Text by Robert Whitley
Given a choice between a bottle of champagne or a sparkling wine from any other corner of the world, most reasonably sane wine enthusiasts would opt for the champagne. Of course they would. It’s more expensive than other bubblies, so it must be better. That’s what the smart crowd thinks.
Champagne’s unique station in the wine culture is so pervasive that even those who know better casually describe all sparkling wine as champagne. For the record, only bubbly produced within the carefully drawn boundaries of the Champagne district in northeastern France can legally be sold as champagne.
Those boundaries are important because they are the main reason that champagne is unique among the world’s sparkling wines and incredibly difficult to impersonate. Champagne wannabes abound. Italy and Spain have a few that come close. So does the United States, particularly in California. Even France has any number of bubblies, typically called cremant, that can be substituted for champagne when a sparkling wine is called for.
What the Champagne district has that other regions don’t is a combination of chalky soils that are said to provide champagne its grip, a unique balance between richness and steely acidity, and a rigid classification of grand cru and premier cru vineyards that so far haven’t been replicated anywhere else in the world.
The finest champagnes have generous amounts of both in the final cuvée. The best champagne houses also hold back reserve stocks from their finest vintages to ensure stylistic consistency and quality in their multi-vintage (non-vintage) blends that are the bulk of champagne production. The reserve stocks are essential to quality control because the cool, wet climate of the region sometimes refuses to cooperate and deliver a harvest that deserves a vintage declaration.
Just as important, the chefs de cave (winemakers) of the Champagne region have remarkable patience. They often age their best vintages eight, nine or 10 years before the wines are disgorged and prepped for sale. Along with the exceptional complexity and overall quality this practice yields, extended aging drives up the cost of production and results in pricing that is higher when compared with other sparkling wines.
As you consider a champagne purchase, know that quality is generally high throughout the Champagne district. That said, there are a few champagne houses that I enthusiastically recommend based on quality, price and availability.
Bruno Paillard: Stylish and elegant, the bubblies from Bruno (one of the great characters of the Champagne region) are impeccably made, generous and still within the “splurge” range of most wine enthusiasts.
Charles Heidsieck: The non-vintage “reserve” is a stunning champagne and shows off the rich, complex style of the house. Its top cuvée, Blanc des Millenaires, is rare because it is only produced in the very best vintages.
Laurent-Perrier: This is renowned for its brut rose champagne, which is my personal favorite. The popularity of the rose, however, overshadows its excellent non-vintage brut and gives that wine something of a value edge.
Moet & Chandon: Champagne’s most famous house, Moet can be found anywhere, and the price is modest compared with that of other top-quality champagne. Top champagne from the Moet lineup is Dom Perignon. Enough said.
Piper-Heidsieck: Once one of the most popular champagnes sold in America, Piper-Heidsieck went through a rough patch when its once-ample reserve stocks were depleted. Piper has rebounded over the past decade, and the quality shines once again. Great value, too. Its top cuvée, Rare, is one of the best of its kind.
Laurent-Perrier, Champagne (France) Cuvée Rose, Brut NV. The Laurent-Perrier has long been my go-to rose champagne, and nothing with the release of this latest cuvée changes that equation. It was aged five years prior to disgorgement, which allows for the development of complexity and nuance, yet retains a freshness that beguiles. Showing vibrant notes of raspberry, strawberry and red currant, a fine mousse and uplifting acidity, the Laurent-Perrier always impresses and never disappoints.
Bruno Paillard, Champagne (France) Rose, Premiere Cuvée NV. This multi-vintage extra-brut rose is classic Paillard, and by that I mean it is the personification of elegance. Add to that the flamboyance of Bruno the man and you have a remarkable champagne with a touch of attitude. For example, the technical sheet for this cuvée simply states that the blend is a first pressing of “mainly” pinot noir. There’s a bit of chardonnay as well, the amount of which “remains secret.” Pale, almost onion skin in color, the premiere cuvée shows subtle red fruits, a fine mousse and astonishing length on the finish.
Nicolas Feuillatte, Champagne (France) ‘Reserve Exclusive’ Brut NV. In the world of non-vintage brut champagne, the Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Exclusive is a tough act to follow when it comes to price. This excellent cuvée delivers aromas of crunchy apple and citrus, shows a delicious note of toasty brioche and exhibits impressive length on the palate. And Nicolas Feuillatte beats just about all the other serious champagne houses on price.