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Champagne for the Dinner Table
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 8, 2008
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If you really love Champagne -- and judging by its sales lately, that includes a lot of us -- you might opt to drink this luscious beverage throughout dinner, or at least with your first course.  This is especially true if you're having fish, seafood, white pastas, vegetables, or spicy Asian dishes.  Frankly, I enjoy Champagne with almost everything except red meat or tomato-based dishes.  But not every Champagne is made in the style that complements typical dinner fare.

Richard Geoffroy, head winemaker of Dom Pérignon, loves to serve his excellent Champagne with sushi and other types of Asian cuisine.  But as good as DP is, its style is too delicate and refined for heartier dinner courses.  The light, elegant house style of many Champagnes, such as Laurent-Perrier,  Perrier-Jouët, Pommery, Piper-Heidsieck, Bruno Paillard, Jacquesson, Nicolas Feuillatte, and Mumm, to name a few, makes them ideal to serve with apéritifs or with party foods.

Over the years, through trial and error, I've compiled a list of full-bodied, powerful Champagnes that work best for me at the dinner table.  Many of these Champagnes have the body and style of still wines; for me, they typically are very Burgundian, but with bubbles.

Almost all of my full-bodied favorites have something else in common: they possess great longevity, and are often at their best with at least 10, and sometimes 20 or more years of age.  As you might expect, many -- but not all -- full-bodied Champagnes are Pinot-dominated (both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier); and yet quite a few Blanc de Blancs (100 percent Chardonnay) Champagnes, especially those from the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, are quite powerful and long-lived.

In some cases, all Champagnes of some houses are made in the full-bodied style; other houses produce only one or two full-bodied Champagnes.  I indicate this info in my list below:

  • Bollinger:  All of Bollinger's Champagnes are full-bodied and dry.  These include their non-vintage Special Cuvée, Vintage Grand Année, R.D. Extra Brut, Rosé, and their rare Blanc de Noirs, Vieilles Vignes Françaises.  The Grand Année is particularly long-lived.
  • Krug:  All of Krug's Champagnes, including their Blanc de Blancs, are full-bodied, dry, and especially long-lived.  These are the Krug Grande Cuvée, Vintage Krug, Clos du Mesnil (Blanc de Blancs), and Rosé.
  • Veuve Clicquot:  The second-largest Champagne house (after Moët & Chandon), all of Veuve Clicquot's Champagnes are made in the full-bodied style, but not as powerful or as dry as Bollinger's or Krug's Champagnes.  Like Bollinger and Krug, Clicquot's Champagnes are Pinot-dominated (all three houses use both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).  Of Veuve Clicquot's huge line, my favorites are its Vintage Reserve Gold Label, La Grande Dame, and La Grande Dame Rosé.  The Vintage Reserve is its best value.
  • Salon:  Salon makes only one Champage, Le Mesnil, a Vintage Blanc de Blancs Prestige Cuvée, and it is produced in small quantities only in good vintages.  A very full-bodied Champagne, Salon usually needs about 20 to 25 years of aging for optimal drinking.
  • Louis Roederer:  Most of Louis Roederer's Champagnes are rich and full-bodied; however, its exquisite Prestige Cuvée, Cristal (as well as Cristal Rosé) is elegant and complex rather than powerful -- and demands at least 15 years of aging before it really opens up.  Roederer's non-vintage Brut Premier,  Vintage Brut, Blanc de Blancs, and Rosé are all sturdy dinner Champagnes.
  • Gosset:  Most of Gosset's Champagnes are full-bodied and dry, and yet its Prestige Cuvée, Célébris (as well as Célébris Rosé) is elegant and harmonious; Gosset uses Célébris as its aperitif Champagne.  Gosset's flagship Champagne, and its best value, is its full-bodied, premium non-vintage brut, Grande Réserve.  Its Vintage Champagne, called Millésimé Brut, is invariably powerful and full as well.
  • Philipponnat:  This small house, now managed by the brilliant Bruno Paillard, head of the BCC group, makes one exquisite, full-bodied, sought-after Champagne, its Prestige Cuvée, Clos des Goisses.  It's a single-vineyard Champagne, 70 percent Pinot Noir, 30 percent Chardonnay, and very dry, that is at its best after 15 to 20 years of aging.
  • Pol Roger:  Although most of Pol Roger's Champagnes are medium-bodied, its Prestige Cuvée, the Pinot Noir-dominated Sir Winston Churchill, is definitely full-bodied, dry, and powerful.  And like all of Pol Roger's Champagnes, it ages extremely well.
  • Charles Heidsieck:  The Champagnes of Charles Heidsieck  are on the cusp of medium-bodied to full-bodied, but my experience with them certifies that they are excellent dinner Champagnes, especially their great-value non-vintage Brut Réserve Mis en Cave and their Millésimé (Vintage) Brut.
  • Deutz:  This house produces mainly medium-bodied Champagnes, but its Prestige Cuvees, Cuvée William Deutz and Cuvée William Deutz Rosé, are full-bodied, and are superb dinner Champagnes.

Three Grower-Champagnes are particularly dry and full-bodied: both Paul Bara and Egly-Ouriet, located in the Montagne de Reims, are Pinot Noir- dominated, while Pierre Peters, a small house in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, produces powerful Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagnes from old vines, quite similar to Salon, but at less than half of Salon's price.

Champagne Bollinger

I have chosen the superb Champagnes of Bollinger, one of the standard bearers of the full-bodied style, to review for this column.  Bollinger is one of the only Champagnes that I am consistently able to identify at blind tastings because its style --  toasty, biscuity, winey, and very dry -- is so recognizable.  I think of Bollinger as  'a red wine lover's Champagne.' In fact, its largest-produced Champagne, its non-vintage Special Cuvée,  is made from 75 percent red grapes (60 percent Pinot Noir, 15 percent Pinot Meunier) and only 25 percent Chardonnay.

One of the many Champagne houses founded by a German, Joseph Jacob Bollinger, in the town of Aÿ, Bollinger is still family-owned, one of the few major Champagne houses not part of a group or conglomerate.  Bollinger has a major advantage over most Champagne houses; about two-thirds of the grapes it uses to make Champagne come from its own vineyards. Among the major producers, only Champagne Louis Roederer owns such a high percentage of vineyards as Bollinger.  And most of Bollinger's grapes come from grand cru and premier cru vineyards.

Other facts about Bollinger that contributes to its unique house style:

  • Bollinger ferments all of the wines designated to be Vintage Champagnes and part of the wines which go into its Special Cuvée in used (quite old) oak barrels.  The very slow oxygenation that takes place during this process enhances Bollinger's longevity (Krug uses a similar method of fermentation).
  • Bollinger is the only major Champagne house that ages its reserve wines -- used for making the special Cuvée -- in cork-sealed magnum bottles (rather than casks or large vats) in order to prevent oxidation.
  • Bollinger uses a very low dosage (cane sugar dissolved in wine) in all of its Champagnes, contributing to its Champagnes being among the very dryest  of the major houses.

Bollinger has been better than ever lately, in my opinion, producing three great vintages in a row: the long-lived 1995s and 1996s, and the best 1997 Champagne I have tasted from this precocious vintage.

For this column, I tasted six Bollinger Champagnes, five that are currently available, and one older vintage, the 1992 (a difficult vintage, made by only a few houses), to see how Bollinger ages in a lesser vintage.  One of the reviews was of Bollinger's rare still wine, the 100 percent Pinot Noir, La Côte aux Enfants Coteaux Champenois, which Bollinger produces only in vintages in which the Pinot Noir gets very ripe, such as in 1990 and now in 1999.

Click here to view the Bollinger tasting notes.