It is the time of year that most stores place their Champagnes at the center aisle for New Year’s Eve celebrations. Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate to write a short post about Champagne and some personal favorites I have. Obviously it is daunting to figure out which Champagne to select in a store, as each has its own character, so I have attempted to synthesize my thoughts for the purposes of those interested in buying some bubbles for ringing in the new year as well as a new decade!
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by creating in-bottle secondary fermentation of the wine to effect carbonation. It is produced exclusively within the Champagne region of France (do not let sales representatives or bottles tell you otherwise).
The primary grapes typically used in the production of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine by world renowned wine cirtic Jancis Robinson, Champagne became prominent because of its association with the anointment of French kings during their coronations in Riems, which is a city in the Champagne region most associated with this special wine. Nobility throughout Europe started to drink Champagne because of its association with luxury and power, much like the French Bourbon dynasty. As a result, many Champagne houses attempted to capitalize on this and made sure their special wine would only be associated with high luxury and nobility. Although times have changed since the Bourbon Kings of France were drinking Champagne in Versailles, Champagne has continued to be seen by the mass public as reserved for the most special occasions. Indeed, although it is always a special occasion when drinking Champagne, this reviewer personally believes that people should drink it more often as it is lovely, whether in the morning in mimosa form, and before, during, or after dinner. Any time of day is appropriate for drinking Champagne!
A majority of Champagne produced today is “Non-vintage”, meaning that it is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages. Most of the base will be from a single year vintage with producers blending anywhere from 10-15% (even as high as 40%) of wine from older vintages. If the conditions of a particular vintage are seen as favorable, some producers often make a “Vintage” wine that must be composed of at least 85% of the grapes from vintage year. In the nineteenth century, Champagne was sweeter than the Champagne of today. The trend towards drier Champagne began when Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage prior to exporting it to the London market. The designation Brut Champagne, was actually created for the British in 1876.
As for my personal favorites, I have had the opportunity to try a variety of Champagnes with their own character, some more prominent houses than others.
Moët et Chandon: One of the largest and most famous houses in Champagne, one can never go wrong with Moët. Established in 1743 by Claude Moët, this estate makes more than 26,000,000 bottles of Champagne annually. A family favorite for many years, this is what one of the champagnes that we will be having for our New Year’s Eve celebrations. Classic. (NV: $35)
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin: One of the most prominent houses in Champagne, this wine is known for its distinctively yellow labels as well as its fascinating history. Established in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, Clicquot helped establish Champagne as one of the most sought-after wines among the nobility in Europe during the eighteenth century. In addition to this, Clicquot aided in establishing the modern technique of making Champagne in the nineteenth century. This Champagne is characterized as being quite rich and full with a hint of sweetness. We will be having this Champagne for our New Year’s Eve celebrations as well. (NV Brut: $40).
Pol Roger: One of the few Champagne houses to still be family owned, Pol Roger also has an interesting history, as it was the preferred Champagne of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in which he described the wine as “In victory, deserve it. In defeat, need it!” Pol Roger Brut Vintage is typically a blend of 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir and is known for its light, seductive style in which the bubbles seem to dance off the tongue. A lovely Champagne that this reviewer consistently places as one of his favorites. (NV Brut: $45).
Billecart-Salmon: Also still family owned, Billecart-Salmon has consistently been a winner of many Champagne contests. This wine is lovely on the palate and remains one of my favorites. Having had the opportunity to try their Brut Rosé, which was wonderfully soft without being overly too dry, I immediately fell in love with Billecart-Salmon. That particular wine was undoubtedly the best Rosé wine I have ever had with its delicate pink color as well cherry and strawberry flavors. Highly recommended. This Champagne happens to be a favorite of British wine critic Jancis Robinson as well as American wine critic Robert Parker. (NV Brut Rosé: $75).
Taittinger: One can never go wrong with Taittinger. Truly a classic Champagne. This elegant, dry wine is wonderful before dinner or a party and always sets everyone in the right frame of mind. Recommended for those who are looking for an elegant, refined and a simply classy Champagne. “L’Instant Taittinger!” (NV Brut: $35).
Perrier-Jouët: Beloved by many, Perrier-Jouët is a wonderful Champagne house. Known for its flower bottle, this wine is known for its light and sweet style. To this day, the world’s oldest champagne remains an 1825 Perrier-Jouët, which was opened and tasted in 2009 at a ceremony attended by some of the world’s top wine critics. The Champagne was declared as still tasting well (even better than its younger counterparts) with hints of “truffles and caramel”. (NV Brut $40).
As for recommendations other Champagne houses , I highly recommend reading an article written last week by Eric Asimov, wine critic for The New York Times, “Champagnes Below $40 Regain Pop”.
I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year 2010! Cheers!