Of all the wines of France, says Pascal Leonetti, champagne comes closest to perfection: “The multiple sensations, the range of aromas, the complex structure—there is a very delicate equilibrium, and it must be precise, it must be perfect. More than any other wine, champagne does not support mediocrity.”
The Corsican-born Leonetti, for the past nine years sommelier at the three-star Auberge de l’Ill in Illhaeusern in central Alsace, is the reigning Meilleur Sommelier de France, a title conferred every two years by the Union de la Sommellerie Française. His passion for champagne is as effervescent as the bubbly itself.
“Champagne is the most manipulated wine in the world. When a winegrower makes champagne the work must be complete from A to Z.”
A few general rules: it takes age for champagne to fully blossom—even a brut non-vintage should be allowed to age in the bottle for as long as three years; great champagnes can be aged for 15 years or even more. A bottle uncorked too young will have too much bubble—”too aggressive,” says Leonetti. And whether it’s a great bottle or a simpler one, champagne should not be served too cold.
“Not 43-46 degrees, as you sometimes see recommended, but more like 50-54 degrees. Too cold is a calamity. The only reason for serving a champagne icy cold is to mask its defects.”
He also defends the high quality of many non-vintage champagnes and finds fault with the contemporary tendency to proclaim too many vintage years. “There used to be only three or four vintage years in any decade, sometimes even fewer. Now it’s five or six.”
The reasons are solid commercially, but, he says, it’s possible that in declaring vintage years too often “a little character, a little of the exceptional quality” of champagne is lost. Although rosé champagne is currently very much in vogue, Leonetti cautions that a rosé is not ideal as an aperitif.
“It’s very rare to find a rosé that works well as an aperitif. It must be designed for that, it must be light, very pale in color. An aperitif is meant to open the appetite, not to satisfy it and make you feel full. Most very good rosés, whether made with pinot noir or a mix of red and white wines, have more structure, more force than that. They are meant to be served with a meal, with fish or white fowl for example.”
One major exception: Billecarte-Salmon Brut Rosé—a light rosé that is “sensational” as a preprandial sip, he says.
Apart from rosés, if you’re looking for a fine aperitif champagne for the holidays, Leonetti recommends a brut Blanc de Blanc, “lively, refreshing, it pricks the palate and stimulates the appetite.”
One very interesting young producer he recommends is Pascal Agrapart, of Agrapart & Fils, whose small vineyard near Avize is exclusively planted in chardonnay and plowed the old-fashioned way, with a horse named Venus. His moderately priced Cuvée Extra Brut Blanc de Blanc is “very dry, mineral, a real treat. He’s one of the rare biodynamic producers in Champagne who really knows how to work his vines, to get the most from his grapes.”
Or, if expense is no object, you might celebrate with a great Blanc de Blanc like Laurent-Perrier’s S de Salon 1996, “one of the greatest I have ever tasted,” says the ebullient sommelier. “It’s 11 years old now, and it can easily age for another 10 or 15.”
For a grand holiday dinner that might start with caviar, oysters, salmon, lobster or scallops with black truffles, for example, a good choice would be Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1990 or 1996. “It’s such a shame so many people think they should serve vodka with caviar,” Leonetti adds, “when champagne is so much better.” If a fish with spices or sauce is your choice, then a weightier Bollinger Blanc de Noir would better fit the bill.
A traditional Christmas turkey calls for “something serious,” like that bold rosé that’s too big for an aperitif. Top of the line is Dom Pérignon rosé, vintage 1990 or 1992, “one of the most beautiful of all, nearly magic” But you don’t have to reach such stratospheric levels to find pure pleasure. At a more affordable price, there is Ambonnay Egly-Ouriet, “splendid, with a lot of character, for grand gastronomes and all champagne lovers.”
Few Americans manage a cheese course at Christmas dinner, but for those who do, Leonetti recommends a Blanc de Blanc with goat cheese or a Blanc de Noir with soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert. Best bet: Cuvée Grand Vin (formerly called Grand Vin Signature) from Jacquesson & Fils, based in the delightfully named town of Dizy.
For dessert, Leonetti is firmly opposed to brut. “It’s such a shame to serve a dry champagne with anything sweet. The acid in the wine just battles with the sugar, and reinforces the bitterness. It’s too unbalanced. You must experiment with a slightly sweet champagne sec, or even a sweeter demi-sec with desserts.”
The sweeter champagnes used to be American favorites, he adds. “On some of the old labels it was even identified as “goût américain.” One “very interesting” sec is Cuvée Exquise from Domaine Jacques Selosse, based in the village of Avize and now run by second-generation champagne maker Anselme Selosse.
And for popping the cork at midnight on New Year’s Eve? That calls for a “serious” champagne, certainly, he says with melodious laughter. His choice for this year: “a great champagne with a remarkable equilibrium, with both tonus and fraîcheur“—Cuvée Brut Blanc de Blancs Mumm de Cramant. Says Leonetti, “You could drink it all night,” right into 2008.
“Champagne is the only wine that is perfect to drink at all hours of the day or night,” he adds. “If I could only take one bottle to a desert island with me, without hesitation it would be a bottle of champagne.”
Only a small portion of the wines made in the Champagne region have the right to the appellation champagne. All champagne is blended—that is the great art—and so known by the name of the vintner rather than the vineyard. The main varietals are the white chardonnay and the red pinot noir and pinot meunier.
The original still wine is partially fermented in barrels, then “dosed” with sugar and yeast before a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. Almost all champagne is a reasonable 12% or 12.5% alcohol, and so has “just enough power and generosity,” says Pascal Leonetti.
A little glossary of champagne terms
Vintage: made from wine produced in one particular year
Non-vintage: a blend of wines from different years
Brut or extra brut: dry
Sec: the word means dry but the champagne is slightly sweet
Blanc de blancs: made with white grapes only
Blanc de noir: made with red grapes
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of France Today.