December 14, 2005
Wines of The Times
Champagne: How Low Can You Go?
By ERIC ASIMOV
FOR lacy, effervescent moments, prosecco has its special place. Sparkling Vouvray is certainly distinguished, and I recently enjoyed a superb crémant d'Alsace from Barmès-Buecher. I'm always happy with a bottle of Schramsberg, Iron Horse or Roederer Estate from California, less so with fizzy wine in a pink can like Sofia Mini blanc de blancs, though I don't meet Niebaum-Coppola's target audience of young women for that product.
But when talking about sparkling wine, let's be honest: There is Champagne and there is everything else. The others are good, but they're not Champagne.
Which raises the question, is Champagne always Champagne?
No wine region in the world has done a better job than Champagne of creating a mystique about itself. Whether Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa or Tuscany, consumers are aware of an upper echelon of high-quality wines, separated from a larger pool of mediocrity. But Champagne? The mere mention of the word connotes joy and celebration. Most people need only to know that they are drinking Champagne to be happy. Slightly more discerning types prefer one brand to another, possibly - to be cynical about it - because of the superior marketing of that particular brand.
The truth is that in Champagne, as in every other wine region in the world, the wine made by producers who are passionate, committed and skilled can be transcendent. As for the others, well, the best thing those bottles have going for them is the name Champagne on their labels. The trick, obviously, is separating the good stuff from the bad.
In quest of a few good bottles, the Dining section's wine panel recently tasted 25 Champagnes at the lowest price level, which nowadays can rise up to $30. Contrary to the blithe image that a tasting like this may bring to mind, it was no easy task. Champagne, especially cheap Champagne, can be harsh and acidic, and with 25 glasses before you, before long the tongue seems to swell and the inside of the mouth feels rasped by steel wool. Nonetheless, we were relieved and happy to find some Champagnes that we could recommend enthusiastically.
Why relieved? Because this category of Champagne is no sure thing. Producers tend to baby their more expensive vintage Champagnes. Those wines receive the best grapes, grown in the best sites, and in the cellar these bottles are attended to like favored children. The basic Champagnes, for the most part, receive far less consideration and consume fewer resources. They are made from purchased grapes, or often enough from wines that have been purchased, already made. The best wines are not likely to go into the blend that will result in the final nonvintage product, which can differ from year to year depending on which wines are available. These are cash-cow Champagnes, intended to maintain a steady flow of income.
Of course, some Champagne houses are far more serious than others about their basic bottlings. Brands like Bollinger, Louis Roederer and Billecart-Salmon are just a few of the bigger houses that make superb nonvintage Champagnes, and many other labels do, too. Smaller houses like Gosset, Alfred Gratien and Bruno Paillard also make excellent nonvintage Champagnes. But you are not likely to find any of these bottles for $30 and under, certainly not anymore.
That leaves an assortment of brand names - some familiar, some not - along with cooperative brands, which buy and blend the grapes for a number of growers, and a few small growers who produce Champagnes from their own grapes. Alas, most in that last, highly interesting category don't quite meet the $30 cutoff.
In the Champagnes we tasted, I was first of all looking for a sense of liveliness and vivacity, the sort of taut energy that keeps you refreshed and coming back for more. Our favorite wines had that quality, and even a modicum of complexity, though intense minerality and the sort of baked bread and occasional berry flavors that you find in better bottles were hard to come by, as was the exquisite texture of a fine Champagne.
"I think you have to go to the next level for that," said Evan Spingarn, a wine salesman and an author of "The Ultimate Wine Lover's Guide 2006" (Sterling Publishing), who joined Florence Fabricant and me on the panel, along with our second guest, Rebecca Foster, the wine director at Cookshop, a new restaurant in Chelsea.
The tasting reminded Ms. Foster of how difficult it is to grow grapes in Champagne, which is the northernmost of any fine-wine region. Historically, growers struggle each year to ripen their grapes sufficiently in the region's chill, and, naturally, grapes from the best plots - those designated premier cru and grand cru - are generally reserved for the better and more expensive Champagnes. "This tells you they have those designations for a reason," Ms. Foster said.
Yet, our No. 2 wine, the Louis de Sacy Brut, full-bodied and rich with a creamy texture and dry, toasty flavors, was labeled a grand cru, highly unusual for a $27 bottle. (This may have been shopper's luck. The importer says the price is scheduled to rise soon.) The other wines we tasted, like our No. 1, the Lanson Black Label, had no such designation. Nonetheless, I felt the Lanson was the classiest of our tasting, lively with a juicy, lip-smacking acidity, and mineral and citrus flavors. If it had a bare hint of sweetness, the overall sensation was dry because it was so well balanced by the acidity.
In some of the other bottles, a sense of sweetness was apparent, too. Whether this was intentional or not is hard to say. Some Champagnes are meant to be a little sweet. Moët & Chandon's White Star is a rich, full-bodied Champagne that is very popular in the United States. It is specially formulated for the American market, which is thought to prefer some sweetness, and is labeled Extra Dry, which paradoxically is a step sweeter than brut. We judged it too sweet for our tastes. Similarly a bottle of Heidsieck & Company Monopole Extra Dry was somewhat sweet and didn't make our list.
Does this mean the two are bad Champagnes? No. We simply preferred a drier style. A much more serious issue in some of the Champagnes that didn't make our list was the high level of sulfur that had been used as a preservative. Sulfur, in the form of sulfur dioxide, is almost universally used by winemakers at various stages of the production process. But if too much is added, it mars the wine, resulting in an off-putting aroma of burned matchsticks. This made it impossible to enjoy several of our Champagnes.
Two of our top 10 were blanc de blancs, which means the wines were made entirely of chardonnay, rather than of the usual blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. These blanc de blancs are not necessarily lighter than conventional Champagnes. Indeed, some can be full bodied. But they often have a creamy texture, surprising complexity and, depending on where the grapes are from, precise mineral flavors. The Paul Goerg, our No. 3 wine, had a toasty quality that we all enjoyed and also a complex combination of floral and fruit flavors.
The other blanc de blancs, from Pierre Gimmonet & Fils, is a different kind of Champagne. It had great mineral flavors as well as apple and herbal aromas that seem more characteristic of conventional wine than of Champagne. That vinous quality is typical of a grower-producer Champagne like this one. It's not a Champagne style that appeals to everybody, but it did to me and the rest of the panel.
Over the last five years I have found Nicolas Feuillatte to be a particularly reliable Champagne, a good value at almost every price level. The brut was full bodied, with lingering flavors and, if not completely dry, was well balanced. It was also the least expensive in the top 10 at $24.
Some well-known names - Piper-Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët and Mumm's - were among the Champagnes we tasted that did not make our list.
It shows how dicey this category can be. For $10 more, you can buy Champagnes that are not only more reliable, but offer more dimensions of aroma, flavor and texture.
If you choose wisely, at $30 and under, you can certainly find satisfying bottles. But too often, the result is Champagne on the label, but less than you hope for in the bottle.
Tasting Report: Lively, Energetic, and Under 30
Lanson Black Label Brut NV
Dry and refreshing, with snappy acidity and mineral and citrus flavors. (Importer: Caravelle Wine Selections, Avon, Conn.)
Louis de Sacy Brut Grand Cru NV
Toasty and full bodied with a creamy texture and persistent flavors. (House of Burgundy, Port Chester, N.Y.)
Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs NV
Yeasty, toasty aromas, with persistent, complex floral and fruit flavors. (U.S.A. Wine Imports, New York)
Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs NV
Unusually complex and persistent flavors of apples, minerals and anise. (Michael Skurnik Wines/Terry Theise Estate Selection, Syosset, N.Y.)
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut NV
Bright and substantial, with citrus and floral flavors; not quite bone dry. (Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y.)
Pannier Brut Sélection NV
Rich and full bodied, lively and fresh, with yeasty, floral flavors. (Martin Scott Wines, Lake Success, N.Y.)
Pommery Brut Royal NV
Rich, with mineral aromas and nutlike flavors. (W. J. Deutsch & Sons, White Plains)
Jacquart Mosaïque NV
Toasty caramel aromas with creamy, tropical flavors. (Tri-Vin Imports, Mount Vernon, N.Y.)
Deutz Brut Classic NV
Straightforward, but lively and refreshing. (Maison Marques & Domaines, Oakland, Calif.)
Charles Lafitte Brut NV
Full bodied and fruity with intriguing fruit flavors; slightly sweet. (Vranken America, New York)