Celebrations call for Champagne. For centuries, this one wine has launched ships, enlivened parties, heralded peace treaties and sporting championships, shared special, romantic moments, and more. Champagne literally bubbles forth with festivity. For millions of people, it merits a splurge, particularly during the holidays. More bottles are sold this month than at any other time, with some retailers reporting that December sales surpass those made all the rest of the year. Oddly enough, this also is when stores offer deep discounts. It’s when savvy consumers stock up.
This year, consider buying vintage Champagne. Wines made from a single, choice harvest cost only slightly more than non-vintage blends, but they taste almost as compelling as super-expensive luxury cuvées. They aren’t bargains -- no Champagnes ever are -- but their quality is exceptionally high.
Wines sparkle and bubble throughout the grape-growing world, but none made outside the northern French region of La Champagne combine delicacy and depth quite like true Champagne. First-rate examples remain unequaled in terms of subtlety, sophistication and, yes, status. Nothing beats them for toasting a special occasion. But Champagne can do more than ring out the old and ring in the new. It’s above all a wine, and one of the world’s great wines at that, so it can be enjoyed like any other fine wine -- before and during a meal. Vintage Champagnes are especially worth buying if served and savored that way, as they offer rewarding flavor coupled with remarkable finesse.
Dry or brut Champagne is a very versatile dinner wine. It pairs especially well with fried and spicy foods, egg dishes, and all sorts of soups. Personally, I love it with omelets and oysters, tempuras and tamales, and I won’t even think of eating sushi without it. The only thing most Champagnes don’t complement is dessert, as all but the sweetest versions turn tart and sour in the company of sugar.
The vast majority of Champagnes are fashioned as non-vintage blends. Because La Champagne has only a marginal climate for grape growing, not every harvest yields first-rate wine. Vintners thus combine wines from lesser vintages with reserves from better ones in order to craft consistent products. Occasionally, however, if the weather has been warm enough, without too much rain during harvest, and if the grapes have ripened adequately so as to yield a sufficiently large crop, a wine may be deemed good enough to stand on its own. After assembling the non-vintage blend, and after reserving some wine to enhance future blends, the winemaker will bottle a small proportion as a stand-alone, vintage wine.
Vintage Champagnes, then, invariably are made only with high quality grapes from above average if not actually superior years. Those grapes frequently come from the best vineyards, the ones classified as premier or grand cru, and the resulting wines offer especially compelling, complex flavors. It’s because those flavors tend to be so deep and long that vintage Champagnes usually work better than non-vintage blends when matched with food. They simply offer more nuances to complement the different ingredients in a dish, or the different dishes in a meal.
Many Champagne producers will use the best grapes from their most prized vineyards to make prestige or luxury Champagnes. Themselves vintage-dated, cuvées like Möet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon or Louis Roederer’s Cristal cost much more than the same producers’ other vintage Champagnes. The difference in quality, however, is relatively small. After all, a luxury cuvée represents a selection from wines that already have been designated as worth bottling (and selling) separately. By contrast, since a non-vintage blend will include wines from both different years and different vineyards, there often is a significant quality gap between it and vintage Champagne. Their price tags, though, don’t reflect as much. Most vintage Champagnes cost somewhere around twenty to forty percent more than the same producer’s non-vintage blend, but anywhere from half to a quarter as much as the house’s luxury cuvée -- which they may well resemble closely in both quality and style. That’s why if there’s value to be found anywhere in Champagne, it’s in the top vintage wines.
Vintage Champagnes offer still other advantages. Most are aged for at least two or three years longer than non-vintage blends. That extra time allows them to harmonize fully, so they almost always are ready to drink when purchased. Yet these wines also can age effortlessly at home, becoming mellower and toastier with even more time in bottle. For me, young, non-vintage Champagne, with all its fizzy zeal intact, proves perfect for toasts and midnight New Year’s revelry. But at a grand holiday feast, vintage Champagne’s subtler, more layered aromas and flavors seem more at home. These wines taste so good that they’re worth a celebration of their own.
Here are my top ten recommendations of vintage Champagnes currently available in wine shops, listed in a rough order of preference. The prices reflect full retail mark-up, but since many retailers put Champagnes on sale this time of year, you likely will be able to pay less.
--Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs 2009 ($90)
Classy, on a par with Cristal but not even a third the price
--Pol Roger Brut 2006 ($120)
A thoroughbred, with great complexity, concentration, and finesse
Möet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2006 ($80)
Sumptuous but slightly sweet. Try it with spicy foods
--Bollinger La Grande Année 2005 ($115)
Toasty and deep, and thus true to the house style. Very versatile at the dinner table
--Henriot Brut 2005 ($100)
Impeccably balanced, with sufficient depth for mealtime pairing
--Pierre Gimonnet Brut Fleuron 2009 ($65)
Youthful and vivacious, great with light fare
--Taittinger Brut 2005 ($75)
Deeper than Taittinger’s non-vintage “La Francaise.” Great with sushi
--Veuve Clicquot Gold 2008 ($75)
Much better balanced that the non-vintage blend, showing ample depth and persistence
--Philipponnat Blanc de Noirs 2009 ($75)
Lively on the palate but also very crisp and dry
--Gosset Grand Millésime 2006 ($80)
Substantial though tightly-wound. Needs exposure to air to show its best