Once again the holidays are approaching and everybody is turning his attention to sparkling wine to ring in the New Year. Many people come in the store looking for “Champagne” but when I tell them a drinkable Champagne starts at $25.00 or so on sale, they realize that what they are looking for is sparkling wine. Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. The grapes must be from that region and secondary fermentation must occur in the bottle (Methode Champenois or Traditionelle). The wine is fermented and bottled. Yeast is then added, and the secondary fermentation results in bubbles which are trapped in the bottle. Champagnes tend to be pricy, starting in the upper twenty dollar range, with most being in the $40-80s and some reaching several hundred dollars. Champagne is made from three grape varietals—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Sparkling wines are made in many other parts of France and the world, and many are extraordinary. I will talk about those made in France today, and in the next article I’ll explore those from other countries. All the wines discussed here are made in the same way as those in Champagne, although they may be made from different grapes. More importantly, they are significantly less expensive.
Sparkling wines from the tiny town of Limoux, in Southwestern France offer great value. This is actually the birthplace of sparkling wines. The monks in the Abbey of St Hilaire discovered secondary fermentation and put it to use in 1536. A local varietal, Mauzac, is the primary grape used, along with small amounts of Chardonnay. These wines are fresh and dry with flavors of apple and pear and a beautiful acidity. Elegance Blanquette de Limoux is my every day sparkler and is a bargain at $12.99. Buy cases of this for your New Years Eve party!
The region of Burgundy is home to Cave Lugny Cremant de Bourgogne. (cremant basically means a sparkling wine made in France but not made in Champagne). This wine is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and has a beautiful minerality and acidity, delicate perlage (tiny, delicate bubbles) and nuances of brioche and apple. This is an elegant, flavorful bubbly that costs only $16.99 and drinks like it is a lot more expensive.
Alsace is a region famous for its white wines – Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. They make wonderful sparkling wine as well, and my favorite is Lucien Albrecht’s Cremant D’Alsace, a beautiful sparkler made from 100% Pinot Blanc. It has a very fine perlage and delicate nose and flavors of apple and pear. This is a delicious wine that rivals $40 Champagnes and has performed very well against them in private tastings that I have done. At $18.99, a single bottle simply will not suffice.
Our final stop before Champagne is another northerly region, the Loire Valley. This is the home of sparkling Vouvray. Wines from this appellation are made from 100% Chenin Blanc. The Francois Pinon Brut is a fantastic example. Sourced from organic vineyards, this wine is a perfect expression of terroir, orchard fruits, spices, and minerals. This would be $22.99 very well spent.
This leads us to the “Mother of all Sparkling Wine,” Champagne. Nothing suggests celebration more than a bottle of this sparkler. Of course, the most well known are those from the big houses that buy from up to hundreds of growers and then literally assemble the wines in the cellar from many lots, thus keeping their style consistent year after year. Well known examples are Moet Chandon Imperial Brut and Veuve Cliquote Yellow label Brut. Priced in the $39-45 range during the holidays, these are beautiful, minerally wines with hints of apples and pear, creamy delicate perlage, and bracing acidity. One of my very favorites in this group is Billecart – Salmon Reserve Brut. At $52.99, this is one of the very best non vintage champagnes one can find done in a traditional house style. Rosé versions of most of these Champagnes can be found but are in limited quantities and are more expensive. Billecart makes probably the best nonvintage rosé Champagne I’ve ever had but will set you back $86.99 for the experience.
There are two versions of Champagnes that are becoming better known and are well worth searching out. First is the so called Brut Nature or Extra Brut. After fermentation, a small plug of yeast and debris is removed from the bottle. The resulting space is filled with a tiny amount of still wine and sugar. If the amount of sugar is small, the result is Brut (every wine discussed so far has been Brut). A little more sugar results in Extra Dry and a little more results in Demi Sec. With Brut Nature or Extra Brut, essentially no sugar is added and these are bone dry, steely, minerally wines that are truly beautiful. Francis Boulard Les Murgiers Brut Nature, a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is my favorite at a cost of $49.99.
Grower Champagnes are the wines I feel that anyone who wants to experience the true “Champagne Experience” needs to search out. These estates have their own vineyards and bottle their wines after each harvest. They often save lots from previous vintages to blend in with the current vintage to make the wine more consistent year after year, but they still demonstrate incredible character approaching that of vintage Champagnes. Champagne Piollot, a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, is loaded with minerals, orchard fruit, and notes of fresh baked bread, the latter being a characteristic usually only seen in vintage Champagnes. At $37.49, this is probably the best value on the entire sparkling wine aisle. Champagne Aubry is another excellent example at $48.99.
Finally, at the top of the heap, are the Vintage Champagnes. These wines are made only in years when conditions allow for the best quality grapes and only grapes from that vintage are used and the bottle is labeled with the year of the harvest. These are the very best Champagnes that are meant to age into otherworldy wines. Perhaps the most well known are Moet’s Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame. These wines are excellent at release, but if you have the will power, put one in your cellar for ten years and you’ll find out what all the fuss is about. Upon opening, the nose of yeasty brioche makes you feel like you are standing in a bakery. This is followed by complex aromas and flavors of apple, honey and minerals, and baking spices. These wines are magnificent. You might actually forget you paid $130-$200 for the experience.
You can celebrate with style no matter what your budget, so get in on the act and enjoy! Happy holidays!