Although I have been buying and writing about all sorts of wines throughout my life--and I certainly own enough wines to last well past my lifetime--I still find myself buying Champagnes. Habits die hard. And so, I can say that Champagne is my favorite wine region.
The Champagnes I am writing about here come, of course, from the Champagne region in northeast France. Just about every country that produces wine also make sparkling wines, but none compare to true Champagne, in my opinion.
The largest Champagne category, by far, are non-vintage Bruts. About 85 to 90% of all Champagnes produced are NV Bruts, as they are called. The least expensive NV Brut Champagnes retail in the $30 to $35 range; the average NV Brut today sells for $45 to $50, and they do go higher.
In addition to NV Bruts, I will also cover Vintage Bruts, Blanc de Blancs, Rosé Champagnes, and the most expensive category, Prestige Cuvées (think Cristal and Dom Pérignon). I focus on the Négociant houses because they are large enough for their Champagnes to be available across the country. I will also discuss some of my favorite Grower Champagne producers. This category has really become a huge factor in the Champagne world during the last two decades. When I wrote Champagne For Dummies 20 years ago, many Grower Champagnes were not really available outside of France.
For me, the ideal NV Brut is dry, medium to full-bodied, biscuity, well-aged, and complexly flavored--to the point that you don’t just drink it quickly, but are aware of its complex, full portrait and drink it with contemplation. A few non-vintage bruts are so complex, full-flavored, and expensive that they really are prestige cuvées; I’m thinking about Krug’s Grand Cuvée ($160 to $180) and Laurent Perrier’s Grand Siécle ($130 to $145).
Here are my favorite NV Bruts, roughly in my order of preference:
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve
Louis Roederer Brut Premier
Jacquesson Cuvée 742 Extra Brut
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut
Deutz Brut Classic
Ruinart “R de Ruinart” Brut
Bruno Paillard Brut Premiére Cuvée
Charles Heidsieck has improved remarkably in the last 30 years. In the early 1980s, I would have rated this Champagne as average in quality. Today, I don’t think there is a better NV Brut being made than Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve. The turn-around began when this House hired the remarkable Daniel Thibault as Chef de Caves in 1986. Thibault was given freedom to change the image of Charles Heidsieck, and that he did. He built up huge stocks of reserve wines for Charles Heidsieck’s NV Brut. By the mid-to-late 1990’s, Charles Heidsieck’s image began to change. Today, most major Champagne critics rate it superb. Its average retail price is $60, but can be found for less if you shop around. Charles Heidsieck’s current winemaker is Cyril Brun.
Only three of my favorite seven NV Bruts retail for less than $50--Louis Roederer, Deutz, and Bruno Paillard. Champagne Louis Roederer is another House whose NV Brut has vastly improved. Roederer’s reputation has always rested on its magnificent prestige cuvée, Cristal. Here, a combination of ownership--Jean-Claude Rouzard (and his dynamic son Frédéric Rouzard) and another great winemaker, Jean-Baptiste LeCaillion (with Roederer since 1999)--has transformed Louis Roederer into one of the great Houses. Louis Roederer’s style stresses richness, power, roundness, and fruitiness, with a strong component of Pinot Noir. Its NV Brut Premier retails in the $44 to $50 range.
Jacquesson is a rather small House run by the brothers Laurent and Jean-Hervé Chiquet. It is unique among Champagne Houses in that it does not strive for “house style” in its Champagnes but makes the best-possible Champagne based on the vintage year. Its “non-vintage” Champagne receives a different number each vintage and is made primarily from one vintage; the current Champagne is Cuvée 742 Extra Brut; its next release will be Cuvée 743, and so forth. Jacquesson’s Champagnes are always very dry, very elegant, and consistently excellent. It ages its Champagnes for up to five years before releasing them.
Bollinger is a House known for producing full-bodied, very dry, toasty Champagnes. I have been a fan of its NV Special Cuvée Brut for a long time. Several years ago, I noticed a slip in its quality and style, which might have been caused by a change in its winemakers. For example, its 2007 Vintage Champagne was clearly not up to its standards and should not have been made. Happily, a recent tasting of its Champagnes has demonstrated to me that Bollinger is back in form, and a great example of the full-bodied Champagne style.
Deutz consistently produces one of the most reliable NV Bruts, its Brut Classic, which retails for a value price ($40 to $46). Located in Aÿ, in the heart of Pinot Noir vineyards, Deutz nevertheless is renowned as well for its excellent Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. It is run by the charming Fabrice Rosset, formerly with Louis Roederer.
Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house (founded in 1729) is renowned for its great prestige cuvée, Dom Ruinart. It is a House known for its quality, and well-worth a visit. Its NV Brut, “R de Ruinart,” is very elegant. All of its Champagnes are very well-made.
Bruno Paillard is a very young House, established in 1984 by the exceptional Champagne producer, Bruno Paillard. You can’t miss the new winery if you visit Reims--it is the first winery on the left, as you drive north into Reims from Epernay. Considering how young Bruno Paillard Champagne is, it has made remarkable progress. Its NV Brut Premiére Cuvée retails in the $44 to $53 range, a great value for its quality.
Other Champagne producers making credible NV Bruts include Henriot, Palmer & Co., Gosset, Alfred Gratien, Philipponnat, A.R. Lenoble, and Moët & Chandon--the latter quite remarkable in that Moët is by far the largest-selling Champagne (produces about 30 million bottles annually) and yet its NV Impérial Brut is consistently good.
Vintage Champagnes supposedly are produced only in good vintages, and yet many producers manage to make one almost every year--except in the really poor vintages. All of the Champagne Houses mentioned above make good Vintage Champagnes--which retail mainly in the $65 to $90 range, although some are more expensive. Other Houses making very good Vintage Champagne include Champagnes Drappier, Heidsieck Monopole, Lanson, Delamotte, and Laurent-Perrier. Vintage Krug Champagnes are always outstanding, but their retail price places them in the prestige cuvée category; the same also with Salon, a small House that produces only Vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagnes, and only in very good vintages.
Blanc de Blancs Champagnes
Blanc de Blancs Champagnes are a fairly new category, considering that Champagne itself has been around almost 300 years. The first vintage of Blanc de Blancs was the 1921, produced by Eugène-Aimé Salon (founder of Champagne Salon). Almost all Blanc de Blancs Champagnes are 100% Chardonnay, although a few Houses add Pinot Blanc. The Chardonnay grown in the Champagne region (along with that in the Burgundy region) is the best Chardonnay in the world--the reason for the existence of Blanc de Blancs Champagnes.
Styles range from light-bodied to full-bodied. Many of the full-bodied Blanc de Blancs, such as Krug’s, Salon’s, and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, are really prestige cuvées, and are priced accordingly. Blanc de Blancs NV Champagnes usually cost $10 to $20 more than their NV Brut cousins; Vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagnes range from $20 to $40 higher than Vintage Bruts.
Other fine Blanc de Blancs Champagnes, with some Grower Champagnes, in alphabetical order, include (I refer to Vintage Champagnes, unless specified otherwise)
Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs (vintage only--not its NV)
Cattier Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru (NV)
Guy Charlemagne Cuvée Charlemagne, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs (Grower)
Guy Charlemagne Réserve Brut, Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs (NV; Grower)
Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs d’ Aÿ (Grower)
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs (vintage only--not its NV)
Deutz Blanc de Blancs
Pierre Gimonnet, Cuis 1er Cru, Blanc de Blancs (NV; Grower)
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires (prestige cuvée)
A.R. Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
Bruno Paillard Chardonnay Réserve Privée (NV)
Palmer & Co. Blanc de Blancs (NV)
Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut Blanc de Bancs (NV)
Philipponnat Grand Blanc Brut
Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs de Chardonnay
Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs
Ruinart, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (prestige cuvée)
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (prestige cuvée)
A Blanc de Noirs category of Champagne exists; just a handful of Houses produce these Champagnes, made mainly from 100% Pinot Noir, but also from a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and even a few made from 100% Pinot Meunier.
There is no question that Rosé Champagnes are the hottest Champagnes around today. Talk about trendy! Thirty years ago, it was difficult to sell Rosé Champagnes. Much of the buying public had been put off by the many cheap, still rosés that were popular then, and failed to understand that Rosé Champagnes were dry, and quality Champagnes! Well, the truth is out now, and producers have a somewhat difficult task producing enough Rosé Champagnes for a newly-aware public. Rosé Champagnes typically are made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although 100% Pinot Noir Champagnes do exist. Like Blanc de Blancs, NV Rosé Champagnes are more expensive than NV Bruts and Vintage Rosés are more costly than Vintage white Champagnes. Colors range from the palest pink, pink-orange to deep rosé-colored Champagnes. Most Rosé Champagnes are full-bodied and fruity enough to accompany dinner. A few Rosé Champagnes are delicate, and are great as apéritif Champagnes, such as Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne Rosé and Dom Ruinart Rosé (both, by price, actually prestige cuvées).
Here, listed alphabetically, are some of my favorite Rosé Champagnes:
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Gosset Grand Rosé Brut
Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis Brut Rosé (NV; prestige cuvée)
Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé
Krug Rosé (NV; prestige cuvée)
Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, Cuvée Alexandra Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Moët & Chandon, Cuvée Dom Pérignon Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Perrier-Jouët Blason de France Rosé (NV)
Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Pommery, Louise Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Louis Roederer Brut Rosé
Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Ruinart, Dom Ruinart Rosé (prestige cuvée)
Veuve Clicquot Rosé Réserve
Of the Rosés above, my two absolute favorites are the Krug Rosé and the Roederer Cristal Rosé. Sadly, they are both very expensive; Krug’s Rosé is $300 plus. The rare Cristal Rosé retails for $500 to $550.
Prestige Cuvées are a Champagne producer’s best wines from its greatest vineyards. Producers normally make a prestige cuvée only in good vintages. Retail prices for most of these Champagnes range from $100 to $250, with a few even higher. The most expensive prestige cuvée I list below in my recommended Champagne list is Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs, which retails in the $890 to $1100 range, depending on the vintage. But Krug makes an even more costly Champagne, its rare Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs at more than twice the price of its Clos du Mesnil--$2100 to $2500, a bottle that is, depending on the vintage! As good as it is, I refuse to recommend a Champagne (or any current wine) at that price. I have tasted it, and frankly I prefer Krug’s Clos du Mesnil--which, to me, might be the greatest Champagne produced today.
A final word about prestige cuvées, please age all of them for a minimum of ten years from their vintage date, and in the best vintages, such as 1988 and 1996, even longer. So many times, someone has said to me, “I drank a Cristal, and I didn’t think it was so great!” I ask which vintage it was, and it is always too young. I own one Krug Clos du Mesnil, a 1988. I think it’s about ready to drink now, at age thirty-one.
Here are my recommended prestige cuvees, in alphabetical order:
Bollinger: Cuvée Vielles Vignes Francaises (rare); RD Extra Brut
Cattier: Clos du Moulin
Deutz: Cuvée William Deutz (white and rosé); Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs
Drappier: Grande Sendrée (white and rosé)
Gosset: Celébris Extra Brut (white and rosé)
Alfred Gratien: Cuvée Paradis (white and rosé)
Chares Heidsieck: Blanc des Millénaires
Henriot: Cuvée des Enchanteleurs; Cuvée Hemera
Jacquesson: Avise Grand Cru
Krug: Grande Cuvée; Rosé; Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs
Lanson: Noble Cuvée; Noble Cuvée Blanc de Blancs
Laurent-Perrier: Cuvée Grand Siècle; Cuvée Alexandra Rosé
Moët & Chandon: Cuvée Dom Pérignon (white and rosé)
Perrier-Jouët: Fleur de Champagne (white and rosé)
Philipponnat: Clos des Goisses
Piper-Heidsieck: Champagne Rare
Pol Roger: Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill
Pommery: Cuvée Louise (white and rosé)
Louis Roederer: Cristal (white and rosé)
Ruinart: Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs; Dom Ruinart Rosé
Salon: Le Mesnil (Blanc de Blancs)
Taittinger: Comtes de Champagne, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé
Veuve Clicquot: La Grande Dame; La Grande Dame Rosé
The popularity of Grower Champagnes has exploded over the last two decades. And yet, they are well-known outside of France only by sommeliers, writers, and knowledgeable Champagne aficionados. Last time I checked, Grower Champagnes accounted for only 5% of Champagne sales in the U.S. That figure might be a bit higher now, but not by much. About one-third of all Champagne growers make their own Champagnes (about 5,000). Only a small percentage of that number actually exports their Champagnes outside of France, for two main reasons: they don’t make that many bottles of Champagne, and it takes money to export around the world.
Nevertheless, there are a number of excellent Grower Champagne producers. Look for the words “Special Club” on some labels. The “Special Club” producers are a special group of producers whose “Special Club” Champagnes are invariably of excellent quality.
Among my favorites are the following Grower-Producers (listed alphabetically):
Often, Grower Champagnes are a bit young when they are released; most Growers don’t have the storage capacity to age the Champagnes themselves. Ideally, you should hold on to grower Champagnes a year or two before opening them.
I suggest that you buy some favorite Champagnes and age them yourselves. It’s always great to greet friends and relatives with a cold bottle of Champagne!