Wine Blue Book is an online/e-mail buying guide that regularly compiles reviews and scores on hundreds of wines, lists them by price and ranks them by value. A free trial issue is available at this Web site: www.winebluebook.com.
I have no financial interest or connection with this enterprise, but they do include many of my reviews in their database, and it’s a useful tool in anyone’s wine-finding kit. The current issue looks at champagne, just in time for the holidays.
I’m not going to give you the usual rant about the misconception that champagne should only be enjoyed over the holidays. It is the holidays. So let’s pop some bubbly.
Champagne is a supremely versatile wine, always a good party-starter, relatively low in alcohol (though the bubbles make it rush to your head more quickly), high in acid (hence, palate-refreshing) and rarely prone to the sorts of bacterial flaws that can ruin still wines.
As with almost all superpremium wines, prices are coming down, and this is shaping up to be the best season for buying champagne in recent memory.
So, what should you buy? Some general guidelines:
First and foremost, break out of old habits. Don’t automatically buy the same brand you have always bought. There are dozens and dozens of choices out there, many from small-scale grower/producers. Experiment.
This is a good year to try a vintage champagne rather than a brut. There is nothing wrong with brut, but as with still wines, vintage champagne generally has a more focused expression of place (terroir) and is a better reflection of a particular year. Most brut champagnes are house blends, specifically designed to eradicate vintage variation.
If you are a label-reader, see if there is an indication that the grapes are grand cru. Champagne communes and vineyards are categorized according to a complex and highly-regulated appellation system. Grand cru vineyards are considered to be the best, and when a champagne is made exclusively from grand cru grapes it will usually say so somewhere on the label. You may pay a little extra, but it will be worth it.
If it’s just you and your spouse sharing the wine, consider buying a half bottle. That gives each of you a good glass, and allows you to splurge without breaking the bank.
Over the years I have found some reliable favorites among the major champagne houses. For the best values in non-vintage brut, I look to Charles Heidsieck, Duval-Leroy and Piper-Heidsieck. For style and elegance, anything from Deutz, Perrier-Jouet and Piper-Heidsieck. For solid reliability, Henriot is my choice. For pure bliss, I want Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck. And for a (relatively) inexpensive vintage champagne, look for a 1996 (a great vintage) from either Deutz or Laurent-Perrier.
Champagne too pricey? The wide world of fizz awaits. Australia makes blood red sparkling shiraz – great for a holiday punchbowl surrounded by greens. Italian Proseccos are fine mixers – low in alcohol, just slightly less fizzy than most other sparklers and intensely fruity. The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the style. If you prefer them dry, check to see that the alcohol is 11 percent or higher. Mionetto ($13) is a quality offering, with green apple flavors highlighted by scents of fresh orange peel. Caposaldo ($13) is also widely available, made by the Charmat (tank-fermented) method, perfectly fine on its own or as a base for Bellinis.
Spanish cavas are virtually guaranteed to be bone dry, which makes them the perfect match for an oyster appetizer.
Here in Washington, Domaine Ste. Michelle offers a full lineup of sparklers, widely available for around $10. My favorite is the Blanc de Noirs – drier than either the brut or the confusingly-named extra dry (which is actually extra sweet). Of course, Spokane’s own Mountain Dome is a local favorite.
But the mother lode for non-champagne sparkling wine that actually mimics the real thing is – where else? – France. Lucien Albrecht is a reliable value brand, from the Alsace region. Their basic Crémant d’Alsace Brut is produced from pinot auxerrois and pinot blanc; they also do a fine rosé. Note that the word Crémant is your guide to non-champagne French sparkling wines. Among many possibilities, Crémant de Bourgogne is an appellation to seek out. These wines (formerly Bourgogne Mousseux) use Burgundian grapes exclusively, as does real champagne.
The other verbiage that you want to find on the label is méthode traditionelle or méthode champenoise. This tells you that the wine was fermented in the bottle, not in tank, and is another indication of quality. Your wine seller, as always, is your best guide to wines that meet these criteria and are locally available.