One of the least-known aspects about Champagne is the style which the various Champagne houses seek in making their wines. You will never find this information on the label of the bottle; you just have to discover the Champagne's style on your own through trial and error--unless you're fortunate enough to have a knowledgeable wine merchant or friend available to guide you.
I addressed this problem when I wrote Champagne For Dummies (John Wiley and Sons) a few years ago. As a guide to readers, I categorized Champagne Styles into three general groups:
Light, Elegant Style
Champagne houses display their style best in their non-vintage Champagne--which typically makes up about 85% of their production (the other 15% being their Vintage, Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, and Prestige Cuvée). Whereas vintages can be variable in style from year to year and thus beyond the Champagne producer's control, non-vintage Champagne, being a blend of several vintages chosen by the winemaker, can be crafted into a consistent house style from year to year.
To a certain extent, grape varieties play a role in creating the style of a Champagne. For example, houses which seek to produce full-bodied Champagnes-such as Krug, Bollinger, Louis Roederer, and Veuve Clicquot-tend to favor a high percentage of black grapes, Pinot Noir and often Pinot Meunier, in the blend. On the other hand, producers looking to create a lighter, more elegant style of Champagne will use a higher percentage of Chardonnay in their blends, while those houses making medium-bodied Champagnes--such as Moët & Chandon, Charles Heidsieck, Deutz, and Pol Roger--tend to use a balance of black and white grape varieties.
But it's not as simple as that. For example, the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs is renowned for being the source of full-bodied Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) Champagnes, such as Salon, Krug Clos du Mesnil, and the grower Champagne, Pierre Peters. And so, the vineyard site and other factors--such as the use of reserve (older) wines in the non-vintage blend, and the amount of dosage (a solution of sugar dissolved in wine) the producer adds to the Champagne--are just as important as the grape varieties in creating the Champagne's style. Almost all Champagne producers add some dosage to balance the acidity in Champagne, although quite a few producers have introduced a Brut Zero (Natural) Champagne, with no dosage at all, as part of their repertoire of bubblies.
All of which leads me to the topic of this column. I really do love many Champagnes made in all of the three styles, but lately I find myself seeking out lighter-bodied, elegant Champagnes, especially if these Champagnes are on the dry side--that is, the producer's added dosage is very low--seven or eight grams or less of residual sugar per liter. Lighter-styled Champagnes are ideal as aperitifs, and also go very well with fish and seafood, an important part of my dining lately. Lighter-styled Champagnes also complement all kinds of Asian cuisine, especially Japanese food.
Two fairly small Champagne houses which specialize in light, elegantly-styled Champagnes--both of which had been absent from the U.S. market until recently--are Henriot and Ayala. Joseph Henriot, owner of Champagne Henriot, formerly was the top man at Veuve Clicquot. When he left Clicquot, Henriot purchased Bouchard Père et Fils, a large Burgundy house, and William Fèvre, a Chablis producer, and proceeded to restore both wine companies to their former glory. But in the process Henriot did not pay too much attention to his own small Champagne house.
Enter son Stanislaus Henriot, whom Dad put in charge of Champagne Henriot. Good move, especially for the U.S. One of Stanislaus Henriot's first steps was to re-introduce Champagne Henriot to the U.S. market (it had not been here for many years). Henriot has an excellent lineup of very dry, elegant Champagnes with lots of finesse. Look especially for Henriot's NV Brut Souverain, its NV Blanc Souverain, and its NV Rosé. I recently tasted through Henriot's entire line of Champagnes, including its 1996 Vintage Brut and its Prestige Cuvée, the 1995 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, and was totally impressed by the quality of all of its Champagnes.
If you have not heard of Champagne Ayala, that's understandable. Previously owned by Bordeaux's Château La Lagune, Ayala had been floundering, with its production getting smaller and smaller. Up until this year, I had not seen a bottle of Champagne Ayala in the U.S. for over ten years. But recently, Champagne Bollinger purchased Ayala and placed some of its top people in charge. It was a great purchase for Bollinger, because Ayala's light, elegant Champagnes are really the opposite of Bollinger's full-bodied, toasty, yeasty style.
What Ayala and Bollinger have in common is that both houses produce very dry Champagnes. In addition to Ayala's NV Brut Majeur, a light, elegant beauty with 8.5 gms. dosage, Ayala makes two Brut Zero Champagnes: Brut Nature Zero Dosage and the rare Cuvée Rosé Brut Nature, possibly the only Rosé Brut Zero Champagne in the U.S. Both are non-vintage Champagnes and very impressive; Ayala has somehow been able to produce these two Champagnes with no dosage which do not taste overly austere or bitter. Rather, they are perfectly balanced with fruit and acidity.
Two other rather small, very fine Champagne houses which produce lighter-bodied, elegant Champagnes are Jacquesson and Bruno Paillard. Champagne Jacquesson, founded in 1798, is a traditional house which, like Krug, ferments its Champagne in very old oak barrels rather than stainless steel. However, although both of these fine, small houses make very dry Champagnes, they have different styles; Krug, emphasizing black grapes, produces full-bodied Champagnes, whereas Jacquesson, stressing Chardonnay exclusively from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, produces elegant, lighter Champagnes.
For me, Jacquesson is one of the best-kept secrets in Champagne; excellent bubblies at reasonable prices. Jacquesson's latest plan is to produce mainly single-vineyard Champagnes, emphasizing the distinct terroirs of each wine. Going along with this concept, Jacquesson has stopped producing a general Vintage Champagne (1996 was its last) and stopped making its Prestige Cuvée, 'Signature' Brut. From now on, starting with the 2000 vintage, its single-vineyard Champagnes will be its finest wines.
Bruno Paillard is one of Champagne's youngest houses, opening its doors in the 1980s. Champagne is a very traditional region; only someone as dynamic as Bruno Paillard could have penetrated its closed world so successfully. Today, he is a major player in Champagne, heading the firm that owns Lanson and Philipponnat (of Clos des Goisses fame), among others. I love Bruno Paillard's Champagnes; they are very dry, light, and ethereal; they float on the tongue. They are worth seeking out.
Other light, elegantly-styled Champagnes that I enjoy include the following:
--Mumm de Cramant (Blanc de Blancs)
--Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne, especially its Blanc de Blancs (in my opinion, its greatest Champagne)
--Gosset Célébris (an anomaly; Gosset's other Champagnes are full-bodied, but Célébris, its Vintage Prestige Cuvée, is light and elegant)
--Pommery (especially its Prestige Cuvée, Louise, perhaps the finest Champagne to accompany caviar)
--Piper-Heidsieck, especially its Prestige Cuvée, Rare
--Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs (both its superb Vintage and non-vintage)
--Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
--Delamotte Vintage Blanc de Blancs and its exquisite Rosé
--Nicolas Feuillatte Vintage Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru
And three Grower Champagnes:
--Guy Charlemagne Blanc de Blancs (Vintage and non-vintage)
The above Champagnes are among the best light-bodied, elegantly styled bubblies being produced. One final word: two very famous Prestige Cuvées, Cristal and Dom Pérignon, even though both are medium-bodied rather than light-bodied, are on my short list of the finest, most elegant Champagnes being made today. With the proper amount of aging, they ooze finesse and complexity. Both usually need at least ten years or more before they are completely developed (a great vintage such as 1996 needs at least 15 years) and show their true greatness and complexity.