Sadly I was working New Year’s Eve so I did not get into any bubbly to celebrate the coming of 2018. However, it is a good time to take a minute to review a few of my favorite sparklers, both true Champagne and others, including some pretty stellar values. Sparkling wine is generally viewed as a “celebration” wine, and while I agree there is no better way to get a party started, I think using these wines only in an aperitif or celebratory way short changes them (plus you get to drink less). I have made a personal effort start drinking more sparkling wine (tough life you know) with various meals or appetizers to seek out the virtues other than just opening the celebration. So with that I’ll introduce you to a few of my stand by effervescent favorites!
Yes this is still the end all be all of sparkling wines. A tiny region in northern France with chalk and limestone soils. Unfortunately given the world wide acclaim, many Champagne’s are not cheap, but if you search around there are still some good values to be found. A small aside, you will notice that many Champagne bottles are labeled “Grand Cru” or “Premier Cru” similar to what you may see in Burgundy; however in Champagne this refers to a village rather than a specific vineyard and as with Burgundy it has nothing to do with the specific producer; simply if you make a Champagne from a village that was classed as a “Grand Cru” village, then you are allowed to put this on your label. The villages themselves obviously have differences within the vineyards, so at times it can be a little misleading as I have had many “Premier Cru” Champagne’s from good producers that are better than “Grand Cru” wines from some. Just so you know what the rankings mean… but I digress, on to the wines!
Egly-Ouriet: These are excellent Champagnes that unfortunately are not very cheap. But if you are looking for a special occasion bottle, put this on your list. A grower Champagne that is mostly based in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay they are known for very extended bottle aging prior to release. Often they will hold even their entry level wines for 48-54 months in bottle prior to releasing them! These are beautiful vinous wines with superb depth and balance.
Pierre Peters: One of my stand by classics is the blanc de blancs of Pierre Peters. Vibrant and filled with nervosité, this is a benchmark wine in my opinion. It has lovely citrus and green apple alongside floral and rising bread notes, but it is the energy and lithe nature of the wine that makes it for me. It is fabulous with sushi, cheese plates, and of course on its own.
Pierre Paillard: Another relative value in Champagne, Paillard produces a lovely range of wines. One of the best rose Champagne’s I’ve had was courtesy of him. The vines are all located in the Grand Cru village of Bouzy and generally a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay. The wines have lovely depth thanks to the pinot noir, but still have great energy and a sensation of dancing across your palate! PS – not to be confused with Bruno Paillard (a cousin) although these are also quality bubblies.
Andre Clouet: this is a killer value in the world of Champagne; this is really my “house” Champagne, because it is delicious and you can find it for as little as $33 a bottle! Several different wines are produced, my favorite being the Brut Reserve, which shows a ripe and rich nose and palate; but I also very much like the Brut Nature Silver which is a little edgier and more linear in its taut mineral driven profile. For the price, these are excellent wines.
Chartogne-Taillet: Another of the very excellent crowd of grower Champagne’s this house produces a pretty good array. Their holdings are mainly in the village of Merfy which is not rated as a premier or grand cru and the wines from Chartogne prove that you don’t necessarily need that ranking to make great bubbly. They are also very interested in the terroir concept in Champagne making wines from different single vineyards in their holdings. Their Cuvée St. Anne is a blend of vineyards from the village and it is excellent. It is also a pretty solid value, often available for $45-50. Their wines are thoroughly enjoyable showing a beautiful racy nature with lovely minerality and pure fruit. Well worth seeking out.
Bollinger: I’ll be honest, drinking stuff like Bollinger doesn’t always get me excited about the wine. I’m definitely a nerd/snob, or whatever you want to call it and I like drinking small production “artisan” bottles. Sure some of them turn out to be garbage, but its fun to be supporting actual people rather than huge corporations. That being said, every time I drink Bollinger I say to myself… damn it this is really good. So it seems the British court has a decent palate selecting Bollinger as one of their official Champagnes. I’ve only ever tried the standard non-vintage and one bottle of the Grand Année, but every bottle I’ve had has been excellent. Toasted brioche, hazelnut, pear, lemon curd, and a beautiful richness on the palate… it’s good stuff.
Jacques Selosse: unfortunately these Champagnes are becoming unaffordable for most people… as the pioneer of the grower and terroir movement in Champagne that really is too bad. I have only had the “Initial” which is the entry level wine from Selosse and while definitely the cheapest in the line, it is some of the more expensive bubbly I’ve purchased. That being said, it is an experience, and for me a fabulous one. Selosse makes an “oxidative” style of bubbly meaning wood aging to allow oxygen interaction with the wine. This results in a more honeyed, rounded, full bodied, and truly vinous Champagne. I personally love it. Toasted bread, honeyed red apple, hazelnut, almond, honeysuckle, and poached pear flavors emerge on the nose. The palate is flat out delicious. It seems to wrap around your mouth and envelop it… no this is not the bubbly you want if you are looking for a laser sharp wine full of nervosité, but what a wine… highly recommended if you can get some.
Ok, in the interest of brevity which I am constantly reminded that even when I say that my goal is to be brief I drone on and on… I will leave it at that. That is by no means a full list of Champagnes that I enjoy; Cedric Bouchard, Marie Courtin, Jacquesson, Louis Roederer, Philliponat, Billecart-Salmon, and Pierre Gimonnet are just a few others that I often purchase. For a more complete list check out the list of recommended producers.
Yes, that is a pretty general classification, but it makes it easy. Sparkling wine is now being produced everywhere. From other areas throughout France, to the classic areas in Spain and Italy, to New Zealand, Australia, the US, Canada, etc. I’ll just point out a few more folks that tend to frequent my cellar. Mostly if I am not drinking Champagne I drink US sparklers. That is mostly due to availability and a desire to support my own country’s wine regions. That being said I have had some excellent bubbly in NZ (never seen a bottle in the US) and Cava remains one of the great sparkling wine values out there. So don’t limit yourself to Champagne!
Schramsberg: This California based producer is without a doubt my favorite non-Champagne producer and their wines often rival even the best wines from there. They also have a really cool cave system in Napa that is quite fun to tour. Their wines are made in the traditional method of the Champenois from fruit sourced all over Northern CA. The entire range is excellent. Their entry level bottlings include Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé, and a tasty Cremant. They have several other more terroir specific bottlings available for exploring as well. The true gems are their reserve level wines which include the J. Schram and J. Schram Rose. These are really stellar bottlings that truly compete with the best bubblies in the world. Sure they are priced that way, but I can’t blame them. The J. Schram which is a blend of mostly Chardonnay with some pinot noir gives rich honeyed green apple, baking bread, lemon pie, and white floral notes; the palate has a lovely crisp feel, yet gives a depth of fruit and concentration that is certainly a level above the entry wines. Overall an excellent range of wines that come highly recommended.
Roederer Estate: Champagne houses have made significant investments in California with multiple houses having their own US based brand. Roederer Estate is probably my favorite. Owned by the same company that produces the famed Cristal, this is one of the best values in sparkling wines. The wines are consistent, very tasty, and while they don’t have the complexity or balance of the best wines in Champagne they are priced generally 2-4 times cheaper! Their entry level bottling from Anderson Valley can often be found sub $20 which makes it a great wine for parties when you need multiple bottles. Stock up!
Argyle: This is probably my favorite non-Cali sparkling wine; based in the Willamette Valley of pinot noir fame they produce a range of very tasty and reasonably priced sparklers. The wines have very good depth and balance and can age really nice. Not as widely spread as the above, but very good if you can find it.
Segura Viudas: The ultimate value in bubbly; sure it seems ubiquitous and it’s laughably cheap at $9!! But the juice in the bottle is pretty good and incredibly consistent. The slightly higher priced Aria line is maybe slightly better, but not hugely. Blind, this competes with sparklers 4-5x its price regularly.
Ok, I’ll stop there for now. I doubt anyone has actually made it this far anyway… but if you did, hope you can find some of these stellar wines out there and enjoy them! Don’t forget to drink them outside of the standard party/celebration scene and I promise you will be rewarded!