The holidays are approaching, which means it is the perfect time for bubbles. OK, let me be clear. Every day and any day is a good day for bubbles. But with the pending holidays, ‘tis the busiest season for purchasing Champagne. From gift giving to holiday parties, there is no shortage of reasons to drink bubbles. So, what are you going to drink this year?
There are wonderful sparkling wines from around the world but Champagne is the king. And with the increasing popularity of Grower Champagne in the market, there are so many brands and styles to choose from. Want to please your palates or impress your friends with your selections? Hopefully, I can help you find some new wines to try this year.
Champagne is a wine region that for last half of 20th century has been consistent is self-identity, messaging and marketing. But according to Peter Liem, Champagne expert and author of ChampagneGuide.net, an award-winning and highly acclaimed online guide to the wines and wine producers of Champagne, today Champagne is in flux. Wines are more diverse than ever before. Medium-standard quality is higher than formerly. The land itself, the idea of vineyards and place, is being explored more today than previously.
“Like all great wines of the world,” Liem explained, “Champagne is about terroir.” The wines are from a specific place and express their origins.
Champagne is a region of 34,000 hectares that covers a large section of northern France. The western-most vineyards are closer to Paris than Epernay and the southern-most tip is only an hour from Chablis. It is in the northernmost limit of wine growing in France, at the 49th parallel, at a latitude between 49.37 and 47.99 degrees.
This geographical influence has a strong impact on the wines with the grapes achieving lower ripeness and higher acidity. Because of this, it is not possible to talk about Champagne as a single terroir. Champagne is a set of terroirs ranging from chalky soil with deep layers of soil to Kimmeridgean soils, like Chablis, in the south.
Champagne is made up of 320 wine-growing villages. There are currently 17 Grand Cru vineyards and 42 Premier Cru vineyards. There are three major grapes varieties grown in Champagne: pinot noir (38 percent), meunier (32 percent) and chardonnay (30 percent). But, did you know that in fact, there are seven grape varieties legally permitted in Champagne? There are four heirloom grape varieties—arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc, fromenteau (pinot gris) – that total less than 3 percent of the plantings in Champagne.
I recently had the difficult task of attending a Champagne seminar led by Peter Liem and hosted by the Wine Education Council. We sat down to taste through more than 25 Champagnes and discuss different styles and trends, and here are my favorites two wines from each flight.
Blanc de Blancs
Made entirely from chardonnay, Blanc de Blancs Champagnes are elegant, bright and delicate.
— José Dhondt Brut Blanc de Blancs NV ($40-$55)
Jose Dhondt is a small producer with five hectares in the Cote de Blancs Grand Cru villages of Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The wine has a nose of chalkiness, green apple and lime and on the palate it is brisk and racy with pronounced acidity and notes or red apple and lemon.
— Vazart-Coquart Brut Reserve Blanc de Blancs NV ($40-$55)
A family estate, Jean-Pierre Vazart took over from his father in 2005. With eleven hectares in the warmer Grand Cru area of Chouilly, there is a deeper level of clay and topsoil. The wine has more body and richness with notes of lemon and almond.
— Single-Vineyard Blanc de Blancs
Champagne has always been a blended wine, even before it was sparkling. Now with single vineyard wines, we can drill down and take a more microscopic view of Champagne.
— Camille Savès Le Mont des Tours Brut Blanc de Blancs NV ($110)
Camille Savès has ten hectares of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Bouzy, a famous village for pinot noir. But, Savès has planted chardonnay in pinot noir territory resulting in a refreshing, full-bodied wine.
— Hugues Godmé Les Alouettes Saint-Bets Extra Brut 2006 ($130)
Hugues Godmé is a fifth-generation champagne producer with seven and a half hectares of Grand Cru vineyards in Verzenay and Verzy and Premier Cru vineyards in Villers-Marmery and Ville-Dommange. Godmé is certified organic and biodynamic. The chardonnay in this wine comes from an east-facing vineyard with limestone and clay over a limestone base. The wine is fermented in oak resulting in a warm and rich wine with a more pronounced body, a different expression from Cote des Blancs.
Single Vineyard ‘Pinots’
— Pierre Gerbais L’Originale Brut 2011 ($60 -$80) [Available at The Corner Napa]
This is one of the few champagnes produced from one hundred percent pinot blanc. This elegant wine expressed typical varietal notes of stone fruit and white flowers.
— Hugues Godmé Les Romaines Extra Brut 2006 ($115-$140)
Made from one-hundred percent meunier (formerly called pinot meunier). The 20-year old vines are planted in a limestone base with a thin topsoil. The wine is very upright and focused with tart fruit notes.
“If terroir is so important,” Liem asked, “doesn’t the idea of a blend erase that? I think not. Even when you are blending dozens of wines together, the quality character is important. Like an orchestra, you need good quality to make a blend and each grape has something it offers.”
LeBrun Servenay Exhilarante Brut Vieilles Vignes 2006 (80 percent chardonnay, 10 percent meunier/$70-$85)
With seven hectares of vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Cramant and Oger, Patrick LeBrun is a practitioner of lute rasionee, an organic regime. The wine shows tart apricot, green apple, pear and lemon on the nose. On the palate, it is rich and chalky.
Bruno Gobillard Brut Vieilles Vignes de Mon Grand Père NV (30 percent meunier, 20 percent pinot noir, 50 percent chardonnay/$60)
Bruno Gobillard is a seven hectare domaine with vineyards in the Epernay, Moussy, Pierry and Chatillon-sur-Marne that allows an organic and non-interventionist approach. The beauty of this wine is that its richness is matched its acidity.
There are two ways to make rosé champagne, either with the saignee method or by blending still red wine into the white wine. This latter method is more common in Champagne.
Camille Saves Brut Rose NV (60 percent chardonnay, 28 percent pinot noir and 12 percent Bouzy rouge/$55-$75)
With fruit from Bouzy, one of the most famous pinot noir terroirs, this wine is ripe and luscious with notes of ripe apple, berry and a touch of brioche.
Bruno Gobillard Mlle. Sophie Brut Rose NV (50 percent pinot noir, 30 percent chardonnay, 20 percent meunier/$50-$55)
The vineyards that this fruit comes from produces a lighter style wine than fruit from Bouzy. This wine balanced and elegant wine has bright notes of strawberry and cherry and finishes with notes of chalkiness and minerality.
Most houses will have a hierarchy of cuvees. One will be more expensive, from the strictest selection, perhaps old vines and ultimately the best of what they can achieve.
Camille Saves Cuvee Anais Jolicoeur Brut 2008 (90 percent pinot noir, 10 percent chardonnay/$117)
Aged five years on its lees, this wine is about finesse. It has a lively nose with yeast, chalk and citrus notes and incredible complexity on palate.
Vazart-Coquart Special Club Brut Blanc de Blancs 2007 ($75)
Vazart-Coquart is a grower’s organization founded in 1971. The special club is the best wine of the house and must undergo two tasting panels of enologists and other outsiders, as both a still wine and as a sparkling. If it passes both tastings, it is then allowed to be labeled “special club.” The 2007 has aromas of lemon, green apple and almond with a delicate and full mouthfeel.
Looking to try one of these wines, go to www.wine-searcher.com to find a local retailer.