Before I focus on non-vintage brut Champagnes, I must tell you about a newly-published Champagne book. Every once in a while a wine book is published that so impresses me that I feel I should bring attention to it. Richard Juhlin, a Swedish wine writer specializing in Champagne and clearly one of the world’s great Champagne experts, has debuted his latest epic tome on Champagne, A Scent of Champagne, 8,000 Champagnes Tasted and Rated. This book follows his three other works, 2,000 Champagnes, 3,000 Champagnes, and 4,000 Champagnes. And so you get the theme: Juhlin has been tasting and rating more and more Champagnes as his career unfolds.
Juhlin claims to have tasted more different Champagnes than anyone else in the world, and he might be right. He is also renowned for his skills in tasting Champagnes blind. His current book, A Scent of Champagne, is an over-sized book of 400 pages. It should serve as the ideal reference book for any Champagne aficionado researching a Champagne that he might not be familiar with. It is also a beautiful book, with many outstanding photos.
The first part of the book is a primer of the wine and the region for those readers unfamiliar with Champagne. Several interesting chapters follow. Juhlin admittedly is somewhat obsessed with making lists: He writes a major section listing and awarding points to his “100 Best Champagnes of All Time,” starting with the 1928 Pol Roger, to which he gives 100 points. Another section names his “100 Champagnes You Should Try Before You Die.” The major portion of the books lists Juhlin’s 8,000 Champagnes, in alphabetical order by producer’s surname; Juhlin uses a one-star to five-star system to rate the producers.
For me, 8,000 Champagnes is Juhlin’s best book to date, and one of the finest books on Champagne ever written. It is the most clearly organized of his books; it is quite easy to look up any information you need. For Champagne lovers, especially Champagne geeks like me, this is a must-buy.
Speaking of lists, I now list some of my favorite non-vintage Champagnes. I often--but don’t always--agree with Juhlin’s assessments of the producers. For instance, Juhlin awards Champagne Bruno Paillard three stars, whereas, using his rating system, I would give Bruno Paillard four stars.
Non-vintage Champagnes are the bread-and-butter of the Champagne region, comprising 85 to 90 percent of all Champagnes produced annually. In the cool, northerly Champagne region, subject to periodic rainfalls and hailstorms, it is impossible to produce quality vintage Champagnes every year. Thus, just about all producers make a “non-vintage” Champagne annually, which typically is a blend of three or more vintages. Even in years when a vintage Champagne can be produced, not enough vintage Champagne can be made to satisfy a producer’s needs. The producer’s NV Brut Champagne is his most affordable Champagne, with most of the NVs retailing in the $30 to $45 range. (Certain non-vintage Champagnes, such as Krug Grande Cuvée and Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, are really Prestige Cuvées, selling for over $100, and therefore I do not include them in my NV list.)
In alphabetical order, here are the NV Brut Champagnes I recommend:
Agrapart & Fils: A grower-producer in the Côte des Blancs earning more and more attention. A producer of rich, medium-bodied Blanc de Blancs. Look for Agrapart’s NV Terroirs or its Les 7 Crus.
Paul Bara: Historically, one of the earliest growers to produce its own Champagnes, and still one of the best. Paul Bara is located in the Pinot Noir-dominated village of Bouzy. Bara’s stunning NV Brut and NV Brut Rosé are made mainly from Pinot Noir. Bara’s Champagnes are available primarily in California.
Bollinger: One of the great Champagne houses. Bollinger has a consistent, unique house style that I can invariably identify when I taste it blind. Very full-bodied, nutty, and complex. Its NV Special Cuvée, 60 percent Pinot Noir, 15 percent Pinot Meunier, and 25 percent Chardonnay, is pricier than most NV Bruts (retailing in $52-$62 range), but worth it.
Guy Charlemagne: For some reason, this remarkable grower-producer, located in the prestigious village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, does not get the recognition it deserves. Its NV Blanc de Blancs is one of the best values in the Champagne world today.
Deutz: Its always reliable NV Classic Brut, 38 percent Pinot Noir, 32 percent Pinot Meunier, 30 percent Chardonnay, is one of the NV staples in my household. Elegant and medium-bodied, the Deutz Classic Brut uses 75 percent Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes in its blend.
Egly-Ouriet: Located in Ambonnay, in the heart of Pinot Noir country (Montagne de Reims), Egly-Ouriet is one of the great grower-producers. Its Brut Tradition Grand Cru, 70 percent Pinot Noir, 30 percent Chardonnay, is outstanding, as are all of its Champagnes. Its NV Bruts are a little pricier than most.
Gosset: This has always been one of my favorite houses. Gosset produces two NV Bruts, its Excellence, and its superb Grande Réserve ($60-$65). Made from Grand Cru grapes, Gosset’s dry, full-bodied Grande Réserve has the complexity and longevity of a prestige cuvée.
Alfred Gratien: This traditional house’s NV Brut Classique, very dry and lively, is mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. An underrated producer making excellent Champagnes.
Charles Heidsieck: For me, Charles Heidsieck is making one of the very best non-vintage Champagnes. I love the firm, toasty style of its Brut Réserve (40 percent Pinot Noir, 35 percent Pinot Meunier, 25 percent Chardonnay). One of the secrets of Charles Heidsieck’s great complexity is that it blends its non-vintage Champagnes with up to 40 percent reserve wines from older vintages.
Henriot: Another of the great, traditional firms making consistently excellent NV Bruts. Although its standard Brut (55 percent Pinot Noir, 45 percent Chardonnay) is fine, look especially for Henriot’s sublime NV Blanc de Blancs. Chardonnay has always been the star variety of Henriot.
Jacquesson: Located in the village of Dizy, just north of Epernay, Jacquesson is a superb, traditional house making very fine Champagnes. Jacquesson uses a large portion of Grand Cru grapes in its NV Champagnes, and puts a number on the label each year so that you know how old the NV Brut is, and when it was produced. Jacquesson began with Cuvée 728 about nine years ago. Their latest NV release is Cuvée 736, but you can also find Cuvées 735 and 734 in the market; average retail price, $65.
Moët & Chandon: It is rather miraculous that the largest Champagne house in the world, which produces the largest amount of non-vintage Champagne under its NV Brut Impérial label, is consistently fine year after year. The cepage varies from year to year, but black grapes predominate, with Chardonnay representing about 20 percent of the blend. One of the improvements winemaker Benoit Gouez has made is to lower the dosage (residual sugar) to 9 gms. per liter, and he will lower it even further in the near future. Moët is now making some non-dosage Champagnes, both as NV Bruts and in its renowned prestige cuvee, Dom Pérignon--both not in the U.S. at the present time.
Pierre Moncuit: Look for the grower Pierre Moncuit’s NV Grand Cru (Le Mesnil) Blanc de Blancs. It’s one of the best values in Champagne today. Let’s hope that all the recent attention this grower is receiving will not affect its prices!
Bruno Paillard: Bruno Paillard makes his fresh, very dry, lively Champagnes from a large percentage of Grand Cru grapes. His NV Brut Première Cuvée is very good, but his Chardonnay Réserve Privée is his top NV Brut.
Perrier-Joüet: Perrier-Jouët’s NV Grand Brut, a blend of all three of the major varieties, has been a big success in the U.S. for some time. Its elegant, finesseful style is strongly influenced by its Chardonnay grapes grown in the top Blanc de Blancs village, Cramant.
Pierre Peters: The Champagnes of grower Pierre Peters come from the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Although his NV Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs is pricey (around $60), his Champagnes are sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Krug Clos du Mesnil.” Krug’s vintage Clos du Mesnil sells for about $800. I’m not saying that Pierre Peters is on the same level as Krug Clos du Mesnil, but it’s darn good, and a bargain, comparatively speaking.
Pol Roger: Pol Roger is one NV Brut that really improves with aging. All of Pol Roger’s Champagnes are renowned for their aging, perhaps because of the extremely cold cellars in which they are stored. Pol Roger NV Brut is a rich, medium-bodied Champagne with equal percentages of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Pol Roger is now making an NV nature, a zero-dosage Champagne that promises to be exciting.
Louis Roederer: Louis Roederer’s NV Brut Premier is brilliant. It’s Pinot Noir-dominated (62 percent, with 8 percent Pinot Meunier and 30 percent Chardonnay). Perhaps a key reason that its NV Brut is so good is that Champagne Louis Roederer owns 70 percent of the vineyards whose grapes it uses, the highest percentage of any major house. We can expect nothing but the best from the producer who makes Cristal.
Ruinart: Ruinart’s star NV Brut is its Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, an outstanding but pricey ($65-$70) non-vintage Brut. It’s the little sister to Ruinart’s sublime prestige cuvee, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.
There are a few other very fine grower-producers--such as Jacques Selosse and Vilmart--whose NV Champagnes rate mention, but their NV Champagnes are so expensive that they fall more into the category of prestige cuvées. The non-vintage Champagnes I have recommended are available and are in a reasonable price range.