Last week, the Wine Media Guild, a wine writers’ group in New York, enjoyed their Holiday tasting/luncheon accompanied by 26 NV Brut Champagnes. I had chosen the Champagnes, putting together some renowned Champagnes with lesser-known bubblies, including some grower-producer Champagnes.
Non-Vintage Bruts are by far the largest category of Champagnes, comprising about 87 percent of all Champagnes. Included in the group of 26 were some NV
Blanc de Blancs, a growing category. If the Champagne is a Blanc de Blancs, it is 100 percent Chardonnay. NV Bruts are normally made from three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. When the Champagne is made from only Grand Cru or Premier Cru grapes, Pinot Meunier is usually not used.
Among the NV Bruts, I found very few sub-par Champagnes. Almost all were at least average to very good, with amany truly outstanding Champagnes. They were markedly dryer than previously, with obviously lower dosage. I highlight my favorites below, listed in the order in which they were served, along with their approximate retail prices:
Marion Bosser Premier Cru Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs ($54-$57): This little-known Grower Champagne from the Premier Cru village of Hautvillers is produced by a mother-daughter team. It is very dry and firm, with lots of flavor, a truly outstanding Chardonnay Champagne. For me, it was one of the best Champagnes of the tasting.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve ($50): I was pleasantly surprised by the dryness of Billecart-Salmon. In the past, its dosage was too high for my taste, but the house has clearly lowered the dosage in the current Brut Reserve. Its freshness, clean, flowery aromas, and liveliness now put this NV Brut Reserve in the front ranks of NV Bruts--although I do think the price is a bit high for a basic NV Brut. Billecart-Salmon is now making a zero dosage “Extra Brut” ($56-$60), which is even better than the Brut Reserve.
Bruno Paillard Brut Premiere Cuvée ($42-$49): Bruno Paillard has consistently been one of my favorite Champagne houses. Its Premiere Cuvée, with its light body, dryness and elegance, makes it the ideal aperitif Champagne. I love the style of this Reims-based house.
Taittinger Brut La Française ($36-$45): Taittinger is another house that has made great improvements in its basic NV Brut. This Chardonnay-dominated Champagne is the driest, freshest and most flavorful Taittinger NV Brut I have ever tasted, and a fine introduction for its Prestige Cuvée, Comtes de Champagne.
Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut ($60): Laurent-Perrier was the first major Champagne house to make a Brut Nature (zero dosage), in 1981. And thanks to increased ripeness due to global warming, its Ultra Brut is better than ever, a big step up from its basic NV Brut. The current Ultra Brut is a marvel, with lots of flavor and style, and no trace of excessive acidity, which sometimes dominated the wine in previous, cooler years. Now, it seems as if everyone is making a Brut Nature. But Laurent-Perrier was the first, and still one of the best. By the way, Laurent-Perrier is the largest family-owned house in Champagne, and owners of the magnificent Salon and Delamotte houses.
Deutz Brut Classic ($40-$45): I have always loved the lemon-rind flavor of Deutz, which is even more noticeable in its Vintage Blanc de Blancs. Deutz’s Classic Brut is dry and lively, with clean, fresh flavors. It is consistently reliable, and a favorite of mine.
Duval-Leroy Premier Cru Brut ($53-$55): Duval-Leroy’s Premier Cru Brut is a huge step up from its basic NV Brut. It costs about $15 more than the standard Duval-Leroy Brut, but it is definitely worth the higher price. The Premier Cru, made from vineyards on the Côte des Blancs--especially in Vertus, the location of the winery--has distinctive, lively flavors, strongly influenced by the Chardonnay of the Côte des Blancs, arguably the best Chardonnay vineyards in the world.
A. R. Lenoble Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru ($49-$55): A small, family-owned winery, A.R. Lenoble is a Champagne to watch. It is making premium Champagnes, like this Blanc de Blancs from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly (Grand Cru for Chardonnay only) on the Côte des Blancs at extraordinarily reasonable prices. A better-known Champagne house would be charging more than twice the price. The Champagne is firm and powerful, typical of Champagnes made from these vineyards. It should be long-lived. Arguably the best value of all the Champagnes in the tasting.
André Jacquart Brut Experience Premier Cru ($44-$51): André Jacquart (no connection with the co-operative Champagne Jacquart) is another small Champagne house in the Premier Cru village of Vertus on the southern end of the Côte des Blancs. Marie Doyard (granddaughter of the late André Jacquart) is now running the estate. André Jacquart makes only Blanc de Blancs, with 60 percent of its grapes coming from Premier Cru Vertus and 40 percent from the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, André Jacquart’s two NV Blanc de Blancs, are excellent, with the Grand Cru ($72-$78) the more powerful of the two. But the classy André Jacquart Premier Cru is a fantastic value for the price.
Leclerc Briant Les Chevres Pierreuses Premier Cru Brut ($69): This outstanding Champagne has returned to the U.S. after an extended absence. It is one of the most expensive Champagnes in the group, but also one of the best. This winery’s Champagnes are very traditional and are made to last. Only 3,000 bottles were made of the single-vineyard Les Chevres Pierreuses from the excellent Premier Cru village of Cumières. This powerful NV Brut was one of the most stunning Champagnes of the tasting.
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs ($63-$70): Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs is the baby brother of the renowned Dom Ruinart Vintage Blanc de Blancs. It comes in a beautfiul, clear Prestige Cuvée type bottle. There definitely is a family resemblance, but the Vintage Dom is the more powerful and complex of the two. Because the NV Ruinart has wide distribution, this has become my go-to Champagne as I travel around the U.S. Always delicious with a clean, fresh, citrusy taste. But it’s rather expensive for a basic NV Brut.
Henriot Blanc de Blancs (55-$60): Among my Champagne-drinking friends, Henriot is a clear favorite (me included). I love its style; it is the epitome of class and finesse. This elegant Champagne, never powerful, emphasizes Chardonnay in its wines. And so it should be no surprise that Henriot makes an excellent Blanc de Blancs, a delightful, easy-drinking bubbly that one can enjoy any time.
Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($35-$40): Some readers might be surprised that I would include the largest Champagne producer in the world among my favorites. But the point is, Moët makes an extremely reliable, consistent, well-priced Champagne, now drier than ever. I chalk it up to the genius of winemaker Benoit Gouez, who has made vast improvements in Moët’s Brut Imperial, the world’s largest selling Champagne. It is fresh and firm, and very flavorful.
Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs ($54): With Grower-Producer Pascal Doquet, we meet one of the authentic great winemakers in Champagne. His winery is in Vertus, and he owns parcels of vineyards throughout the Côte des Blancs. Including some in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Doquet’s Le Mesnil, which is deep, complexly flavored and powerful, is one of the great Champagnes , topped only by his Vintage 2002 Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs. His price is very low for a Champagne of this quality. Incredible value!
J. P. Lamiable Brut Grand Cru ($50): Well to the east of Reims and Epernay is the Grand Cru village of Tours-sur-Marne, home of the gigantic Laurent-Perrier house and the small grower-producer family going back to 1600, J. P. Lamiable. Here Lamiable makes a very fine NV Grand Cru Brut, 60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay. I find it amazing that these great, complex, powerful Grand Cru Champagnes sell for only $50. One of Champagne’s greatest values.
Gosset Grande Reserve Brut ($58-$66): Gosset, one of the oldest Champagne houses, produces one of my favorite NV Bruts. Its Grande Reserve Brut, made from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, is a huge step up from its basic NV Brut, the Excellence (made from purchased grapes). The Grande Reserve is powerful and intense; its Chardonnay component (43 percent) comes from Côte des Blancs. Vineyards. It tastes more like a Prestige Cuvée than a NV Brut. And the price, for a Champagne of this quality, is more than fair.
Louis Roederer Brut Reserve ($40): I don’t think that there is a more reliable Champagne house than Louis Roederer. All of its Champagnes are consistently excellent, including Roederer’s NV Brut Premier--which is fresh, vibrant, and powerful. Part of the reason for its success is its outstanding chef de caves, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon and its dynamic owner, Frédéric Rouzard. A great value at $40.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($52-$60): It seems that the Champagnes of Charles Heidsieck have been a well-kept secret, only known to Champagne insiders. With Champagnes of their quality, Charles Heidsieck’s wines should be best-sellers. Its NV Brut Reserve, made from 40 percent reserve wines--many of which are more than ten years old, contribute to its powerful, intense, complex flavors. Drinking the Brut Reserve is like enjoying a well-aged wine. I do notice the price has increased, but that was long overdue. Just a great NV Brut!
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut ($60-$70: It is no secret that Bollinger has long made perhaps the most full-bodied, intensely flavorful NV Brut. Its style is so unique that it’s usually the one Champagne I can pick out at blind tastings. But is it my imagination, or do I detect a somewhat lighter-bodied style in the current Special Cuvée? Perhaps it’s too young. “Bolly” Champagnes always benefit from extra aging. It has been too reliable in the past for me to quibble about one tasting, and so, based on its record, I still recommend it. Its vintage-dated Champagnes, based on my recent experiences, remain amazing.
Summing up, I was delighted at the quality of this group of non-vintage Brut Champagnes. My old favorites--such as Charles Heidsieck, Gosset Grande Reserve, Bruno Paillard, Henriot, Louis Roederer , Duval-Leroy Premier Cru and Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut--were as reliable as ever.
But perhaps even more gratifying is the number of outstanding NV Bruts, new in the American market, that showed so well. Many are grower-producers. Look for names such as Pascal Doquet, Marion-Bosser, A.R. Lenoble, André Jacquart, Leclerc Briant, and J.P. Lamiable when you shop. I think the success of many of the newcomers is due to a couple of factors: Their extensive use of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, and especially their extensive use of Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs. My choice of using as many NV Blanc de Blancs in this tasting was no accident, I can assure you. I am a big fan of Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Actually, I am a big fan of all well-made Champagnes….