There are so many great Champagnes existing today, but sadly, most wine drinkers living outside of the Champagne region in France are not so familiar with these Champagnes. In the U.S.A.--and indeed across most of the world--two Champagne giants dominate wine sales: Moët & Chandon (including its famous prestige cuvée, Dom Pérignon), and Veuve Clicquot,both part of the huge LVMH empire. Moët sells an astounding 35 million bottles annually, and Veuve Clicquot sells about 18 million bottles a year.
Both of these Houses make fine Champagnes. But there are so many more excellent producers that one must ask: Shouldn’t every Champagne lover try different wines now and then? Given that the phrase “every Champagne lover” applies to almost everyone, I hope you’ll join me in focusing on three of my favorites: Bruno Paillard, Alfred Gratien and Ruinart.
Champagne Bruno Paillard
In 1981, Bruno Paillard, at the age of 27, decided to start his own Champagne house. He descends from a long line of grape growers in the Champagne region, going back 300 years. Nonetheless, it was an audacious move to start his own house, and to compete with all the great Champagne firms founded in the 1700s and 1800s.
I met Bruno Paillard in the early 1980s when he introduced his first Champagnes at the International Wine Center in New York; after tasting the wines, I realized that Champagne Bruno Paillard was going to be around for a long time. Paillard has his own strong ideas about what Champagne should be: It should be elegant, light-bodied, fresh, delicate, and very dry. (All of Bruno Paillard’s Champagnes have six grams or less of residual sugar, qualifying them to be labeled “Extra Brut,” though Paillard calls them simply “Brut”.)
Bruno Paillard’s wines are the ideal apéritif Champagnes, stressing elegance and finesse over power. Although his beautiful above-ground Champagne house is in Rheims, as are most of the vineyards he uses, Paillard does obtain Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes from the Côte de Blancs (near Epernay) for his Blanc de Blancs and his other Champagnes. In 1999, Paillard introduced his first Prestige Cuvée, a 1990 N.P.U. (Nec Plus Ultra), with grapes from four Grand Cru vineyards, two growing Pinot Noir, two Chardonnay). His N.P.U. differs from Paillard’s other Champagnes in that it is rich and quite full-bodied. All of his Champagnes age for many years before they are released on the market, and are made from Premier Cru and Grand Cru grapes. Paillard’s NV Brut Première (called MV, Multi-Vintage), has an average retail price of $45. And Paillard’s 2008 Vintage Assemblage averages $65, both remarkable bargains for Champagnes of this quality. His N.P.U. is in the $180 to $220 range.
Bruno Paillard’s Champagnes can be found in top restaurants and fine wine shops throughout the U.S. It is a fairly small house, producing about 400,000 bottles annually. Today, Alice Paillard, Bruno’s daughter, is Co- Director of Champagne Bruno Paillard. She is just as driven and committed to the family Champagnes as her father.
Champagne Alfred Gratien
Welcome back to the U.S., Alfred Gratien! After a couple of decades in which it seemed to disappear, at least from the New York Metro area, Champagne Alfred Gratien is now being imported into the U.S. by Mionetto USA, the importing arm of Mionetto, an Italian Prosecco producer! There must be some irony there, or at least a strange-bedfellows backstory. Mionetto is one of the largest Prosecco producers, and Alfred Gratien is quite small (150,000 bottles; just 12,500 cases). Both Champagne Alfred Gratien and its sister company, Gratien & Meyer--one of the largest Loire Valley sparkling wine firms--are now owned by Henkell, the huge German sparkling wine company, as of March, 2016.
Champagne Alfred Gratien is in Epernay, near Champagne’s great Chardonnay vineyards. Nicolas Jaeger, the cellarmaster, is the fourth generation of Jaegers serving as Alfred Gratien’s cellarmaster.
What I have always liked about Champagne Alfred Gratien is its very traditional approach; everything is done by hand. The house’s winemaking technique is very similar to Champagne Krug; all of its wines undergo their first fermentation in small, old oak barrels. The resulting Champagnes are very dry, full-bodied, biscuity, and well-aged. They are close to both Bollinger and Krug in style, but perhaps not as complex. They are well priced, especially for those who enjoy the Bollinger and Krug style. Alfred Gratien’s NV Brut, called Classique, averages about $47. There is also a NV Classique Rosé, but my preference is for the Classique Blanc . Gratien’s current Vintage, the 2000 (!), retails for $70. It is almost impossible to find a 16-year-old Champagne selling at such a low price. It is a hefty Champagne that is ready to drink now.
Alfred Gratien also makes two Prestige Cuvées. So often I find that a Champagne house’s Prestige Cuvée differs in style from its other wines. Although the Alfred Gratien house style stresses power and body, its two Prestige Cuvées, Cuvée Paradis and Cuvée Paradis Rosé, show elegance and finesse (just as Louis Roederer’s full-bodied house style differs from the elegant, delicate Cristal). The Cuvée Paradis is Chardonnay-dominated, about 75 percent, with the rest made up of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
I am sipping a glass of the just-released 2008 Cuvée Paradis Blanc as I write this column. It is so delicate and elegant that it’s difficult to imagine that it is an Alfred Gratien Champagne. Cuvée Paradis sells for about $98. When is the last time you have seen a Prestige Cuvée for under $100? The 2008 Cuvée Paradis Rosé doesn’t measure up to the Paradis Blanc. It is fruity and pleasant, without the bracing acidity of the Blanc. The Rosé has 55 percent Chardonnay, with 45 percent Pinot Noir and Meunier, and sells for a few dollars more than the Paradis Blanc. Perhaps the higher percentage of Chardonnay (with fewer black grapes) makes the difference. The Côte des Blancs may be the best place in the world for growing the ubiquitous Chardonnay variety. Being located so close to these superb vineyards is certainly a plus for Champagne Alfred Gratien.
Dom Ruinart, a younger friend and confidant of Dom Pérignon, had much in common with the great man. Both were pioneers in the process of creating France’s wondrous beverage, and now history unites them again, as both Champagne brands are owned today by LVMH.
Ruinart is known as a Chardonnay house, because this variety is clearly the dominant grape in all of its Champagnes. It is a small-to medium-sized house, producing about 1,700,000 bottles a year. Ruinart has the honor of being the first commercial producer to make Champagne. Nicolas Ruinart, nephew of Dom Ruinart, founded the house in Rheims in1729.
Four Ruinart Champagnes are available in the U.S.; its NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and NV Ruinart Rosé, and its two Prestige Cuvées, Dom Ruinart, a blanc de blancs, and Dom Ruinart Rosé.
Ruinart’s NV Blanc de Blancs is clearly one of the best Champagnes in this category. It is vibrant, quite powerful and dry, with exquisite citrus flavors. It is a bit pricey at $78, but I have seen it retail under $70. I never hesitate to order it in a restaurant; it’s often available by the glass. And it is frequently available in half-bottles.
Ruinart’s NV Rosé, in comparison, is composed of 55 percent Pinot Noir and 45 percent Chardonnay. It is a flavorful, medium-bodied Champagne, but perhaps without the class of the Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs. It retails for the same price as the Ruinart NV Blancs.
The undoubted star of Ruinart is its Prestige Cuvée, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, one of the very best Blanc de Blancs Champagnes available. It is composed of Chardonnay from both the Côte de Blancs villages in Epernay and Grand Cru villages in the Montagne de Reims. The resulting Champagne is exquisitely balanced with the verve of the Montagne de Reims grapes and the finesse of the Côte de Blancs grapes. It is a keeper; it can age for 50 years or more in great vintages, but will also be fine with 15 to 20 years of ageing. It retails in the $150 to $160 range. The 2002 is a particularly great vintage for Dom Ruinart.
Normally, I prefer Blanc de Blancs to Rosés, especially in Prestige Cuvée
Champagnes. But the 2002 Dom Ruinart Rosé is so outstanding that I would make an exception in this vintage. It is one of the greatest rosés I have ever tasted. It is explosive on the palate. You must have a second glass. Made from 80 percent Grand Cru Chardonnay and 20 percent Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Bouzy (Montagne de Reims), the 2002 Dom Ruinart Rosé is a Champagne you will remember. Word must have gone out about it, as it’s expensive: $250 to $300. A once-in-a-lifetime Rosé Champagne.
Three great Champagne houses, all very different. Try them!