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Beyond Brut: Expand Your Champagne Horizon
By Michael Franz
Jun 9, 2015
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Champagne is the single most joyous of all the world’s wines, and there are really only two sad things about it:  Most consumers only taste Champagne toward the end of the calendar year, and most never taste examples other than standard-issue non-vintage Brut to discover the distinctively delicious wines that exist out on Champagne’s stylistic margins.  This column is intended to encourage you to run contrary to both of these trends.  Perhaps this season of graduations and weddings will provide you with an occasion to buy a previously untried bottle of Champagne, but if you don’t need an occasion to justify other kinds of fine wine, you shouldn’t need a special reason to expand your Champagne horizon.

I strongly recommend that you do exactly that, whether your choice might be a Vintage wine, Non-Dossage, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs or Demi-Sec.  Before turning to the happy task of addressing those types, however, I want to emphasize that I have nothing against non-vintage Brut Champagne.  Quite the contrary:  I hold this category in the highest esteem on two distinct counts.

First, non-vintage Brut Champagne is the wine world’s greatest instance of turning something marginal into something marvelous.  The region is so cool (and its skies are so frequently overcast) that wine grapes cannot be ripened reliably for table wines or even for vintage-dated sparkling wines.  The only way to produce a commercially viable product in Champagne was to achieve consistency by blending wines from different growing seasons, adding mellowed wines from warmer years or older stocks to smooth out hard, malic base wines from cool growing seasons.  Achieving a truly consistent house style also involved fine-tuning by blending different grapes from different sub-regions.

Everybody has heard the old saying that, when given lemons, one should make lemonade, and yet it is almost impossible for novices to believe that the raw materials underlying Champagne are akin to these metaphorical lemons.  Stated differently, Champagne has such a vaunted reputation that many consumers assume that it is some sort of vinous Eden.  In fact, however, Champagne is a grape-grower’s Hell, and the fact that the Champenois have made something heavenly in the region is an accomplishment that is simply unequalled in the history of wine.

Which leads to the second remarkable feat embodied in every bottle of Champagne, even in its relatively commonplace rendition as non-vintage Brut:  It has been ingeniously marketed into a unique status in which it is the paramount beverage of celebration and the vinous incarnation of a luxury product.  Moreover, this isn’t merely true in some parts of the world but rather the world over, and it isn’t merely a matter of shifting fashion but a phenomenally enduring fact that spans many generations.  Every bottle of Champagne basks in this amazing glow regardless of brand or type, which is a commercial feat transcending what has been achieved with any other wine--and perhaps any other product, period.

You might not think that there could be a “down-side” to this, but there is.  Since every bottle and type of Champagne basks in the same reputational glow, those who know little about it and enjoy it only on rare occasions think of the whole category as a monolith.  For millions of people, Champagne is Champagne, which is to say, knowing that a sparkling wine is Champagne is all there is to know about it. 

However widespread this assumption may be, it is incorrect, and lamentably so.  Indeed, the greatness of Champagne as a wine is demonstrated in large part by the broad range of styles in which it can show its excellence.  That being the case, nobody can really join the ranks of true Champagne lovers until they have managed to survey the following styles.  At the end of each category surveyed below, I’ll name some exemplary producers of the type, but please note that these lists are not intended to be exhaustive.  Nevertheless, they should prove useful when you strike out to try new styles:

Vintage:  This category doesn’t require much heavy lifting, conceptually speaking:  Vintage Champagne is made entirely from a single vintage, or growing season.  In most but not all cases, the year indicated on these wines was an excellent one, but as with vintage Port, there’s no regulation mandating this.  Producers do confront a disincentive for releasing vintage wines from sub-standard years, in the sense that consumers have higher expectations for vintage as opposed to non-vintage wines (on account of the higher prices that are almost invariably charged for them), and won’t likely come back for more if disappointed. 

Are vintage wines better than non-vintage ones?  The answer is:  Usually, but not always.  A vintage wine shows a layer of character rooted in the house’s style, but another layer that is peculiar to the growing season.  Accordingly, some of the most distinctive years produce wines that polarize tasters depending upon their subjective preferences.  For example, I absolutely adored the Champagnes from 1988 and 1996 (as did my WRO colleague Ed McCarthy), but they proved too edgy and tart for other tasters--including some indisputably expert ones.  Some Outstanding Examples:  Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger “Grande Année,” Charles Heidsieck “Blanc de Millénaires,” Gosset, Henriot, Joseph Perrier, Pol Roger, Roederer.

Cuvée de Prestige:  These wines are also informally called “Tête de Cuvée,” which is confusing for several reasons that I won’t detail for fear of deepening the confusion; Cuvée de Prestige is the correct designation for the category, and anybody can understand the term whether or not they know French.  The category is defined not by production methods but rather by sheer quality, which is the best that a producer can offer.  Some of these wines are vintage dated (such as Dom Perignon and Roederer’s “Cristal”) whereas others are non-vintage or “multi-vintage” wines (such as Krug’s “Grande Cuvée” or Laurent-Perrier’s “Grand Siècle”).

These are the most expensive of all Champagnes, generally made from the oldest vines from the best slopes of the top Grand Cru villages.  They are almost invariably packaged in lavish style, and if you taste one that is properly aged and showing well, you will be spoiled for life.  Some Outstanding Examples:  Dom Perignon, Gaston Chiquet “Special Club,” Jacquesson, Krug “Grand Cuvée,” Bruno Paillard “N.P.U.,” Perrier-Jouët “Belle Epoque,” Philipponnat Clos de Goisses, Piper-Heidsieck “Rare,” Pol Roger “Sir Winston Churchill,” Ruinart “Dom Ruinart,” Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Blanc de Blancs and Rosé.

Blanc de Blancs:  Meaning, literally, “white from whites,” these Champagnes are made from Chardonnay as opposed to the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  They are made from grapes grown in all of the various sub-regions of Champagne, though the most famous and elegant renditions are sourced from the Côte de Blancs and famous villages such as Cramant, Avize and Mesnil-sur-Oger.  One occasionally hears these Champagnes dismissed on account of being light and wimpy, but this has always struck me as utter nonsense.  Excellent renditions show a textural breadth and creaminess that is marvelously satisfying, and top Blanc de Blancs Champagnes turn out to be anything but wimpy when subjected to the test of time.  For example, I have tasted bottles of Pol Roger that were so old that they retained virtually no effervescence--but were nevertheless utterly compelling in aroma, flavor and texture.

There’s no question in my mind that Champagnes made entirely from Chardonnay are more complete and complex than those made entirely from red grapes, and I think those who dismiss this category do so on the basis of an ignorant prejudice drawn from table wines.  In case it isn’t already obvious, I adore these wines, and for those branching out from non-vintage Brut, I’d make these your first stop.  Some Outstanding Examples:  Besserat de Bellefon, Guy Charlemagne, Deutz, Diebolt-Vallois, Pascal Doquet, Henriot, Krug “Clos du Mesnil,” Lilbert, Pierre Moncuit, Pierre Peters, Pol Roger, Ruinart, Salon, Taitinger.

Blanc de Noirs:  This category is so rare (especially in export markets) that I include it mostly for purposes of completeness.  The wines are made from either or both of Champagne’s red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  They tend to be a bit fuller and “meatier” than Blanc de Blancs Champagnes, and that’s not just a figure of speech, as some renditions actually show a character recalling carpaccio.  Some Outstanding Examples:  I’ve tasted several of these in France, but only three in the USA:  Paul Bara (which I haven’t seen recently) Barnaut and Egly-Ouriet.

Rosé:  This category is really not obscure, so I won’t go into much detail about it.  The juice of Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier is colorless, so pigment must be obtained either by blending in a still red wine (the predominant method) or by macerating some juice along with grape skins.

Rosé Champagnes have become quite popular, and it seems that almost everybody loves them lately.  I know I’ll run afoul of many people’s opinions by writing this, but personally, I often find them clunky, which is to say, lacking in definition and complexity.  There are important exceptions to this, and the exceptions can be so fabulous that I don’t think of them as exceptions to a rule.  I often wonder, though, whether terrific Rosé Champagnes aren’t as good as they are mostly because they contain terrific base wines rather than because they are made as Rosés. 

Anyway, among the top renditions, some are admirably delicate and nuanced style, whereas others succeed in a deep, rich, powerful mode.  My advice is to avoid most of the wines in this category and stick to the best renditions.  Some Outstanding Examples:  L. Aubry Fils “Sablé,” Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Cristal Rosé, Dom Perignon, Gosset “Grand Rosé,” Perrier- Jouët “Blason de France,” Jean-Marc Sélèque, Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne,” Veuve Cliquot “La Grande Dame.”

Sweet Champagnes:  These wines range from “Sec” (meaning, “dry,” but in truth notably sweet) to “Demi-Sec” (meaning, “semi-dry” but actually quite sweet) to Doux (meaning sweet and tasting seriously sweet).  In terms of availability, they now range from rare to virtually non-existent (in the case of Doux).  They are fun to try, especially if someone else is buying.  That is true of all Champagnes I suppose, but even more so in this category, which consists of what I regard as expensive curiosities…that sometimes really work.

Demi-Sec is the type you’re most likely to find at retail in the USA, and generally these are too sweet to drink more than a small glass but not sweet enough to pair with almost any dessert.  Shortbread or very simple cookies are your best bets for pairing purposes, and if you’ve got six or eight people around the table so that you can provide everyone with a single glass after dinner, a good Demi-Sec with a few cookies can be a festive way to end a meal without heaviness.  Whether you try cookies or something else along with your sweet bubbly, it is important not only that your nibble be modest in sweetness but in flavor as well, since some of sweet Champagnes (like Taittinger “Nocturne”) are very yeasty and need a very simple foil.  Some Outstanding Examples:  Laurent-Perrier, Piper-Heidsieck “Sublime,” Pol Roger “Rich,” Taittinger “Nocturne.”

Non-Dosage:  These wines are sold under a variety of designations, including Brut Sauvage, Brut Zéro, Ultra Brut, Sans Sucre, and--in the case of Pol Roger--simply “Pure.”  They are uncompromisingly dry Champagnes to which no sugar is added after disgorgement expels the yeast residue after the second fermentation.  They are very difficult to make well, since sugar is a cosmetic that hides all sorts of flaws that are apparent in its absence.  Moreover, Champagne is an inherently high-acid wine, and it is only possible to achieve a balanced non-dosage wine if the grapes are conscientiously grown and deftly crafted.  Non-dosage Champagne is, in a sense, a tightrope act in a bottle.

Two newsworthy facts about this category are, first, that ever more growers and houses are making wines in this style.  Second, this isn’t simply a matter of shifting fashion but also changing climate.  Like most other regions in Europe, Champagne’s climate has become notably warmer on average during the past two decades, with the result that grapes are often harvested with higher ripeness and lower acidity.  As a consequence, making un-dosed Champagne is now notably less audacious than it was a generation ago.

Nevertheless, even the best examples of this type will strike many tasters as austere, especially if they are tried while still quite young.  I hesitate to call them “connoisseur’s wines” because that sounds snotty, but it is probably true.  Few coffee drinkers start drinking their coffee without sugar, but it is rare to see a true coffee connoisseur put as much as a grain of sugar into a cup--even a cup of espresso.  Of course, you should drink what you enjoy, rather than what you hear that connoisseurs enjoy.  For those who love them, however, these Champagnes are the most mineral and refined of all.  Some Outstanding Examples:  Ayala, Larmandier-Bernier “Terre de Vertus,” Laurent-Perrier, Pol Roger, Selosse, Tarlant.