Nonvintage champagne is the vanilla ice cream of wine: It is wildly popular but never generates a lick of excitement. Nonvintage bubblies—typically made by blending wines from several different years, with an emphasis on the most recent vintage—account for 90 percent of all champagne sales in the United States. It's easy enough to explain their appeal: They are cheaper than vintage champagnes—wines made from a single harvest and that are supposedly produced just in the best years—and much more plentiful. Even so, these wines generally attract only perfunctory press coverage and seem to elicit a collective yawn from oenophiles. Are they really so boring? Or is this simply a case of outright snobbery?
The leading champagne houses claim to take great pride in their nonvintage offerings, as these are meant to be the purest expressions of the house style. (Because nonvintage champagnes are not bound by vintage or vineyard, the wines can be blended so as to showcase the particular type of champagne—full-bodied and toasty, light-bodied and crisp, and so forth—that the firm specializes in.) However, that pride doesn't always manifest itself in the bottle. Nonvintage champagnes aren't intended to be the equals of vintage ones—it is the difference, you might say, between economy class and business—but too many of them are insipid, and some are outright bad. It doesn't help that prices for nonvintage sparklers have shot up in recent years, thanks in no small part to the anemic U.S. dollar; buying in this category is now a serious investment, which makes the spotty quality even harder to swallow.
That said, some of the major houses turn out excellent nonvintage champagnes. But even these tend to be brushed off by the cognoscenti. I suspect one reason for this is the sudden fashionableness of so-called "grower" champagnes. These are champagnes made by small farmers who, rather than selling their grapes to the big producers, as is the norm, choose to do the vinifying themselves and put the wines out under their own names. Within certain über-geek circles, a preference for these (often excellent) wines, which also come in vintage and nonvintage varieties, is considered a sign of true connoisseurship and a way of standing apart from the Veuve-swilling rabble. Trend-chasing journalists have naturally embraced farmer fizzes as the new New Thing, and consequently, the more mainstream nonvintage champagnes seem to have receded from view—everywhere, that is, except at the checkout counter, where they continue to dominate.
Among the in-the-know-and-eager-to-let-you-know-it crowd, no big-brand bubbly gets trashed with as much gusto as the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Yellow Label ($40). The Yellow Label (so nicknamed even though the label is actually orange) doesn't have a great deal of character and is somewhat lean and mean on the palate, but it is hardly the hemlock people make it out to be. My problem with it is the price; $40 is a lot to ask for a champagne that doesn't offer much in return. That said, it is certainly better than its Moët Hennessy stablemate, the Moët & Chandon White Star ($38). The White Star, which is apparently the top-selling nonvintage champagne by some margin, is execrably sweet, with a confected, cloying taste that made me want to run for my toothbrush. This is an oft-derided wine that, unfortunately, deserves the abuse. (Lest you be tempted to conclude that the Moët Hennessy champagne portfolio stinks, don't: Veuve puts out some very good vintage wines, MH is the source of the frequently sublime Dom Pérignon, and it also owns probably the greatest house of all, Krug.)
So who makes the good stuff? Among the heavyweight firms, I think the Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($53) is the finest nonvintage champagne on the market—a consistently complex, elegant bottling with a refreshing mineral austerity. It's a champagne I would gladly drink every day. (Those looking to do their holiday toasting on the cheap should clean the shelves of the Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut, which is made by Roederer's California arm; at $22, it is a very good sparkling wine and arguably the best-value bubbly on the market.)
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