Arguably the most famous wine region in the world, Champagne was the original source of sparkling wine, and is still considered the primary region for the wine of the same name. Known for its connotations of class and success, Champagne is a common fixture at parties and celebrations. Despite tons of knockoff wines that are sparkling, but are not actually genuine Champagne from the Champagne region, the Champagne name has remained intact and is even more reputable now than it was 50 years ago.
Originally, Champagne’s methods of production (two fermentations, one of which having the purpose of creating the bubbles) were proprietary and mysterious. Much like Sauternes, the way that these great wines were made was unknown and winemakers, fearing competition, kept it that way. But in the modern day, Champagne’s secrets have been revealed for all to see. Competitors from Italy, Spain, and California, as well as other far-flung places, have attempted to compete with Champagne, but the original region is still solidly on top and commands exponentially higher prices. Many Champagnes, like Krug’s world famous Clos de l’Ambonnay, can cost thousands per bottle.
While the term “Champagne” is often used to refer to any sparkling wine (often made from all kinds of grapes), true Champagne is made only in the large administrative region of the same name, which is located to the north of France, east of Paris. The wine is usually made from either Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or a mix of the two, although supplementary grape Pinot Meunier also enters into the mix. The wine is made in several villages, some of which are classified as Premier Cru and the most prestigious and desirable as Grand Cru. Note that it is the villages that are classified, unlike the vineyards.
Not everyone likes the crisp, dry style associated with Champagne, of a wine bursting with yellow fruit but having no richness or sweetness (in the Brut versions). But there are few wines as refreshing as a good glass of bubbly, and the best of these come from a province in France that has made great strides to be associated directly with wealth and success. In addition to being viticulturally important, the village, its vineyards, and the great sparkling wines they make also have marked historical significance.
The northerly region of Champagne was cultivated with Pinot Noir in the Roman times, perhaps even before the Middle Ages began. At the time, the wine made was a still red, so pale it was practically rosé; it was bitter and thin, often with unsavory high acidity due to the cold climate. Champagne is directly to the north of the administrative region of Burgundy, and its would-be vignerons thought they could produce Pinot Noir of equal quality.
They were wrong, and although their winemaking technique inched along and gradually improved, the Burgundians still had a huge advantage due to their superior climate and soil. By this time, accidents in the cellars had caused sparkling red wine to be produced, but French drinkers saw this as a fault and sometimes did not even drink wine that had bubbles. However, the English liked sparkling wines for their verve and liveliness, and interest from the UK caused a demand for these styles to arise.
Producers attempted to figure out manual ways to add bubbles to the wines, with disappointing results. It was an Englishman who invented the méthode champenois in the 1800s; it caught on quickly, and the modern product that we know as Champagne began. Still, there were a number of differences from the Champagne of today: it was produced from Pinot Noir, it was sweet due to the presence of residual sugar, and flavors were much more simplistic than they are today. (Unlike, say, Bordeaux, where the style and taste of the wine has been the same for centuries.)
Gradual improvements were made to the wine, and dry wines gradually became more popular than sweet styles. Despite setbacks–for example, phylloxera–in the late 19th century and early 20th century, amazing strides in quality were made by the ambitious producers. The monarchy began to buy the expensive wines and cite them as favorites, which finally satisfied Champenois who had been aiming to unseat Burgundy all along. The image of class conferred upon Champagne buyers by the monarchy’s love of it made sparkling wines in demand all over the world.
Of course, there were problems. Unscrupulous producers in Champagne were making wine of poor quality by their own invented methods, and worse yet, producers in other parts of the world had gotten hold of the méthode champenois and were selling their own bubbly as Champagne. Legislative crackdowns throughout the 20th century seemed to improve the situation, although fake Champagne is still sold in many parts of the world.
In the meanwhile, though, the demand for Champagne among those with class and those who wanted to look like they had class grew significantly. Champagne producers could hardly keep up, and the already inflated prices rose to new highs. The difficulty and risk of the production process had decreased, but demand had gone up, and the Champagne industry became a massive, multimillion-dollar business. Nowadays, Champagne prices are $30 for the most basic bottles and $100 for “average” styles. But the high price of Champagne only increased its prestige and further bolstered demand from the wealthy! As a result of this vicious circle, Champagne has become among the most exclusive beverages in the world.
Climate and Viticulture
The enormous success of the Champagne region springs directly from two important things: the Champagne climate, and their méthode champenois, which is known to make the best sparkling wine in the world. The area is among the coldest to make good wine, with temperatures rarely rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). The soil’s distinguishing feature is a chalky, fossil-rich top layer left by oceans that covered the region millions of years ago.
The chalky soil, which is prevalent in almost all great Champagne production areas, is combined with high, lofty hills on which the vines receive excellent sunlight. Grand Cru and Premier Cru in Champagne apply to villages, not vineyards, so terroir is less clear here than in somewhere like Burgundy or even Bordeaux. But there’s no doubt that the fossil-rich chalky clay makes up top soil for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Even supposing that no fungal diseases destroy the grapes, and there’s no frost in the spring, how are the bubbles formed? By a wine-producing method known as the méthode champenois, which originally was proprietary and mysterious. Exacting regulations ensure that the method is followed precisely by wines that label themselves Champagne, and that others using it in other regions, countries, or even continents, cannot use either the Champagne name or the name méthode champenois.
First, the usual fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks, and the still wines are bottled with a bit of yeast and sugar inside. Importantly, the wines are then fermented again in their individual bottles, as the carbon dioxide that makes the bubbles gradually forms. AOC requires Champagne-labeled wines to undergo three years of fermentation (1.5 for non-vintage wines), but most producers exceed this quota. After an exacting process, which until recent years was manual but is now being automated, the sediment is forced to the neck of the bottle and removed, and a bit of sugar is added in order to counteract the biting acidity.
Importantly, non-vintage wines make up the bulk of Champagne production, and literally all low-priced Champagnes. These wines are a mix of grapes from different years’ crops–a seemingly nasty arrangement, but most non-vintage Champagnes still beat vintage sparklers from other regions. Another distinction to keep in mind is sweet vs. dry, since the amount of sugar added is up to the producer. Some producers will add none at all, making a wine usually called Brut Zero, Brut Nature, or some variant. The typical Brut has only a small amount of sugar, but the wine will still taste very dry; Extra Dry is usually drier, while plain Sec is usually a tad sweeter. Demi-sec is slightly sweet, while the rare douxis a fully sweet, sugary wine. Sweeter styles have been declining in popularity lately.
The mainstay grapes of Champagne production happen to be the exact same as those of the Burgundy region directly to the south: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Another grape, however, comes into play in Champagne: the Pinot Noir derivative Pinot Meunier. Most of the time, and in most cheaper wines, these three are blended together in some way, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir usually making up the majority of the blend and Pinot Meunier making up 5% or less to add some aroma and body.
The term blanc de blancs refers to Champagnes made solely from Chardonnay, while blanc de noirs is either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or some blend of those two. These “blanc de” styles tend to be the most exclusive. Also note: blanc de noirs is white, as even Champagne made only from red grapes still loses its color during the production process.
Many producers in Champagne have become a household name; in some cases, even their de luxe cuvée (which, by the way, is an unofficial term for a producers’ most expensive and well-made Champagne) is commonly known, even among non-wine drinkers. Examples like Cristal and Dom Pérignon come to mind; these are the de luxe cuvées of Louis Roederer and Moët et Chandon respectively.
Despite the many similarities between Burgundy and Champagne, Champagne has very different labeling practices. Although most of the top cuvées are made from Grand Cru villages, these villages are rarely marked on the label, for complex reasons. Champagne is totally producer-based, while Burgundy is appellation-based; indeed, Champagne has only three AOCs!
By the standards that the producer should have good variety in addition to very reliable quality, we list 29 example producers, which are detailed below in alphabetical order.
- L. Aubry: An “independent” Champagne producer of consistently good quality. The basic NV Brut is under $40, and has delicious, smoke-tinged notes of pear, light honey, and fresher herbs, with refreshing lightness and simplicity. Strawberry, cherry and currant populate the NV Brut Rosé, and though a bit sharper and more expensive than the basic wine, it is in many ways more precise. The Brut Rosé Sable, made in vintages, has more richness and clearly defined herbal flavors, but is at the same time more elegant. The basic Blanc de Blancs is uncompromising, with rich, heavily layered fruit, but its almost earthy heaviness could be interesting after aging.The Aubry de Humbert is another step up, with sharply focused herbs and smoky minerality that mingle well with generous pear and citrus fruit. The Ivoire et Ebene is yet richer and smokier, with tough but complex aromas of yellow fruit plus quince and honeyed floral notes. The Nombre d’Or wines vary in quality, the best being the richly smoky, deep yet precise Brut Sable Blanc de Blancs.
- Billecart-Salmon: A big-production Champagne house mainly known for its rosé. The basic Brut is fresh and lively, with simply refreshing peach and pear flavors plus minerality. The Brut Rosé is one of the best entry-level Champagnes; uncompromisingly heavy yet vibrant, it piles on spicy, smoothly textured red and orange fruit scents. This will cost under $100, but the Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon is often well over: rich and unabashedly heavy and powerful, it rejects typically delicate Champagne flavors in favor of intensely earthy red fruit notes. For $300 or more, the Grande Cuvée is one of the best Rosé Champagnes to be found, with three-dimensional, almost breaded character. Cooked and thus very ripe but full-bodied and intense, this cuvée has more power than many Champagnes but ample fruit and herb flavors, along with strong minerality, give it real vibrancy.
- Bollinger: Bollinger is a very famous Champagne house, with an independent reputation and cult following to seriously rival that of Louis Roederer or Joseph Perrier. The ultimate British Champagne house, this was acknowledged by James Bond as his favorite Champagne producer. The basic Champagne is a Brut rosé, with good red berry and herb flavors, made in a smoky, acidic style. The Brut Special Cuvée is a white Champagne blend that is mostly Pinot Noir; rich and bold, it has intense yellow fruit flavors with a buttery tinge. The “R.D. Extra Brut”, released in a vintage style, is much more concentrated and aromatic, with tropical fruit mingling well with the more traditional apple and pear to create a wine of freshness and flavor. The de luxe cuvée here is called La Grande Année: it adds a layer of spicy, smoky, almost red fruit on top of the other flavors. Almost honeyed in its richness, but not sweet at all, it is an exotic style but vibrant due to good minerality and acidity.
- Gaston Chiquet: Perfumed and generous, the basic Brut here doesn’t have much in the way of power but has good yellow fruit and floral vibrancy. The white vintage Brut is more aromatically floral, pure and fresh but also rich enough to be more powerful than the non-vintage. The Reserve Brut is even more powerful but less aromatic; look for the Special Club Brut as the best wine here. Not released until 10 years after vintage, it has incredibly deep yellow fruit notes and a rich, smoky texture.
- Delamotte: Delamotte is a classic house for Chardonnay-oriented Champagnes. Even the basic non-vintage examples are good; the combination of citrus fruit and floral elegance in the basic wine shows more complexity than many others of its pedigree. The non-vintage Blanc de Blancs, made in exclusive Chardonnay Grand Cru Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, is another step up, with silky-smooth, amazingly delicate notes of slightly smoky herbs, vibrant fruit, and mint. The vintage example is the best, much more ripe and aromatic with perfectly balanced yellow fruit and more intriguing herbs and minerality.
- Deutz: Deutz makes a number of wines, most of them reasonably priced. The basic non-vintage and vintage Brut are good, but they are eclipsed by the vintage rosé, a varietal Pinot Noir that has a strong mineral underpinning. Both the vintage and non-vintage Blanc de Blancs show impressive citrussy, minty style. Still, the best is by far the Cuvée William Deutz. Not released until 10 years after vintage, it has a smoothly creamy texture and amazing smoky flavors of apple, pear, and pungent spicy herbs and an almost earthy, woodsy tinge. Known as one of the top cuvées in Champagne, this distinctive wine costs around $150 and can be aged for even longer after release.
- Pierre Gimonnet et Fils: Solely Chardonnay-based Bruts (but for a few “experimental” new cuvées) are the domain of Pierre Gimonnet, a producer which has acquired a reputation as one of the top Chardonnay Champagne houses. The old-vine vintage Brut seems to play the role of basic cuvée, intentionally lean floral and citrus notes mingling with minerality to make a fresh, complex wine. Intermediate cuvées provide good variety: the Fleuron is more floral-driven but still precise and delicate; the Gastronome version has fresh citrus and saline minerality; the Oenophile is more smooth and round but blends rich honeyed fruit and minerality well; the Paradoxe is the richest yet but has vibrant smoky fruit flavors. The Premier Cru, which costs around $40, is probably the best value, with spicy aromas of yellow fruit mingling well with fresh herb notes. Meanwhile, the Special Club is the best wine on technical merit, exotically round but having a center of spicy, gingery flavors.
- Gosset: This is a definite boutique producer, but with high quality to boot. The basic Brut is called Excellence, and is non-vintage, with good flavors and a gentle, silky texture for under $40. From there the offerings split up into two categories, “Celebris” and “Grande”. Grande includes the Grande Millesime, a vintage cuvée with amazingly floral but not delicate aromas, the Grande Rosé, which has spicy red fruit flavors and more of an almost wild floral element, and the Grande Reserve Brut, which is smoothly layered with breaded rich quince and pear fruit notes. Still, these can’t hold a candle to the richly herbaceous, almost syrupy Celebris Extra Brut Rosé. An amazingly uncompromising wine, sacrificing generosity for its combination of heaviness and vibrancy, but in the best vintages the white Celebris Brut can still outdo it for its exorbitantly powerful yellow fruit, orange, plus amazingly precise smoky-spicy aromas.
- Henriot: Oddly, all Henriot’s cuvées except for the top one have both non-vintage and vintage examples, and the quality between the two is rarely different. The basic Brut is powerful and exotic, with rich if not fresh breaded, nutty yellow fruit and spice scents. The Rosé is also Brut, and its dryness shows through, but lean notes of citrus mingle well with more generous cherry and earth. The Blanc de Blancs is elegant, but its nutty richness is cut by vibrant citrus—a classic expression of Champagne. The Souverain is also pure Chard, with lively, almost wild fruit aromas crossing paths with more oaky spice and bread notes. The best wine is the Cuvée Enchanteleurs, which costs $100 or more and is not released until 14 years after vintage. Its flavors are made up of an amazingly aromatic, elegant composite of slightly smoky floral notes, from rose to woody fig and briar, and earthier, almost cooked smells.
- Charles Hiedsieck: The low-end wines here are not particularly well known, although the Réserve cuvées are good. The Blanc de Blancs des Millenaires is a great cuvée, mixing amazingly complex ginger herb notes with more conventional but vibrant and haunting pear, orange, and creamy exotic tropical fruit flavors. Released 14 years after vintage, it is an amazing wine eclipsed only by the incredible Champagne Charlie. Costing anywhere between $400 and $600, this famed cuvée is an ultra-rare, exclusive wine that has flavors completely unparalleled in Champagne, with some critics discerning oddly earthy roasted nuts, coffee, fruit skins, and even almonds. Almost like a Grand Cru Burgundy, it continues evolving even after it is released (17 years after vintage!)
- Jacquesson: Jacquesson has several “lines” of wines: Avize, Perfection, Signature, and a few numbered cuvées. The Brut Perfection white and rosé are fresh and simple, with traditional flavors. The Signature line includes both vintage and non-vintage Brut and Rosé Brut; the whites have more oaky, nutty complexity, while the Rosé is more complicated than its Perfection cousin. The numbered cuvées are among the best non-vintage Champagnes: the 728 is rich but nicely fresh, the 729 is less complex but has more intense flavors, the 730 has been considered another leader, the 731 is yet more intense with an additional spicy complexity, the 732 is more floral and wild with less elegance but more unique appeal, while the 733 is certainly the best of these for its almost smoky blend of fruit, floral and spice notes, with a smoky texture. The most complexity, however, is found in the Avize Grand Cru bottling, with both more elegance due to its pure, intense floral aroma, and more power due to its perfect lightly cooked pear aromas. This great Champagne is Extra Brut but a generous wine nonetheless.
- Krug: This exceptional Champagne producer doesn’t have as much pop culture placement for their Clos du Mesnil or Clos d’Ambonnay as Louis Roederer for Cristal or Moët for Dom Pérignon. But critics accord them far more respect than the more famous wines. Even the basic non-vintage Brut Rosé is considered one of the top Champagnes, with amazingly complex three-dimensional aromas of strawberry, dried flowers, spicy herbs, and precise minerality. The Grande Cuvée, the basic non-vintage white Brut, is perfectly silky-smooth and has flavors of citrussy lemon and orange, honey, and smoke, plus nutty, toasty oaked aromas. The vintage Brut is even more incredible, its smoky, almost honeyed aromas of yellow fruit mingling amazingly well with exotic spice, juicy herb, and pepper notes. The Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs, released 10 years after vintage from a single Grand Cru vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, is a yet more incredible wine. Called a “Montrachet with bubbles”, it is lauded even by the most diehard white Burgundy aficionados as one of the world’s greatest Chardonnays. Only slightly citrussy, it is full of richly layered but not even slightly sweet pear, pineapple, and exotic fruit flavors, as well as subjective but brilliant aromas from hazelnut to cardamom and fresh earth. Amazingly rich and powerful, it can be aged for upwards of 20 years, and will come out even more rich and precise after that. It costs between $800 and $2,000, depending on the vintage. Considering the greatness of this wine, it is hard to believe that anything might be better, but the even more exclusive Clos de l’Ambonnay from the Grand Cru of Ambonnay comes close. It is pure Pinot Noir, combining amazing richness from its ripe but intense red and dark cherry fruit flavors with a creamy yet fresh, amazingly smooth and seamless texture. Clearly oaked in its almost buttered richness, it nonetheless provides the freshness of great Champagne. With ultra-low production numbers and retail prices starting at $3,000, this is more exclusive than many Burgundies.
- Lanson: The basic rosé here is creamy but has sharp wild flavors of red fruit and smoke. But Lanson is mainly known for two white vintage cuvées. The first is the Brut Gold Label, a wine with amazing nutty richness of citrus fruit, including orange. Although bitterly dry at first, its fruit will spread out over time to become better. Yet better is the Cuvée Noble, with richly smoky, almost buttered flavors of wild yellow fruit.
- A.R. Lenoble: The basic wine here is the non-vintage Brut Intense; costing about $40, it is made up of smoky, citrussy flavors that are not rich at all but intense enough to be fresh and precise. The vintage rosé is a step up, with almost jasminey floral aromas mixing well with the smoky, slightly earthy red fruit. Spice and minerality make it more interesting. There are a few other cuvées, varying in quality, but the serious stuff lies in Blanc de Blancs territory. The Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, vintage and non-vintage, is amazingly powerful; mainly flavored with citrus but also having stony minerality and toasted nut smells, it is a Grand Cru-worthy knockout Chardonnay Champagne. The vintage “Gentilhomme” cuvée, released 10 years after vintage, shows more wild, precisely defined notions of pear and herbs. Expensive and hard to find, it is an unconventionally fresh and precise de luxe cuvée.
- Jean Milan: At the entry level here the non-vintage Bruts are typically better. The white version is honeyed and buttered, with herbal aromas but almost no actual fruitiness. The rosé has berry fruit flavors spiced up by herbs and minerality. Two Blanc de Blancs cuvées stand above the rest. The Symphorine is smoky with amazingly powerful citrus and herb aromas in a rich style, while the old-vine Terres de Noel is yet more prestigious. Its honeyed, buttered but amazingly powerful yellow pear and pineapple fruit flavors are rich and exotic in a clearly oaked style, but there’s plenty of acidity to keep it fresh. At less than $100 this competes with much more expensive de luxe cuvées.
- Moët et Chandon: Moët et Chandon is one of the premier Champagne producers. Owned by massive French conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), it is probably the world’s most large, financially valuable, and productive Champagne purveyor. Despite the popularity of the wines and their commonness, there are actually rather few cuvées produced in comparison to other large Champagne houses. The basic wine, costing less than $35, is a non-vintage Blanc de Blancs called White Star; its peachy flavors are freshened by spice and citrus, making for a pleasant if not cutting-edge style. The Imperial is the lower-end line, with the non-vintage white Brut generally costing around $40. Smoky and slightly buttered, it has herbal flavors to freshen up the yellow fruit. For slightly more money, the vintage Brut can offer more consistent quality, with a bit more vibrancy. The NV Brut Rosé is higher-quality; more elegant than the whites, it has pleasant red fruit and tobacco aromas that are slightly earthy. The sweet version is called Nectar, richly creamy and much smoother than the Bruts, honeyed but not cloyingly so. The NV Grands Crus are also interesting, from the smoky, nutty, Pinot Noir-oriented Les Champs de Romont Sillery, to Les Sarments d’Ay, with its buttered aromas of flowers and very minimal fruit aromas to maintain an exotically floral elegance, to Les Vignes de Saran Chouilly with its heavy but pure yellow fruit notes. The Grand Vintage Brut is one of the most consistent wines; smoothly nutty yet ripe, it has great freshness and a good price. The de luxe cuvée here, however, is the famous Dom Pérignon, named after a sparkling wine pioneer. Almost as much of a status symbol as Cristal, this classy Champagne is deeply rooted in pop culture, and has higher sales than any other de luxe cuvée in Champagne. Released in a vintage format, only in the best years, it has flavors worthy of its high status and price, mainly full, rich yellow fruits such as pear and pineapple. Sometimes floral, but rarely earthy, it maintains elegance all the way through the long, smoky finish, and the bubbles help to make the wine fresh and energetic. It can be aged for 10 years, and costs between $150-$200. The rosé, strangely, is twice as expensive and much less commonly seen, although its hauntingly elegant red fruit, smoothed over with a chalky character, shows even more complexity. The white “Oenotheque” cuvée promises higher quality, with a more creamy, more oaked flavor set of wild exotic yellow fruit, toasty breaded aromas, and tremendous concentration and breadth. This is for oenophiles, not classy Champagne drinkers, and at $350-$400 its price tag matches up to wines of a similar style.
- Laurent Perrier: Perrier in Champagne is not to be confused with the French mineral water Perrier—the two are owned by different companies and have no relation. Laurent Perrier is a large Champagne house that makes generally prestigious wines. The basic non-vintage Brut is unquestionably one of the finest of its kind, with smoky citrus freshened by exotic spice, made in a character that is concentrated but still finely bubbled and elegant. This Champagne is very competitive in its $40 price bracket. The Brut Rosé is about twice as expensive, rich and almost cooked with strawberry and cherry aromas leaving a full but elegant taste. The Demi-Sec is another good example for fans of sweeter sparklers, while on the other side the Ultra Brut has amazingly vibrant citrus aromas for an uncompromising but stylish wine. The vintage Brut is traditionally released after nine years, at which point it shows mostly yellow fruit aromas with a mild floral tinge, overhung by a slightly exotic smoky oak element. The Grand Siècle is the de luxe cuvée here, one of the best non-vintage Champagnes, with toasty, completely generous pear and peach flavors, plus fresh, vibrant florality. Top honors go to the non-vintage “Grand Siècle La Cuvée”, an amazingly high-quality wine that rivals Krug’s best NV bottlings. The chalky citrus flavors are uncompromising at first, but will gradually become rich and creamy with aging to make for an unusual style.
- Perrier-Jouet: One of the most commonly seen Champagne producers. The Fleur de Champagne here is pricey, $150 for the Brut and $250 for the Rosé, but the Brut’s ripe, completely seamless yellow fruit and the spicy red fruit of the Rosé are nonetheless good flavor sets. The best bet here is either the Grand Brut, which adds slightly smoky complication to basic apple and pear fruit notes, or the stylishly lean “Blason” Brut Rosé.
- Philipponnat: The basic wine here is called the NV Brut Royale Reserve, and although its smoky, buttered characteristics give away the oaked nature of the wine, the yellow fruit flavors aren’t heavy at all. The rosé version (spelled rosée on the label) has spicy dark fruit flavors in an exciting style. The vintage Bruts aren’t certain to be better than the NV examples, but higher-level cuvées generally are vintage. The Grand Blanc is a high-quality vintage wine, not released until eight years after vintage, with precise if slightly dry aromas of citrussy yellow fruit, herbs, and vibrant minerality. The Cuvée 1522 has both a white and rosé version: the former is similar to the Grand Blanc but more generous and rounded, while the latter has interesting notes of flowers, herbs and citrus to complement more traditional darkish berry and cherry fruit. The Clos des Goisses, the de luxe cuvée that costs $150-$250, is evidently the best, an uncompromisingly rich and heavy style that isn’t for all tastes but has explosively powerful, if not vibrant, wild pear and peach fruit flavors with a mild spice element. This unique Champagne is drinkable immediately.
- Piper-Hiedsieck: For around $35 one can get Piper’s non-vintage Brut, one of the best of its kind, full of ripe, slightly cooked, citrussy yellow fruit flavors backed up by intense minerality. The vintage Brut is far better, with rich, amazingly creamy flavors of yellow fruit and toasted oak nuances. The Cuvée Rare Brut is usually the best, and its varying perfume of citrus fruit, jasmine, and an intriguing mix of flowers and herbs, is very complex. This smooth, ageworthy wine has its roots in great terroirs; all the fruit is sourced from Grand Cru village vineyards.
- Pol Roger: Wines at this British house start with a non-vintage Brut with rich citrus and yellow fruit flavors. The NV Reserve is significantly more energetic, its richness more nutty than fruity. The vintage Brut would have to be considered better than both of these, more vibrant and complex than any NV wine made at this house. The vintage rosé is similarly rich but the raspberry and strawberry flavors combine well with spice and firm minerality to make lush but complex wine. The Extra Cuvée de Reserve (the vintage one) displays amazing smoothness as well as rich flavors of pear and peach and vibrant floral scents of jasmine and blossom. Look for the “Pur” version of this for an aggressive wine with no residual sugar; its strict herbal aromas are not for everyone, but this is one of the best of its style. Vintage Blanc de Blanc wines are another step up, a chalky-smooth example of perfectly rich Chardonnay that just happens to have bubbles, like they always say. Released 10 years after vintage, the Sir Winston Churchill is the de luxe cuvée, amazingly rich and full of flavor. Yet unlike Pol’s other cuvées, which can sometimes be overly heavy, this one combines its slightly exotic buttered wild yellow fruit with more vibrant aromas of exotic spices, herbal plants, and a balancing mineral edge. Not a wine for all drinkers, especially due to its early forcefulness and price of $250+, but lovers of British-style Champagne will find that it rivals the best of Bollinger.
- Pommery: The Brut Apanage, costing around $35, is the basic example; rich and smoky, almost honeyed, it gives away little flavor but is a luxurious drink. The non-vintage Brut Millesime has more citrus and is smoothly intense but still balanced. The Brut Royale is roughly the same level of quality, with fresh fruit and some spice but less pointed intensity than the Millesime. Pommery also makes Champagnes for all four seasons: the delicately floral Brut Rosé “Springtime”, the lightly citrussy and refreshing “Summertime” Brut, mildly sweet “Falltime” Brut, and the heavier “Wintertime” Blanc de Noirs. The Grand Cru Brut, released 10 years after vintage, combines citrus well with, in the better vintages, an amazingly pure floral scent. Best is the Cuvée Louise; here the balanced but gentle Brut is inferior to the amazingly precise Rosé with its sharply focused raspberry and strawberry fruit, spice nuances, and energy.
- Louis Roederer: This house is barely known for their lower-level cuvées, a familiar name to the average person almost entirely because of its de luxe cuvée, Cristal. However, the less prestigious offerings are good too. Basic non-vintage Brut is called the Premier, generally rich and smooth with oak-toasted flavors of yellow fruit. Demi-sec and extra-dry versions are also available. The vintage Brut is full of ripe, wild yellow fruit, and is much more consistent than the non-vintage and less heavy. The Vintage Rosé is mostly Pinot Noir, combining earthy but slightly floral red fruit with smoky herbs. Slightly more expensive than the Brut, it has roughly the same pedigree. The Blanc de Blancs, released in a vintage format, is pleasantly refreshing with plenty of Chardonnay citrus notes, but also a wilder side. The Cristal Rosé is Roederer’s most expensive wine, and its buttered notes of spicy red fruit mix well with harsher citrus elements. With a long finish and tremendous concentration, this is less delicate than the white Cristal with its smoky-rich but not sweet honeyed orchard smells. With citrus and mineral to balance out the rich, generous layers of floral elegance and honeyed pear, this is a wine of great balance that will evolve for decades. Despite the commercial image, Cristal is very well-acclaimed by the “intellectual” wine community as well as pop stars and nightclub patrons.
- Ruinart: A generally good house; the basic non-vintage is the Brut R with refreshing, light spicy fruit flavors, while the Rosé version has stronger flavors of red berry. The R also has a vintage version, with smokier, more complex citrus notes accentuated by strong minerality. The Blanc de Blancs comes in a smoky-spicy but dry NV version populated with grassy, herbaceous flavors, and more subtle vintage examples. The de luxe cuvée, Dom Ruinart, comes in both an amazingly energetic Brut mix of smooth yellow fruit and blooming flower scents, and a much more concentrated, powerful Rosé, which has almost gamy flavors of cherry and heavy spice. Very consistent boutique wines.
- Salon: A great wine costing around $300 on a good day, this Blanc de Blancs, sourced entirely from the Grand Cru vineyard of Le Mesnil, is one of the best Chardonnay Champagnes to be found. Salon is the upscale label of Delamotte, and makes only this one wine. It is certainly a sophisticated bubbly, with amazingly vibrant, exhilaratingly pure notes of yellow fruit, from pear to pineapple, quince, nuts, smoky lees, honeyed, buttered nuances, and smooth, stony minerality. This rich, superbly flavored wine can age for 15 years or more.
- Jacques Selosse: The non-vintage wines here show Selosse’s incredibly unconventional approach to winemaking; his technique makes for idiosyncratic wines with just as many enemies as fans. The Rosé is the most conventional of the group, although its explosively powerful red fruit mingling with exotic spices and flowers still makes an unusual wine. The soil-driven, almost coffee-flavored basic Chardonnay is one of the most bizarre Champagnes. The nutty, blended Grand Cru wine has more traditional but still exciting creamy richness. Then there is the more mineral-oriented, exhilarating Millesime with its nutty, almost bark-like notes, as well as smoked fruit, made from the village of Avize. Le Mesnil is the only single-vineyard style, with spicy, honeyed-yellow fruit notes mingling well with cooking spices, but it isn’t necessarily the best. Smoky, rather baked and honeyed, the Version Originale Extra Brut occupies a different niche in terms of complexity. The Substance Extra Brut, however, is something else entirely, with unheard-of flavors of tobacco and licorice showing up along with more common pear and yellow fruit. These “cult wines” may be divisive, but fans have driven prices to quite high levels even for boutique Champagne.
- Taittinger: Within this boutique house, the basic non-vintage Brut, called La Francaise, is richly floral with plenty of fruit as well but little complexity. The Prelude is also NV: its smoky fruit mixes well with fresher spice and floral aromas to make a cuvée of great delicacy. Vintage Brut is still better, richly smoky and smooth but balancing its generous nutty elements well with sharper pear and peach and minerality. Its remarkable balance is reminiscent of the much superior rosé version of the Comtes de Champagne, which has rich red currant and blood orange flavor that is as creamy and delicate as it is rich and powerful. The best is the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, an amazingly vibrant, focused wine with sharp lemon notes, and steely, superconcentrated tangy elements. A controversial style, its unique appeal to lovers of more intense white wine should only increase with a long aging term.
- Veuve Clicquot: The non-vintage Brut is Yellow Label, which is slightly sweet despite its Brut origins, and has rich citrus and yellow fruit aromas as well as floral nuances. Inexpensive but classy, it is equal to the intense but not deep Brut Rosé. The Reserve is a significant step up, with dense, rather concentrated red fruit notes in addition to smoky florality; these flavors are thanks to the wine’s Pinot Noir makeup. The La Grande Dame rosé is the most expensive wine, but it requires aging to develop its initially dry, spicy earth notes. The white Grande Dame is better, with rich, exotic, round nuances of pear, peach, plum, pineapple, lemon, citrus, and breaded oak, which mingles well with sharp, vibrant notes of white flowers and minerality. A de luxe cuvée of amazing balance and delicacy, this feminine masterpiece rivals the more reputable Cristal and Dom Pérignon.
- Vilmart et Cie.: Still using the antique Cie (company) on their label and name, Vilmart is a remarkably idiosyncratic, if not unanimously acclaimed, line of Champagnes. The cultish flavors are even more unusual than those of Jacques Selosse’s cuvées. Four basic lines are available: Couer de Cuvée, Cuvée Creation, Cuvée Rubis, and Grand Cellier d’Or. The great NV Rubis is a rosé; the spicy flavors clearly announce cinnamon while maintaining typical rosé flavors of red fruit and heavy cooking spices. The Cuvée Creation is another step up; even the non-vintage is amazingly rich and has grassy, gingery aromas as well as nuances of deeper red fruit, smoky game, and other red wine flavors. The smokier vintage version is more reliable but also more pricey. The Grand Cellier d’Or is exotic, with almost perfectly flamboyant creamy flavors of gingery herbs, lemon, and flowers, made in a grilled style. The vintage Coeur de Cuvée is also an impressive wine, although its aromas of oak-induced tropical pear and peach, grassy herbs, and a dense but not heavy meat character, are perhaps a little less explosive and unique.
Although Champagne is related to Burgundy in many ways, one great dissimilarity is the effect of terroir in the wines. Champenois vineyards are less important, at least in the minds of the regulators who are responsible for the Grand Cru designation in Champagne, than the villages in which the wine is made. Hence, Grands Crus are classified by village, not vineyard. Some single-vineyard Champagnes are made, with Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay being good examples. These are the exceptions, however; all but a few Champagnes do not disclose the vineyard on the label, and the great preponderance do not even cite the village.
In most cases, the source of Champagne is less important than the producer and the cuvée themselves. For theoretical purposes, however, we do list the 17 Grand Cru villages located in Champagne.
- Ambonnay: This village is most famous for Krug’s limited-production Clos l’Ambonnay, a single-vineyard cuvée that is the most famous, expensive, and best Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine in the world.
- Avize: This village, excellent for Chardonnay, is most known for Jacquesson’s excellent cuvées, although the village name does not always appear on the labels of these wines.
- Ay: An important village for Chardonnay, like Gaston Chiquet’s Blanc de Blancs.
- Bouzy: A well-known village where Pinot Noir seems to be best.
- Mailly Champagne
- Le Mesnil-sur-Oger: Probably the most famous village in the Champagne appellation, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is most known for its vineyard, Clos du Mesnil, one of the few well-known vineyards in Champagne. Almost entirely Chardonnay wines are produced here. Delamotte and its high-end label, Salon, account for much of the wine here: Salon’s cuvée is amazingly vibrant and pure, combining rich fruit with smooth, oaked nuances and rounded minerality. Jacques Selosse also makes a great if polarizing Blanc de Blancs. The best is Krug, whose famous example is one of the most rich, complex, amazingly ageable Champagnes on the market.
It should be noted that still wines from the region are labeled Côteaux Champenois, if they are white, or Rosé des Riceys, if they are rosé. These are the only two officially designated AOCs in Champagne, besides Champagne itself!