I love Champagne. It is the one wine that I consistently buy, despite the fact that I own enough to last for a while. If I were to list all the Champagnes that I enjoy drinking, this column would be endless. And so, I have limited my list to six producers, plus three Honorable Mentions:
Krug is the Champagne that converted me into a Champagne lover. Before I first tasted Krug (several decades ago), I was naïve enough to think that all Champagnes were pretty much the same. But one day, a legendary New York wine shop proprietor, Bernie Fradin of Quality House, let me taste Krug Private Cuvée, the predecessor of today’s Grande Cuvée. What a magic moment that was! Many of my friends have told me that Krug is their favorite Champagne, and I completely understand that. If you prefer a rich, full-bodied, complex Champagne that can age for decades, Krug is for you. Krug is now part of the Moët-Hennessy empire, but is run independently in Reims. Is it expensive? Of course it is! You don’t get this extremely high quality in a bottle without paying for it. All of Krug’s Champagnes are superb. Here is a list of Krug’s Champagnes and their approximate retail prices:
Krug Grande Cuvée, 168th edition
($175): The Grande Cuvée is the biggest-production Krug; it is numbered so that you have an idea of its age; the 168th is the current edition (Number One dates back to Krug’s founding in 1843; the numbering of Grand Cuvées started with the 158th edition). Krug does not reveal how many bottles it makes in an average Grand Cuvée edition, but it is a limited amount, compared to the production of other major Champagne houses. Don’t dare to call the Grande Cuvée a non-vintage blend with a Krug lover present. Krug’s preferred term is “Multi-Vintage.” It is made from a blend of over 120 wines from ten or more vintages, some aged for up to fifteen years, with a multi-vintage blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. It is then aged for a minimum of six years, acquiring an impressive golden hue. I have cellared a few Grande Cuvées for15 to 20 years, and they typically improve with aging. Half-bottles of Krug Grande Cuvée retail for $80 to $90.
Krug But Rosé
($350): Made in the classic Krug style, Krug’s NV Rosé is arguably the most full-bodied Rosé Champagne produced. The conservative Krug house released its first Krug Rosé in 1983, many years after almost all other Champagne houses had been selling their Rosés. Krug Rosé is made from a blend of several Krug vintages plus still Pinot Noir wine that provides the color, and is aged for a minimum of five years in Krug’s cellars before it is released. I love it, but some Rosé fans find it too full-bodied. Half-bottles of Krug Rosé retail for $150.
Krug Vintage Brut 2006
($275/$300): The latest-available version of Vintage Krug is the 2006; Vintage Krug is kept in Krug’s cellars for at least ten years before being released. Vintage Krugs are always magnificent, especially in great vintages, such as 1996 (the few 1996s that are available in the U.S. retail for $600 to $700 today). I have never tasted a Vintage Krug Champagne that was too old; they seem to live indefinitely. Once, many years ago, I found a 1975 Krug at a very reasonable price at a small restaurant in France (Vintage Krug was not available in the U.S. at that time). The 1975 was so good that we ordered a second bottle, much to the proprietor’s consternation. Vintage Krugs are so complex and delicious. The greatest Champagne that I ever drank was a 1928 Krug, acquired from Remi Krug at his cellar in Reims many years ago.
Champagne Krug began holding back certain exceptional vintages of Krug in its cellars starting with the 1989 vintage, which they released before their 1988; the ‘88 was a more austere vintage, needing extra time. Krug Collection Champagnes are a great idea, because they allow the wine lover to purchase a Vintage Krug that is ready to drink. The current Krug Collection Champagne available retail, the 1990, retails for $700 to $800. Krug Collection Champagnes date back to 1959, with a tiny bit from 1949. Perfect for birthday and anniversary celebrations.
Krug Clos du Mesnil 2004
($1,000 /$1100): Krug introduced its Vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagne—100 percent Chardonnay— from a single-walled vineyard (clos) in the 1980s with its first vintage, the 1979. The vineyard is located in the village of Clos du Mesnil in the Côte des Blancs region of Champagne. For me, Krug Clos du Mesnil is the best Champagne being made today. It is so rich, complex, and voluptuous that it must be experienced at least once by Champagne lovers. I actually used to buy Clos du Mesnil in the 1980s when the price was fairly reasonable. Krug ages its Clos du Mesnil Champagnes for well over a decade before being released.
Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 2002
($2400/$2500): Krug introduced its first single-vineyard Blanc de Noirs Champagne, 100 percent Pinot Noir, with its 1995 vintage; Krug has released only five vintages of Clos d’Ambonnay so far, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002. Its high price is a reflection of the scarcity of this Blanc de Noirs Champagne, grown in a small vineyard in the village of Ambonnay, in the heart of the Montagne de Reims, the major Pinot Noir region in Champagne. Krug ages its Blanc de Noir Champagne for over 12 years in its cellars. As exquisite and powerful as Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay is, I actually prefer its Clos du Mesnil.
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Champagne Louis Roederer
Louis Roederer is an outstanding, privately owned Champagne House in Reims, best-known for its renowned tête de cuvée, Cristal. But its entire lineup of Champagnes is excellent, under the guidance of its outstanding Cellar Master, Jean-Baptiste Lécaiillon. Founded in 1776, Louis Roederer is a medium-sized House, producing 3.5 million bottles of Champagne annually. In addition to Cristal and Cristal Rosé, I am a particular fan of two of Roederer’s other Champagnes:
Louis Roederer Cristal 2012
($250/$260): There is a sublime elegance in Cristal that cannot be found in any other Champagnes. When you drink Cristal, you know you are tasting something very special; in the words of Lécaillon, Cristal is “both powerful and delicate, combining subtlety and precision.” Louis Roederer releases its Cristal fairly early, but I would suggest that you hold on to it for a while. It can age for over 20 years without any problem, and it does develop true complex flavors with age. I drank a 1996 Cristal a couple of years ago, and though it was exquisite, it was a touch too young for my palate. On the other hand, a 1988 Cristal was perfect. It is normally made with 60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay. Cristal deserves its acclaim; it is a very great Champagne.
Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé
($550/$575): I have tasted this quite scarce Champagne about three times; it is truly magnificent, perhaps the greatest Rosé Champagne of all. Cristal Rosé is made from 55 percent Pinot Noir, 45 percent Chardonnay. It is capable of aging extremely well, especially for a Rosé Champagne; I drank a 1988 Cristal Rosé recently that I had kept in my cellar for many years, and it was outstanding.
Louis Roederer Vintage Blanc de Blancs 2011
($80): One of the main reasons for Louis Roederer’s very fine Blanc de Blancs Champagnes is that it owns some of the best Chardonnay Vineyards on the Côte des Blancs. This is a rich, powerful, lively Blanc de Blancs Champagne made in the elegant Louis Roederer style.
Louis Roederer Brut Rosé 2012
($70/$75): Louis Roederer’s Brut Rosé, 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay, is truly delicious, dry and fruity, with aromas and flavors of ripe raspberries. The 2014 is available now, but try to get the better 2012. Louis Roederer’s Champagnes might be a few dollars more than other Champagnes, but with their quality, they are well worth it.
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Champagne Philipponnat is fortunate enough to own one of the greatest vineyards in the Champagne region, Clos des Goisses, situated on a steep, 45° slope right on the Marne River in the village of Aÿ. Although Philipponnat produces an entire line of Champagnes, its tête de cuvée, Clos des Goisses, is its clear star.
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Extra Brut 2010
($200): Champagne Philipponnat was practically unknown in the U.S. until its famous prestige cuvée, Clos des Goisses, was discovered; perhaps it was its magnificent 2008 vintage that helped. At any rate, the secret is out; Clos des Goisses is one of the great tête de cuvees being made today. It has tripled in price in the last 20 years, but in today’s market, I still would not call it over-priced, considering its quality. It is well-balanced, perfectly ripe due to its fantastic location, and it normally receives no dosage; it is not needed because of its natural ripeness! This single-vineyard Champagne is composed of 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay.
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Champagne Dom Pérignon
The most famous Champagne in the world is still going strong. Owned by LVMH Moët-Hennessy, Dom Pérignon has always been run independently from the huge Moët operation. It is clearly the largest Prestige Cuvée in the world in terms of bottles, but LVMH never reveals how much Dom Pérignon is made. I estimate that 4 to 5 million bottles are produced; it is made in most vintages, because the Dom Pérignon winemaker has access to so many vineyards.
Dom Pérignon 2008
($175): Although the 2012 is the current vintage, you should not have too much trouble buying the superior 2008 because so much DP is produced. Dom Pérignon has never let me down. It can age for several decades. It is so well-made—a Champagne that you can count on. Always pure class. Best when it’s at least 10 years old or more.
Dom Pérignon Rosé 2008
($320): The Dom Pérignon Rosé 2013 is now available, but for $20 more, you can buy the better 2008, definitely worth it. Although Dom Pérignon is generally available, it is not always that easy to find its Rosé. I conducted a tasting of 22 Prestige Cuvées two months ago for a group of experienced wine tasters, and the Dom Pérignon Rosé was the clear star; by the way, that Champagne was the 2006 vintage, which is still available.
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Champagne Charles Heidsieck
No other Champagne House has improved as much as Charles Heidsieck in the past 30 years. Excluding expensive Prestige Cuvées, I find that Charles Heidsieck produces the best NV Brut Champagne available today.
Charles Heidsieck Non-Vintage Brut Réserve
($50/$59): In the 1990s, I started noticing a vast improvement in Charles Heidsieck’s Champagnes, especially its “bread and butter” Champagne, its Brut NV. The philosophy of Charles Heidsieck’s management, including its winemaker, had completely changed. They started using as much as 40 percent older reserve wines to make its non-vintage brut. The transformation was amazing. Charles Heidsieck is now producing the best NV brut Champagne under $60.
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Champagne Georges Laval
There are many great Grower Champagnes being exported into the U.S. today, but possibly the best one of all is really known only by Champagne buffs—Georges Laval, from the village of Cumières in the Marne Valley. Cumières is a Premier Cru village known for producing outstanding Champagnes. Georges Laval produces zero dosage Champagnes, dry but not austere. Laval produces only about 800 cases, less than 5,000 bottles.
Georges Laval Cumières Brut NV Nature
($75/$90): Very dry and precise, with depth complexity and structure. It is lively, pure, and so well-made, a treat to drink. Made from 50 percent Chardonnay, 25 percent, Pinot Noir, and 25 percent Pinot Meunier. It also ages very well.
Georges Laval Cumières Brut Rosé NV Nature
($150): As good as the Brut NV is, the Rosé Nature is even better, but rarer. Made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it is absolutely delicious and dry. Laval and his son Vincent are masterful winemakers.
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Champagne Piper-Heidsieck “Rare” 2006 ($150): A true Prestige Cuvée, the 2006 Rare is better than ever, the best “Rare” I have ever tasted.
Champagne Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004 ($165): Always one of the best Blanc de Blancs Champagnes available.
Champagne Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle” NV Brut #23 ($125): Laurent-Perrier now numbers its NV Prestige Cuvée, Grand Siècle, so that we can know the vintages used in the blend; the #23 is a blend of the 2002, 2004, and 2006 vintages.
In my opinion, the Champagnes mentioned in this column include the best Champagnes being produced today. I hope I did not leave out your favorites!