It’s that time of the year again to celebrate! Traditionally, Champagne has been the drink of choice for a toast, and here at Gentleman’s Gazette, we thought it would be nice to suggest some names with a good price-pleasure ratio. Good reading and happy holidays!
What Is Champagne?
In technical terms, Champagne is the sparkling wine produced exclusively in a namesake region in the north of France. It undergoes a second fermentation inside the bottle, giving the wine its precious bubbles. Many countries have their own sparkling wines: Cava from Catalonia’s famous Penedès wine region in Spain; Franciacorta from Lombardia, which some consider a serious rival – in quality and prices – to Champagne, made with the same grapes; Brazilian sparkling espumantes, considered by Steven Spurrier (of Decanter magazine) “the best sparkling wine in the Southern Hemisphere”; Sekt from Germany; California sparkling wines, most produced by top French Maisons, just to name a few.
But what makes Champagne great is its aromatic complexity, the aging capacity of vintage cuvées and, of course, the allure of the world’s most loved wine.
With a complex story (unfortunately, too long to be told here), Champagne became the drink for celebrations. Churchill (or was it Napoleon?) quipped, “I could not live without Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”
It is better drunk with a wider glass (like this Riedel Veritas Champagne) than with flutes: the modest girth of the flute does not allow the aromas to develop properly. And it allows the perlage, the fine string of “pearls”, to form in the inner walls of the glass and run vertically to the surface of the wine, where they escape. With Champagne, the bubbles are an additional tasting element (besides color, aromas, and flavor) that you want to preserve. Before swallowing the wine, close your lips and let the bubbles form a foam. Try to chew it with the tongue: the firmer the foam, the better the Champagne.
A vintage or millesimé Champagne is the product of a single harvest (indicated on the label), reflecting the virtues of that crop; a NV or non-vintage Champagne is the result of a blend of many different wines from various crops, and it reflects the style of the Maison that they try to replicate year after year.
Now, take a look at the Champagnes we have selected for you, with options for every budget.
It is not the easiest task to find great bubbly under $100, but a few names come to mind. These bottles deliver great taste, have excellent acidity – one of the most desirable Champagne characteristics – and elegance.
Piper Heidsieck Brut ($50) – With 93 points by Wine Spectator, this Champagne is one of the best buys around. You’ll find citric notes, brioche, flowers, and ripe white fruits in a creamy texture and a full body. It is the blend of over 100 crus, with a majority of Pinot Noirs and a small part of Pinot Meunier from Grande et Petite Montagne de Reims region.
Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée ($ 65) – Even though 007 has chosen other Champagnes in the past, presently his preference goes to Bollinger. Wine Spectator magazine awarded 94 points to this wine, considered full bodied and with good acidity. It is a non-vintage wine, meaning it will be a good portrait of the Maison style.
Roederer Brut Vintage 2008 ($70) – Louis Roederer is one of the last independent and family-run Champagne houses, founded in the same year as the United States of America. Elegant and light, this Champagne reflects perfectly the excellent vintage of 2008. It may benefit from a few more years of bottle aging, thanks to its structure.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ($80) – With a medium to full body, red fruits, and a mineral touch, this is one of my favorite rosé Champagnes. The Maison, founded in 1818, is also independent and family-run, with its directors belonging to the 6th generation. Try it with lobster medallions and see if it deserves the 95 points bestowed by James Suckling.
Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut ($85) – Some say that a company’s age is a good sign of quality, and Gosset – established in 1584 – certainly endorses this saying. In their caves at Épernay, one of Champagne main production centers, they produce this Blanc de Blancs (meaning that it was made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes) with floral notes, apricot, and plum, besides a refreshing citrus flavor.
Ruinart Rose NV ($94) – Ruinart was the first to sell rosé Champagne – precisely on March 14, 1764, according to the historians at the Maison. Founded in 1729, it was also the first wine producer to sell exclusively Champagne – “wine with bubbles”, as the company ledgers state. It will deliver red fruits like cherry and strawberry, as well as brioche notes.
Here you will find many tête de cuvée, the prestige wines of each Champagne Maison. Limited production, great care in grape and vineyard selection, and more often than not, a long period over the lees – the solid residues of the yeasts that provoked the second fermentation and the bubbles – are the reasons for a higher price.
Billecart Salmon Nicolas Francois Billecart Cuvee 1999 ($140) – A medium-bodied Champagne produced with Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs and Pinot Noir from Montagne de Reims, rendering tribute to the founder of the Maison. We find lightly toasted almonds, pear pie, dried dates, and a floral touch. It will be at its best if drunk now.
Piper Heidsieck Rare, Vintage 2002 ($150) – This Brut Champagne deserved 97 points from Wine Spectator, one of their highest ratings for a sparkling wine, very close to the 98 points given to the Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 (selling for $2400 each). In WS comments, we find it “impeccably balanced and silky, with finely honed acidity shaping the expansive flavors of toasted brioche, crushed blackberry, lemon preserves and honey, revealing hints of Frangelico liqueur and smoked nut.”
Krug Grand Cuvée ($170) – Before you ask, the French Maison and California’s Charles Krug families are not related – not that we know of. This Champagne is the entry-level label of the brand, but don’t let this fact mislead you. Krug itself is a premium producer, and this Grand Cuvée is a product of some 120 wines from 10 vintages or more, a full-bodied wine, with white flowers, pears, and a lengthy finish.
Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle ($180) – Founded in 1812, the Maison produces this Grand Siècle label since 1959: it is the first cuvée prestige made with a blend of three exceptional vintages (previously, every prestige Champagne was made with wines from the same year). It is a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, with toasted almonds, honey, hazelnuts, and brioche to the nose: a great companion for a refined dinner.
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2002 ($210) – Some say that the greatest Briton drank 42,000 bottles of Champagne between 1908 and his death in 1965. Ever the master in the art of living well – and also, well beyond his means! –, Churchill was a good friend of Mme. Odette Pol-Roger, whom he met in a party in 1944, but her Champagne had been his favorite for a long time. In 1984, the Maison created the Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, with a majority of Pinot Noir: its brioche and white fruit aromas produce an elegant wine.
Louis Roederer Cristal ($220) – Any best Champagne list would be incomplete without the wine created for a king – or better, for the Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Arguably one of the first prestige Champagnes – Decanter magazine mentions that the title should go to Dom Pérignon 1921, launched in 1936 – its bottle is clear (originally it was made of crystal, thus its name) and has a flat bottom, all to differentiate this wine from the Champagnes drunk by the Tsar subjects. A comment found in the website www.champagneclub.com says that “The wine is made since 1970 solely in stainless steel tanks with grapes from their own vineyards in Aÿ, Verenay, Verzyand and Cumiéres, mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Avize and Mesnil. Its style is ultrasophisticated with a wild silky softness in combination with nutty fireworks backed by exotic fruitiness in a caramel filled body.”
Dom Pérignon P2 Brut 1998 ($360) – The “P2” stands for Plénitude Deuxième, the “second plenitude” of the wine. The concept, according to the Maison Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy, is a series of stages during the wine’s development on its lees which, once it is disgorged (depleted of the sediments), can represent ” different expressions of the same vintage”. In this case, we are talking about 12 years over the lees. Its tasting notes are honeysuckle, orange-colored fruits, and toasted almonds; its creamy chewiness is followed by a smoky, full energy finish.
All we said about the second range Champagnes is present in this selection, but in an even more refined, precise way.
Moët MCIII – ($470) – Mixing traditional and futuristic elements, Moët & Chandon – the “M” in LVMH – created the MCIII, where MC stands for the Maison name and the Roman number 3 suggests the production process: a Grand Cru vintage Champagne is blended with unoaked and oaked still wines. Its aroma palate brings up candied citrus fruits, plums, nectarines, dried figs and dates, vanilla and nutmeg. A promising new star in the Champagne firmament and the Maison’s tête de cuvée.
Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil, 2006 ($530) – Salon is a single cru Champagne, produced with a single grape: Chardonnay. The Maison has a parcel with 2.48 acres, “Le Jardin de Salon”, as well as other 19 small parcels in Mesnil-sur-Oger, a grand cru of the Côte des Blancs terroir. Its aromas evoke white flowers, citrus zest, brioche, fresh hazelnuts, and more, with an incredible complexity but fine acidity, enabling it to age for 25-30 years. Wine Enthusiast gave it the rare note of 100 points.
It’s fair to question if a Champagne warrants such a price, but we could not resist. Originally, we thought of limiting our selection to Champagnes up to $1000, but there are two exceptions which forcefully represent, in our opinion, what makes Champagne such a prized wine.
Krug Clos du Mesnil ($1300) – The grapes (Chardonnay) for this Blanc de Blancs come from a tiny vineyard of 4.5 acres in the center of Mesnil-sur-Oger, enclosed (thus the “Clos”) by a wall since 1698. The 2000 vintage spent 10 years in the cellars and has notes such as gingerbread, candied lemon rind, vanilla, and heliotrope, with a long and lasting finish. The critics gave it 94 (Robert Parker) and 97 points (Wine Spectator). Think grilled giant prawns or lobster salad with citrus fruits to go with it.
Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 ($2400) – When Krug decided to create a Champagne with the best Pinot Noir grapes, they searched Ambonnay, a grand cru that already supplied Krug. In 1991, they found a walled parcel on the south-eastern slope of the Montagne de Reims with only 1.68 acres. Its walls are a little newer than Clos du Mesnil’s, dating from 1766. The first vintage of Clos d’Ambonnay (1995) was released in 2007. The bottles age for over 12 years and due to the small size of the vineyard, production is also small (5,000 bottles). This Champagne shows aromas of apples, toffee, nuts, toasted bread, with a creamy mousse and long finish.
Champagne can often be a serious investment, but a great bottle is warranted on special occasions! What bottles have you encountered at various price points that have exceeded your expectations?