
There are a few things in life I guess I'll never understand, like crop circles, the media's endless fascination with Michael Jackson, and why on earth everyone waits for New Year's Eve to experience Champagne's joys. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to see a time, any time, when people enjoy the bubbly. But the truth is, Champagne is the single most adaptable wine on the planet. Need the perfect aperitif? How about a wine with shellfish? Or how about something to frame the earthy aromas of truffles? Need a wine to blunt the fire from your favorite Thai or Indian cuisine? Perhaps a gentle companion for a delicate sashimi? Or the perfect wine for chocolate? Champagne even makes a hot dog taste better.
You get the picture. With the exception of a very heavy game or beef dish, Champagne goes with just about every food you can imagine, and it's one of the few wines that actually transform predinner nebbishes into glowing sophisticates.
By the end of our discussion, you'll have enough information and recommendations for top-notch wines to keep you glowingly sophisticated all year round.
Where Do They Make the Best Champagne?
This, of course, is a trick question. The people who live in the Champagne district of France believe that any use of their name to describe a sparkling wine from anywhere else in the world is an act of cultural piracy, and they have been quite active in fighting to keep the purity of the name. While many consumers might see this as a simple intellectual property case, the champenoise are dead serious about protecting their name. And lest you get the impression that this little outpost of law is boring, do a Google on intellectual property and some of the other demarcated foods that have been through this very struggle, like feta, or basmati, or tequila, or Bacardi, or grappa. When people's livelihoods are at stake, the citizens get serious.
So, understand it's not an affectation when we name the wine properly in honor of the French who invented the method that grows the bubbles in a still wine, the process known around the world as méthode traditional. (Old-schoolers say méthode champenoise, but that term became illegal in 2005.)
Therefore, the short answer to the question is this: The best Champagne is made in Champagne. But, there are great sparkling wines made all over the world, and many are better values than those from Champagne.
However, here's the real quandary in the form of a syllogism: All Champagnes are sparkling wines. Not all sparkling wines are good. Yet Champagnes are almost uniformly delicious. When was the last time you tasted a bottle of wine that said "Champagne" that wasn't delicious?
The longer answer to where they make it best is that Spain, Italy, Australia, California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, and even other parts of France make delightful sparkling wines. And all of those places make bad bubbly, as well. We'll help you sort through the good and bad a little later, but first ...
What Makes Those Nice Little Bubbles?
The winemaker creates those tiny, nose-tickling bubbles in one of three ways. The worst, and in most cases guaranteed to give you a one-way ticket to a cranium wreck, is by carbonating a cheap wine. When you see very cheap say, less than $5 sparkling wine, it's likely to be carbonated. In this process, they run carbon dioxide into the wine under pressure until the bubbles are, at least temporarily, mixed into the wine. This is the same process they use to make Coke, only these winemakers generally use something even worse for your body than a soft drink. As usual, as soon as we establish a rule carbonated wine is evil there is a contradiction, and it comes in the form of Sofia from Niebaum Coppola Vineyards, a tasty drink that I can tell you from experience doesn't leave you with the dead head. The reason is, she starts with good wine.
The next process a winemaker might use is called the charmat process. This is like an industrial-sized version of the original. Instead of fermenting in the bottle and trapping the carbon dioxide, the charmat maker uses huge tanks capable of withstanding punishing pressures and allows the wines to absorb the bubbles in bulk. Some very good wines are made this way, and if you have a trusted wine merchant who recommends a charmat-method sparkling wine, it's probably OK.
If the charmat wines are the Toyota Corollas of the wine world, the méthode champenoise, er, traditional, wines are the Ferraris. In these wines, the winemakers seal the bottles securely, and the byproduct of the in-bottle fermentation, carbon dioxide, is trapped and forced to become one with the wine. This is a tedious process, requiring a lot of hand work that probably wouldn't pass muster with OSHA. During the process, the bottles develop an internal pressure three times as high as your car tires!
If you want to really delve into every nook of the world of sparkling wines, from their invention to their perfection, search out a copy of Tom Stevenson's masterful book, World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine: Revised and Updated Edition (Wine Appreciation Guild, $55). While that might sound like a lot of money, one discovery of a great wine makes it all worthwhile.
Which brings up another important question ...
Why Does It Cost So Much?
You can buy perfectly delicious sparkling wines at rock-bottom prices. One of the world's greatest bargains is Gruet Blanc de Noir, a $12 wine from New Mexico that puts most $30 wines to shame. And if you don't mind your bubbles big, both Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington and Korbel in California make excellent wines for even less. Plus, Spain and Italy make delicious inexpensive wines from other, less famous grapes.
But the best stuff is always going to be expensive for three reasons. First, they have to use some of the most persnickety grapes imaginable: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (Note: If the bottle says "Blanc de Blanc," it's all Chardonnay; if it says "Blanc de Noir," it's all Pinot Noir; if it doesn't say either, it's a blend.) These grapes have to be precisely raised to get just the exact amount of acids and sugars to make sure the bottle produces the bubbles, and that takes a great deal of hand work.
The amount of human contact is the second issue that keeps the prices up. Besides all the work in the fields, each individual bottle has to be twisted each day to get the sediment down in the neck, so that it can be popped out toward the end of its life at the winery, and that's a task that no machine can accomplish.
The final cost issue for Champagne is that, by tradition, Champagne is aged in the caves of the maker until it is ready to be drunk. If you buy a bottle of Champagne off the shelf, there is no need to let it age in your closet. Drink it! But the cost of that storage to the maker is extreme: They sometimes keep a wine for five to 10 years before releasing it.
Once you've seen the whole process at work, you might scratch your head and wonder how they get it to us as cheaply as they do.
Picks at Each Price Point
Under $15Gruet Blanc de Noir ($12): A big, bold, gutsy wine with intense aromas and delightful flavors. In a blind tasting, I bet it would beat a bunch of true Champagnes!
Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvée Brut ($10): Chateau Ste. Michelle makes some stellar wines, but when you take a price-to-quality ratio, this is their top wine. Amazing complexity at the price.
Korbel Brut Rosé ($11): Made from Pinot Noir and Gamay. Korbel makes so much wine and has been making it for so long, people forget what great flavors they offer. Chalk it up to owning vast swaths of some of California's best vineyard land.
Zardetto Prosecco Brut ($11): A really nice, easy-to-drink Prosecco with lots of citrusy flavors. This is very close to the perfect aperitif, and you can regularly find it on sale even cheaper than this.
Conti Neri VSAQ Prosecco ($12): Not as well known as Zardetto, but with very creamy, tiny bubbles and a bare hint of sweetness to counteract the Prosecco's natural tartness. Plus, if you buy this, you're supporting a local business that imports the wine from Italy.
$15-$30Piper Sonoma Brut ($18): This is a sparkling wine for those who like some oomph. Its toasty, almost earthy aromas make it a prime candidate for pairing with bread and mushrooms, perhaps with a young Brie on the side.
Montenisa Brut ($26): The Italians are intent on proving they can make premium sparkling wines, and here is one of their best shots across the bows of the champenoise. Made mostly with Chardonnay, this wine is soooo smooth, with lovely green apple aromas.
Chandon Reserve Brut ($25): When you're searching for a dry, crisp, elegant style, this wine is the perfect choice.
$30-$100Bollinger Special Cuvée Champagne ($40): Forced to choose, this would be my favorite Champagne. Put it to your nose, and you get a subtle spicy apple pie. Sip it, and it blankets your mouth with fine, creamy bubbles. Then you notice the taste: rich, complex, touching every iota of your palate. A bargain at twice the price.
Taittinger Brut La Francaise Champagne ($37): Where Bollinger comes on like a 100-piece symphony orchestra, Tattinger has the finesse and style of a string quartet. The complexity and richness are there, but just a bit more quietly.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne ($38): This is a big, burly, rich Champagne, powerful enough to stand up to almost any food you want to throw at it. Try it with a rich dish where the Heidsieck's bracing acidity will cleanse your palate with each sip.Ê
Nicolas Feuillatte Premier Cru Rosé Brut Champagne ($39): The best pink Champagne under $70, with delicious complexity, nice acidity, and a nearly floral aroma.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne ($70): I've never yet met a restaurateur or chef who didn't place this wine at or near the top of their list. The reason: It's a powerful, bone-dry wine that complements and never interferes with food. For the rest of us, it's a toss-up of whether you'll fall more in love with its lovely light red color or its mouth-filling flavors. Even at $70, it's a great value.
$100 and UpA note: At this rarified level, Champagnes become very personal. The easy choices are Dom Perignon and Cristal, because of their widespread availability and name recognition. They are not, in my opinion, the wines to buy. Every Champagne maker with a premium bottling attempts to create a house style that is completely unique. If you have the money and inclination (perhaps you could split a bottle among four people to ease the pain) it's worth occasionally trying one of these ultra-premium wines just for the experience. On the other hand, the increase in quality is asymptotic. The bottles below are some of the greatest wines on earth, but are they five times as good as a bottle of Bollinger? No. So, are they worth five times as much? Only you can decide that. But one thing you can definitely say about these wines: You don't open them to celebrate an occasion; these wines are the occasion.
Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne ($220): Don't let the gorgeous bottle throw you off. This is definitely not a case of a pretty face hiding a boring wine. Instead, the hand-painted flowers are in front of a wine so soft and ephemeral that it seems to simply evaporate in your mouth, leaving only a memory of rich complexity. You must savor this wine quietly to understand it. It's worth the trouble.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($150): Fifty years ago, this was the first ultra-premium Champagne to be 100% Chardonnay, and its makers have used the past five decades to refine it into a masterpiece. The embodiment of elegance.
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Champagne ($190): Churchill was fascinated by Mme. Odette Pol-Roger (1911-2000) and especially enamored of her 1928 vintage wine. She set aside all of the 1928 for him until it was finished off in 1953. From then on, she reserved her finest wines for Churchill. These were Sir Winston's favorite Champagnes. In fact, Mme. Pol-Roger made a specially sized bottle (20 oz., an Imperial Pint, which works out to 80% of a full bottle) just for Churchill. He would have one delivered each morning by his butler when he awoke at 11am. In 1984, the family decided to name their prestige cuvée for the great statesman. The wine is reminiscent of the man: ripe, powerful, mature, yet sophisticated and full of life.
So, When Should I Drink Champagne?
Now! Don't wait, and after the New Year, don't wait for the next. Champagnes and sparkling wines are some of the greatest joys we get from the world of wine. Don't wait for a celebration: Make a celebration.
Madame Bollinger, matriarch of the Champagne house bearing her name, once summed it up perfectly: "I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry, and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it unless I'm thirsty."