“When I win I drink champagne to celebrate, and when I lose I drink it to console myself.” Thus spoke Napoleon Bonaparte, settling the question of when best to imbibe one of France’s greatest gifts to civilization: whenever it takes your fancy. Alas, Napoleon failed to provide posterity with imperial guidance on which bubbly to drink.
So how to choose? The US market—the world’s third largest, after France and Britain—is dominated by just a handful of brands from the big champagne houses. It’s safe to say that you can’t go wrong buying your bubbly from the likes of Moët & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot. For those who like to flash the cash, price is also an important factor—and for some that means the higher the better. Ostentation aside, this approach makes quite a bit of sense, since the most expensive bottlings from the big champagne houses contain a higher proportion of their best wines from grand cru and premier cru vineyards. Thus Louis Roederer’s Cristal—a direct descendent of the champagne that was shipped in crystal decanters to Russia’s tsars—contains much of the output from the family firm’s 394 acres of grand and premier cru vineyards scattered across the Champagne region.
Legend has it that the assassination-prone Romanovs valued Roederer’s see-through bottles because they couldn’t conceal a regicide’s bomb. Today Cristal’s appeal for many is still what it reveals—the ability of the purchaser to afford its eye-popping price. The same applies to other prestige names like Krug or Moët & Chandon’s top-of-the-line tipple, Dom Perignon, named for the monk who allegedly invented champagne—and who reportedly exclaimed upon drinking his first glass, “I am tasting the stars.”
These prestige products are undoubtedly great champagnes. But as champagne cognoscenti know, if you really want to impress your audience you should be serving Salon. Sightings of this über-exclusive fizz are as rare as those of Sasquatch—scarcely surprising since Salon only produces one champagne, a vintage blanc de blancs (made exclusively from white chardonnay grapes), and then only in exceptional years. During the 20th century Salon, founded in 1911 by Eugène-Aimé Salon, declared just 37 vintages; now owned by Laurent-Perrier, so far in the new millennium it has deemed only three years—2002, 2004 and 2006—worthy of the Salon label. None of this century’s vintages is available yet, though, since Salon likes to age its champagne for a decade or so before releasing it onto the market. The 1997 vintage made its debut last summer, but because Salon only produces about 60,000 bottles per vintage (compared, for example, with 300,000-400,000 for Roederer) it was strictly rationed. Japan got the largest allocation (a good reason to fly first class with JAL) followed by the US and then Britain. The good news for big spenders is that Salon’s latest vintage is selling for around $500 a bottle — if you can find it. If you can’t then you’ll have to wait for the release of the 1999 vintage next year.
Terroir or not
Those who can’t wait should contemplate a different route to champagne excellence: seek out some of the superb bubbly now being made by a new generation of small producers who grow their own grapes to make their own champagne—unlike the majority of the big houses that buy in most of their grapes. These handcrafted champagnes from small grower-producers exhibit the unique character of their terroir—the specific vineyards in which the grapes are grown, the soil and subsoil in which the vines are rooted, the very air that bathes their leaves and the climate or microclimate that determines their growth and yield. To be sure, the skills of the grower and winemaker—often the same person at these small houses—also play an important role in the finished product, but the reason that champagne remains the benchmark for sparkling wines the world over is because no other location can mimic or rival the unique terroir of France’s Champagne region. But this near-perfect terroir is also located at the northern extreme of European viticulture, where so much can so easily go wrong, and even here each new year is a roll of the dice.
Ironically, most of the champagne sold around the world comes in the form of NV, or non-vintage, blends of grapes from all over the Champagne appellation without regard to small-scale local terroir. This is because the big brands strive to produce a “house” style that’s consistent from year to year whatever the conditions in the region. This is achieved by mixing wines from three different grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier), from different parts of the region and from different vintages. But growth in the production of vintage champagnes, which reflect the characteristics of a given year, and for prestige cuvées that seek to showcase a particular parcel of land—or even a single vineyard like Krug’s famous Clos du Mesnil—is evidence of the growing demand for these special bottles—not to mention a growing awareness on the part of the champagne houses that premium prices can be charged for them.
Good as they are, however, these special offerings are being challenged by a growing number of small grower-producers making small batches of superb champagne at great prices. One major caveat: most of the 2,000 or so small grower-producers who make their own champagne shouldn’t bother—much of what they turn out is truly awful. But a happy few are producing ebullient stars with strong personalities that can knock the froth off more prestigious offerings, and for a fraction of the price. One reason is that a good number of them have only grand or premier cru vineyards so even their NV champagnes start at the highest quality level.
Some of the star grower-producers are so small their entire output is snapped up by fans before it can reach a wider market. Denis Varnier of Varnier-Fannière in Avize, for example, makes super blanc de blancs, all of which is grand cru, but his ten acres can only produce 15,000 bottles. 23 rempart du Midi, Avize. 03.26.57.53.36. website
Others, however, export small quantities that can be found if you know where to look. Part of the fun is discovering your own favorite fizz among these characterful champagnes. Here are seven of the best you might like to try for starters:
Gimonnet & Fils. Didier Gimonnet’s forebears have been producing champagne since 1750 and his 62 acres of premier and grand cru vineyards in Chouilly, Cramant and Cuis are favorites with fans in the know. Try the Cuvée Oenophile. 1 rue de la République, Cuis. 03.26.59.78.70. website
Jacques Selosse. Few grower-producers have been as influential as Anselme Selosse, whose champagnes are sometimes as idiosyncratic as their maker but always impressive. Selosse describes himself as a wine grower rather than winemaker and he has pioneered what the French call viticulture raisonnée (literally, well-thought-out viticulture), which seeks to restrict or eliminate the use of chemicals and other artificial aides. Try any of his vintages you can find. 22 rue Ernest Vallée, Avize.03.26.57.53.56
Larmandier-Bernier. Pierre Larmandier’s organic wines just keep getting better. His premier cru, Terre de Vertus (land of virtues) is a benchmark for grower-producer champagne.19 ave du Général de Gaulle, Vertus. 03.26.52.13.24. website
Egly-Ouriet. Old vines and some great grand cru vineyards combine to make Francis Egly’s unfiltered champagnes difficult to beat. Try the Blanc de Noirs Vieilles Vignes. 17 rue de Trépail, Ambonnay. 03.26.57.00.70
Pierre Peters. Salon and Krug are both neighbors in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and the Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs made by Peters deserves to be right up there with them in the champagne pantheon. 26 rue des Lombards, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. 03.26.57.97.71. website
Vilmart et Cie. Winemaker Laurent Champs has given Vilmart cult status among champagne lovers. Any vintage of the Coeur de Cuvée is a lesson in how great champagne should taste, but with only 5,000 bottles produced per vintage it’s in short supply. Snap up what you can find. 5 rue des Gravières, Rilly-la-Montagne. 03.26.03.40.01. website
Chartogne-Taillet. Producer-growers Philippe and Elisabeth Chartogne have been joined by son Alexandre in a family business that has been producing both still wine and bubbly from their 30-acre holding for some 300 years. We like the Fiacre-Tête de Cuvée and look forward to tasting Alexandre’s latest concoction: a cuvée made from a rare parcel of 50-year-old pinot meunier vines. 37-39 Grande Rue, Merfy. 03.26.03.10.17
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of France Today.