It's a great time to buy great Champagne, cheap.
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils is one of the preeminent grower Champagne houses, and the 2005 Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Gastronome ($55), which is also all-chardonnay, shows why this producer enjoys such renown. Combining bright citrus and apple flavors with fantastic minerality and acidity and an almost sinewy texture, it is a wine bursting with complexity and verve. I also liked the 2004 Jean Milan Brut Symphorine ($70), a blanc de blancs from another estimable grower. It is a more plush Champagne than the Gimonnet but offers excellent fruit (pear with a twist of lime) and also evinces a strong mineral aspect, which takes the form of an enthralling seashell aroma. (No, you will not hear the ocean if you put the glass to your ear.) Cédric Bouchard, a young grower in the Côte des Bars part of Champagne, has been generating a lot of buzz, both for his unorthodox practices and for the results they are yielding. All of his Champagnes are single-vineyard and crafted from a single grape variety. (Champagne is customarily a blend of vineyards and grapes.) And Bouchard's wines are all single-vintage, even those that are sold as nonvintage. Bouchard's Inflorescence Brut Blanc de Noirs ($56) is made entirely of pinot noir (hence the blanc de noirs), and the current release consists of fruit that was harvested in 2007. The year can't appear on the bottle because the wine was not aged for the minimum 36-month-period required to qualify as a vintage-dated Champagne, but to hell with legalities—it is effectively a vintage Champagne and worth including here. The Inflorescence has a seductive bouquet of pear, toffee, flowers, and ginger, which gives way to a full-bodied, rather opulent Champagne that has superb depth of flavor and an intense finish that will linger as long as you let it.
Several of the less status-conscious big houses are also producing compelling Champagnes these days. The 1999 Gosset Brut Grand Millésime ($80), a blend of 56 percent chardonnay and 44 percent pinot noir, is a hefty but elegant Champagne redolent of peaches, toffee, cinnamon, and toast. The wine's sumptuousness is leavened by its mouth-watering acidity and a pronounced mineral note. Gosset is a name worth keeping in mind this holiday season, as is Henriot, another of the smaller big houses. I've been really impressed by Henriot's recent offerings, and the 1998 Henriot BrutMillésimé ($80) is no exception. Serving up a whiff of tangerine, salted nuts, and chalk, it is a supple, marvelously poised Champagne with an almost caressing quality about it. Charles Heidsieck is also on a winning streak of late. The aforementioned 2000 Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésimé ($70) opens with an exuberantly fruity nose (peach, citrus), which turns out to be something of a head fake; on the palate, the wine is all about refinement and harmoniousness. A long finish rounds out a very satisfying Champagne. The 2000 Piper-Heidsieck Brut ($65), comprised primarily of pinot noir, is a strapping, very winey Champagne that fills every crevice of the mouth—it might even fill cavities. I liked the Piper a lot, but it's the kind of voluptuous Champagne that will show best in the company of food (and serving bubbly with your holiday meal will not only be a gastronomically enlightened move, as Champagne happens to make terrific food wine; it will be a savvy way of economizing on booze costs).
I also liked some other Champagnes. In no particular order, they were:
2002 Taittinger Brut Millésimé ($70)
2002 Deutz Brut ($80)
2003 Louis Roederer Brut ($70)
2002 Gatinois Brut ($65)
2003 Pierre Peters Brut Millesime ($77)
2000 Saint-Chamant Brut Cuvée de Chardonnay ($80)
2002 Agrapart & Fils Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs Minéral ($60)
Here's hoping the Champenois a modest recovery in 2010—just enough to ease their economic distress, but not enough to entice them to get greedy again.
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Illustration by Rob Donnelly.