Quit Pigeonholing Champagne!
The case for treating the fizzy drink like any other wine.
Like mistletoe, eggnog, and despised relatives, Champagne is something that people typically see only during the holidays. Even when Champagne is broken out at other times of the year, it is usually to mark special events—births, marriages, weddings, divorces, graduations, promotions, etc. Champagne is the ultimate celebratory tipple, yet this limited, somewhat frivolous role obscures a fundamental point—Champagne is a wine, one that happens to pair exceedingly well with all sorts of foods and that can offer year-round pleasure. As someone who drinks Champagne whenever possible and often with meals, I would love to see it embraced as a regular wine, one uncorked as routinely as cabernets and syrahs. But what are the chances of that ever happening?
The case for making Champagne a quotidian pleasure was memorably advanced by the late Lily Bollinger, matriarch of the eponymous Champagne house. Describing her personal Champagne consumption, she said, "I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty." But an equally famous comment attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte—"Champagne! In victory, one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it"—cast Champagne as a wine reserved for important milestones. The Napoleonic view has long prevailed, thanks in no small part to the Champenois themselves, who have relentlessly marketed their signature sparkling wine as a luxury product best-suited to festive occasions and fancy restaurants (where it is invariably drunk simply as an aperitif).
From an economic viewpoint, Champagne hardly needs a makeover. If it's a niche wine—and according to the Nielsen Co., three times more Champagne is sold in December than any other month of the year—it occupies what is normally a very profitable niche. Champagne sales plunged with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 but rebounded sharply in 2010. The CIVC, a Champagne trade association, says shipments were up 12.4 percent through the first nine months of this year and had increased by more than 30 percent over 2009 in countries outside the European Union. It estimates that 315 million bottles of bubbly will have been distributed worldwide in 2010, versus 293 million last year and not far from the record 338 million that left the region's cellars in 2007. Champagne is doing just fine in its role as a prop for Polaroid moments and a warm-up wine.
But revolutionary ideas currently afoot in Champagne country are going a long way toward redefining what Champagne is all about. In recent years, the so-called grower Champagne movement has turned the chalky hillsides northeast of Paris into arguably the most dynamic viticultural hub on the planet. The big brands that dominate the Champagne industry normally purchase many if not most of the grapes they use from farmers throughout the vast (Champagne) appellation. They blend them together to produce wines that are meant to reflect the "house style." Some of those farmers, however, prefer to keep their grapes and make wines themselves. They work on a much smaller scale than the majors, often using grapes from just one village or even a single vineyard, and the sparklers they turn out are meant to reflect the particular attributes of the sites in which those grapes were cultivated— what is otherwise known as terroir.
Part of the pleasure of drinking Burgundies is exploring the differences between villages (Chambolle-Musigny vs. Morey-Saint-Denis) and vineyards (Meursault Perrières vs. Meursault Charmes). Grower Champagnes afford the same opportunity, and I think the better ones are very distinctive wines that demand to be treated as seriously as other wines—that deserve the kind of consideration that takes place at the dinner table as opposed to, say, at midnight on New Year's Eve. And in my experience, grower Champagnes really blossom in the company of food. While certainly excellent on their own, they tend to be quite dry and vinous in character and benefit from being served with meals and allowed to evolve over the course of an evening. Jon Rimmerman of the online retailer Garagiste urges his clients to drink grower Champagnes this way and often advises opening the bottles a day in advance—to essentially turn them into "normal" still wines. (He suggests keeping the open bottles in the refrigerator or a very cool cellar.)
And it is not just the Champagnes that benefit from being served with the food; the food benefits, too, a point emphasized by acclaimed importer (and now author) Terry Theise. The 57-year-old Theise didn't introduce grower Champagnes to the American market, but he has a large portfolio of them (15 producers at latest count) and is their foremost champion on these shores. ("I wasn't first to do it," he jokes, "but I was the first to overdo it.") He has long encouraged consumers to broaden their conception of Champagne and to approach it as they would other wines. He contends that Champagne is a great and remarkably versatile food wine because it is moderate in alcohol and offers very refined and harmonious flavors. He also says the fizz has a palate-cleansing effect. "Diners who retain their Champagne to contrast it with the white wine they thought would be good with their food will nearly always discover the Champagne is the better match," Theise says.
But here's where Champagne's powerful identity becomes its straightjacket. Bernard Sun, corporate beverage director for Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant group, thinks the notion of Champagne as a celebratory or aperitif wine is deeply, perhaps unalterably ingrained in the public consciousness. He suggests that older Champagnes—ones that are 20-30 years old and that have lost much of their effervescence and became more winey in character— would most likely convert people to the virtues of Champagne as a food wine, but they are rare and expensive. He told me that wine geeks are often open to the idea of drinking Champagne with an entire meal but that regular restaurant-goers would likely chafe at the idea. "A nice glass of red wine with the main course is a tradition that is not easily broken," Sun says. "Champagne can pair very well with food, but for most people, I think the concept is a bit alien."
The other big, possibly insurmountable obstacle to Champagne becoming an everyday wine is cost: While there are plenty of bargain bubblies on the market, the quality threshold really begins at around $35 these days. As a general rule, sparkling wines are expensive to make: They are very labor-intensive, and because of the lengthy bottle aging that is required before Champagnes can be released (a minimum 15 months for nonvintage Champagnes, 36 months for vintage-dated wines), the carrying costs can be steep. So the reality is that good Champagne is always going to be something of an indulgence for most consumers. With other categories—Rhone wines, German Rieslings, even Bordeaux and Burgundy—a person can drink fairly well on a budget. A yen for Champagne is not so easily satisfied.
Yet even granting that Champagne is unlikely to escape its pigeonhole, there's no reason why people can't treat it as a regular wine on those occasions when they do drink it. So here's a suggestion: Over New Year's weekend, why not pop the Champagne early and serve it with lunch or dinner? Champagne matches well with holiday staples such as turkey and goose, and it can also work nicely with ham. If seafood is on the menu, an all-Chardonnay Champagne (blanc de blancs) or Chardonnay-heavy blend will make a good fit. A sturdy pinot noir-dominated Champagne can even stand up to red meat. Admittedly, bubbly and beef is an unusual combination, but at a time of year otherwise suffused with rituals, there's no harm in being a little deviant with the food and wine pairings. And who knows: It could even make for a milder hangover.
There are a number of Champagnes that I think would do well with food. My list is heavy on grower producers, but there are also a few big houses represented, notably Henriot, which is turning out excellent Champagnes these days. I've arranged my suggestions by price; most of the wines are under $100, and four of them can be found for $50 or less. With the full extension of the Bush tax cuts, this is obviously the season for giving to the least needy among us, and in that spirit, I have also included three great wines over $100. One of them, the 1996 Salon, is very expensive. It also happens to be one of the two or three greatest young Champagnes that I've ever tasted, and I am not alone in my enthusiasm. One collector loved it so much he supposedly bought 400 cases. However, he failed to corner the market; there are still quite a few bottles around, and if you're in the mood to truly splurge on Champagne this weekend, the 96 Salon would be a highly rewarding way to go. And if you are looking to celebrate New Year's on the cheap? The inexpensive sparklers that I recommended two years ago remain good choices, and there's no reason you can't put them on the dinner table, too. If your local retailer doesn't carry any of these bubblies, you can check with Wine-Searcher.com.
$50 and under:
Pierre Moncuit NV (nonvintage) Brut Blanc de Blancs ($40): One of my favorite Champagne producers, Moncuit turns out a lithe, consistently delicious nonvintage bubbly. If I had house Champagne, this would be it.
Henri Billiot NV Brut Reserve ($50): A toothsome pinot-dominated Champagne bursting with green apple and citrus notes and shot through with superb minerality.
Bollinger NV Brut Special Cuvée ($50): A rich, winey Champagne that is impressively complex and refined for a big-house nonvintage sparkler.
Gatinois NV Brut Tradition ($45): 90 percent pinot noir, and it shows—a deeply colored, opulent bubbly heavy on red-fruit aromas. A distinctive, thoroughly enjoyable Champagne.
Camille Savès Brut Millésime 2002 ($60): The 2002 Savès is arguably the best-value Champagne on the market these days—a complex, ebullient wine that is just a joy to drink. Simple advice: If you find this one, buy it.
Ulysse Collin NV Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs ($70): This is truly a white Burgundy with bubbles; a taut, sinewy wine that demands food and that would probably also benefit from some decanting.
Henriot Brut Millésimé 1996 ($70): The regular vintage wine from Henriot, and a steal for the quality—an elegant, impeccably balanced Champagne that is showing beautifully at the moment.
Vilmart & Cie NV Brut Grand Cellier ($60): Vilmart is a celebrated grower house, and the full-bodied, toasty Grand Cellier is a superb introduction to the wines of this acclaimed producer.
$100 and above:
Henriot Brut Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1996 ($160): Recently released by Henriot, the 1996 Enchanteleurs is a brilliant Champagne that can hold its own against the most acclaimed wines of fabulous vintage (Krug, Salon, Dom Pérignon), yet sells at a substantial discount to them.
Louis Roederer Brut Cristal 2004 ($200): Ever since Jay-Z renounced Cristal, it hasn't had quite the same cachet, but it is still a terrific bubbly, and the just-released 2004 is a sumptuously elegant wine that proves that quality and bling are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs 1996 ($300): Ethereal, celestial, canonical, mesmeric … I could go on (and with a few glasses of this, I surely would). A wine that I think will go down as not only one of the greatest Salons ever, but possibly one of the all-time great Champagnes. It is that good.
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Photograph of person corking Champagne by Elizabeth Hachem/Thinkstock.