It’s December, the one month of the year that Champagne houses make about half of their yearly sales--at least in the U.S, with all the parties, Christmas, and of course, New Year’s Eve. Even in our current economic climate, lots of Champagne will be sold.
And yet I’ve always been a bit dismayed that the two largest Champagne houses, Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, claim the lion’s share of Champagne sales in the U.S. Not that there’s anything wrong with Moët or Veuve Clicquot, but it’s almost as if wine buyers are not aware of other Champagnes, or perhaps they don’t know how good other Champagnes can be. Perhaps, when it comes to Champagne, Americans simply don’t trust what they don’t know. This is a bit odd, since consumers will certainly try different red or white wines. But when it comes to bubbly, they’re extra cautious.
In the hope that you may be willing to strike out in search of excellence beyond the big brands this year, here are profiles of 12 excellent, smaller Champagne houses which I believe do not receive the recognition they deserve in the U.S.-- and all are nationally available. In no particular order, they are Henriot, Deutz, Charles Heidsieck, Ayala, Alfred Gratien, Philipponnat, Bruno Pailliard, Jacquesson, Delamotte, Gosset, Louis Roederer, and Pol Roger.
The small, excellent house of Henriot specializes in dry, elegant, light to-medium-bodied Champagnes. Henriot has a long history in France; it was founded by one of the many famous widows of the Champagne region, Apolline Henriot, in 1808. Henriot has always had a successful following in Europe, but until recently, it has practically been unknown in the U.S, mainly because Henriot had chosen not to compete in the difficult American market. Just five years ago, Joseph Henriot, a very successful businessman who owns several top wineries in Burgundy, handed over the reins of Champagne Henriot to his son, Stanislas Henriot, who has made it a priority to sell the family Champagne in the U.S., fortunately for us! I am a fan of all of Henriot’s stylish Champagnes, but my particular favorites of its current offerings in the U.S. are the Blanc Souverain (non vintage Blanc de Blancs); the 1996 Brut Millésimé (one of the few houses which still has the magnificent 1996 vintage available); and Henriot’s exquisite prestige cuvée, the 1995 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs (with the 1996 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs about to be released!).
Deutz is another small house (owned by Louis Roederer) that is just not well-known in the U.S., but ought to be. Well-respected in France, Deutz has been unable to make an impact here, which is a mystery to me. Its Classic NV Brut is always reliable: medium-bodied, fairly dry, with a creamy texture, and a nice zip of lemon on the finish. Deutz’s Vintage Blanc de Blancs is even better, always superb, one of the best Blanc de Blancs being made, in my opinion. It’s complexly flavored and lively, with delicious lemony notes (The current vintage of Deutz Blanc de Blancs is the excellent 2002). Deutz’s two prestige cuvées, Cuvée William Deutz and the exquisite Cuvée William Deutz Rosé, are superb--two of the greatest Champagnes around today. They are powerful and complex, and both age extremely well. Very little of the William Deutz Rosé is made, but it’s definitely worth the search to find it.
Charles Heidsieck, smaller in size than its more well-known sibling, Piper-Heidsieck (both are owned by Rémy-Cointreau of Rémy Martin Cognac fame), is what I call the “insiders Champagne.” Everyone that I know in the wine business who knows anything about Champagne is a big fan of Charles Heidsieck, for good reason. Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve is my “go-to” non-vintage brut: it’s powerful, rich, nutty, biscuity, and well-priced! One of its secrets is that about 40 percent of older reserve wines from up to eight different vintages goes into the Brut Réserve blend. Forty percent is an extraordinarily high percentage of older wines (most houses use 10 to 20 percent); only Krug, which is three times the price of Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve, uses that much older reserve wines in its NV Grand Cuvée. Also, Charles Heidsieck’s Vintage Brut is consistently fine, always powerful and lively. And its currently available prestige cuvée, the 1995 Blanc des Millénaires (a blanc de blancs), is an awesome wine that gets better with time.
If you haven’t heard of Champagne Ayala, I’m not surprised. This small house was not on the U.S. market for a while. It was recently purchased by the very respected Champagne Bollinger, and is now back in the U.S., with its own unique, stylish Champagnes--really the opposite of the powerful, biscuity Bollinger. Ayala’s specialty is very dry, light-bodied Champagnes. In fact, they are champions of “Brut Nature” Champagnes--bubblies made with absolutely no dosage (residual sugar) in the blend; they’re also known as Brut Zero Champagnes. The Ayala Champagnes that are not made as Brut Natures use an extremely small dosage, making Ayala Champagnes some of the driest available. Ayala’s current Blanc de Blancs, the 2000, is a personal favorite. I thought so highly of Ayala’s Cuvée Rosé Nature-- possibly the only Brut Zero Rosé Champagne in the U.S.--that I made it my “Wine of the Year” a couple of years ago for Wine Review Online. Ayala has two prestige cuvees as well, Cuvée Perle d’Ayala (with very low dosage), and L’Perle d’Ayala Nature.
Alfred Gratien is a small, traditional Champagne House that is really flying under the radar in the U.S. One reason is its tiny size. One of the smallest Champagne houses, Alfred Gratien produces only about 12,500 cases (150,000 bottles) of Champagne annually. There are a few Grower-Champagnes that are bigger than that! Alfred Gratien’s cellar master, Nicolas Jaeger, is the fourth generation of Jaegers making Gratien Champagne. The style is full-bodied, dry, and biscuity; all base wines are aged in old oak barrels, and the Champagnes are hand-riddled, very similar, in fact, to the great Champagne Krug. I have consumed 30-year-old Alfred Gratien Champagnes, from the mid-1970s, and all were in superb shape. I happily recommend Alfred Gratien’s non-vintage Brut Classique, and its two excellent prestige cuvées, Cuvée Paradis and Cuvée Paradis Rosé.
Philipponnat is another small Champagne house (about 40,000 cases annually) that is practically unknown in the U.S. But I can assure you that Champagne connoisseurs know it, because Philipponnat produces one of the greatest of all prestige cuvees, the single-vineyard Clos des Goisses. Possibly the best move that founder Pierre Philipponnat ever made in his wine life was to purchase this prized vineyard on the banks of the Marne River in 1935. The grapes from this vineyard, 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay, face due south, soaking in all the necessary sunshine. Because they are fully ripe in vintage years, the winemaker never needs to add a dosage to Clos des Goisses! Full-bodied, dry, and complexly flavored, Clos des Goisses needs time to develop, and is usually fully mature 15 to 20 years from the vintage date. The exquisite 1996 Clos des Goisses, arguably the best Champagne of an extraordinary vintage, needs many more years to reach its peak of flavor development. Meanwhile, enjoy Philipponnat’s well-priced NV Royal Réserve Brut, or better yet, its blanc de blancs, the 1999 Grand Blanc Brut.
Philipponnat is now owned by the BCC Champagne group, whose CEO is the brilliant Bruno Pailliard. Monsieur Pailliard has his own house, Champagne Bruno Pailliard, always one of my favorites. Its style is fantastic: light-bodied, fresh, delicate, very dry, and elegant. It’s a Champagne you never get tired of drinking, and your best choice for an apéritif Champagne. Pailliard makes all of his Champagnes in stainless steel; he doesn’t believe in using oak. A small house, Pailliard produces about 45,000 cases a year. Although I enjoy all of Pailliard’s Champagnes, my favorite is his Blanc de Blancs Réserve Privée. It is just so delicate, ethereal, dry, and crisp!
Jacquesson is another small, traditional House, producing only about 25,000 cases annually. Jacquesson shares many characteristics with Krug (except its house style): both houses are small, making traditional Champagnes mainly by hand, and both houses ferment their wines in old oak casks. Both houses stress aging capacity in their Champagnes, and both make very dry Champagnes, with as little dosage as possible. But whereas Krug makes powerful, full-bodied Champagnes, Jacquesson produces light-bodied, elegant, complex bubblies with a strong emphasis on Chardonnay in its blends. Jacquesson numbers its non-vintage bruts each year--the currently available one is Brut Cuvée 733. It also makes a very affordable blanc de blancs prestige cuvée called Grand Cuvée Avize Extra Brut; the current vintage is the 2000.
Delamotte Champagne and its sister House, the super small Salon (which only makes Vintage blanc de blancs prestige cuvées, and only in top years) are both owned by the huge Laurent-Perrier House, but Laurent-Perrier allows them to operate completely independently. Both Delamotte and Salon are located in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, in the heart of the esteemed Côte des Blancs. Needless to say, Delamotte produces exquisite Blanc de Blancs, both Vintage and non-vintage. But Delamotte is also making one of my very favorite dry Rosés, with undeniable aromas and flavors of fresh strawberries.
Gosset has long been one of my favorite Champagne houses. A very old firm, Gosset produces full-bodied, dry, complexly-flavored Champagnes that combine the power of the Pinot Noir from its home village, Aÿ, with the elegance and finesse of Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs. With the exception of its basic non-vintage Brut Excellence, all of Gosset’s Champagnes are made from grapes of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. One of my very favorite Champagnes, almost a “house” Champagne for me, is Gosset’s NV Grande Réserve Brut, made from half Grand Cru and half Premier Cru grapes. This powerful, rich, biscuity Champagne is really on the level of many prestige cuvées, but at a distinctly lower price. On the other hand, Gosset’s three prestige cuvées, all made with 100 percent Grand Cru grapes, Célébris Extra Brut, Célébris Extra Brut Rosé, and its newest, Célébris Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, are more delicately flavored, stressing finesse rather than power. The 1998 Célébris Extra Brut, 55 percent Chardonnay and 45 percent Pinot Noir, is an excellent apéritif Champagne. The 2003 Célébris Extra Brut Rosé follows the same formula, with added still Pinot Noir wine for color. Ironically, the Célébris Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, made as a non-vintage Champagne and a blend of the 1995, 1996,1998, and 1999 vintages, is the fullest-bodied of the three.
I hesitated to include Champagne Louis Roederer in my list of little-known but excellent Champagne Houses, because Roederer produces one of the world’s best-known Champagnes, the incomparable Cristal. But like Moët’s Dom Pérignon, Cristal has a life of its own, and I suspect that most people who buy Cristal don’t even know it’s made by Champagne Louis Roederer. (Also, Champagne Roederer owns one of California’s most acclaimed sparkling bruts, Roederer Estate.) The fact remains that Champagne Louis Roederer’s other Champagnes, besides Cristal, are not really well-known. Roederer is an extremely well-run, medium-sized house whose own vineyards supply over 70 percent of the grapes it uses, giving it an independence that other houses envy. Louis Roederer’s Champagnes (with the exception of Cristal) are full-bodied and rich, plus they are long agers. Conversely, Cristal is subtle, refined, and complex; it not only ages extremely well, but in fact it also demands at least 15 to 20 years before it really develops its full potential. If you’re looking for a full-bodied, richly flavored NV Champagne, Louis Roederer Brut Premier is for you. Likewise, its Vintage Brut, Vintage Blanc de Blancs, and Vintage Rosé are all powerfully made Champagnes.
Pol Roger is a Champagne house that I have an emotional attachment to, because some of the greatest old Vintage Champagnes that I’ve been fortunate enough to drink (1900, 1914, 1921, and 1928) have been Pol Roger Champagnes. Also, Christian Pol-Roger, who recently retired, is one of the finest gentlemen that I’ve ever met in the wine business. Pol Roger remains what it has always been: a fairly small, family-owned house. Its extremely cold wine cellars undoubtedly contribute to the great longevity of its wines. All of its Champagnes are fine, but my favorites are its Vintage Blanc de Blancs (look for the 1999) and Pol Roger’s dry, powerful prestige cuvee, the Pinot Noir-dominated Sir Winston Churchill, named after the winery’s most famous customer. The current vintage of SWC is the excellent 1998; the 1996 Sir Winston Churchill is sublime, but will be difficult to find at this point. Also, look for Pol Roger’s newest Champagne, its “Pure” Zero Dosage.
The above 12 Champagne Houses have in common their excellence, size (all small to medium-sized), and lack of recognition on the U.S. market. And yet two very large Champagne houses, Laurent-Perrier and Pommery, also have a quiet presence in this country. They both make some excellent, lighter-bodied Champagnes. Laurent-Perrier was one of the first houses to produce a Champagne without dosage--its Ultra Brut--before Brut Zeros became a current fashion. Its prestige cuvee, Grand Siècle, an elegant, long-lived Champagne, is always made from a blend of three good vintages.
Pommery is also producing some fine Champagnes, including a super non-vintage Brut called Apanage. Its just-released 1999 Vintage Brut is excellent, fresh and lively. Pommery’s finest Champagne is its delicately-flavored Cuvée Louise. The current 1998 Louise is about to be replaced by the very fine 1999. Finest of all is the superb 1996 Cuvée Louise, a Champagne to seek out.