Champagne is my favorite wine. Maybe it’s because there’s an ancestral link on my mom’s side with a western Champagne town. Maybe because it doesn’t make me feel full like beer does even though Champagne has three times more gas than your average brewski. Maybe, like Madame Bollinger basically said, I like to drink it with everything. And I like to try new ones.
So, just out of curiosity, I did a quick survey of Champagnes in town and I came up with 105 brands. As there are about 10,000 brands of Champagne registered, it may not seem like a lot. But, to put it simply, neither you nor I will be out of luck for the holidays.
Of late, that has been a no-brainer as a whole slew of labels have regularly been available in Chicago. First, there’s the mainstream “Négoçiant-Manipulants” (NM) examples: Moët et Chandon, G.H. Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Krug, Pol Roger, Pommery, Roederer, Laurent-Perrier, the Heidsiecks, Deutz, Taittinger, Salon, Ruinart, Perrier-Joüet, Joseph Perrier, etc., or firms that make Champagne mainly from purchased grapes. They send us the vast majority of Champagnes (almost 90% of all Champagne exports are by these and the other NMs). Holiday pricing for the Brut Non-Vintage versions from these houses will start at $25 and go skyward.
But there’s also a collection of recently imported or lesser-known, usually smaller NM’s. These include Drappier, Henriot, Besserat de Bellefon, Delamotte, Delbeck, Mandois, Legras, Nicolas Feuillatte (actually a “CM” or a “Co-operative-Manipulant”), Comte Audoin de Dampierre, Gosset, Billecart-Salmon, Jacquesson, Bricout, etc. Of those 105 brands in town about 50% were made by NMs. Look at the bottom or side of the front label: you’ll see (in VERY small print) the letters “NM” followed by their company code. Don’t be afraid to try any of these as there’s not a dog in the lot.
But many of the newer entrants to our market make what are known as “Récoltant-Manipulant” Champagnes (these “RM”s represent over 40% of my total) which are basically estate-bottled bubblies (Gints Brencis, wine director at Sav Way in Oak Brook, refers to them with the catchy “farmer’s fizz” name-tag). Unlike the big houses who buy most of their grapes from a collection of contracted growers and then blend the lot, “RM”s are growers who do not usually blend their grapes or wine with anyone else’s. That doesn’t mean they’re better: in fact, the guy may be a great grape grower but a lousy winemaker (or he or she may make very atypical examples: see below). But it certainly means they will be more distinctive. Gaston-Chiquet, Th. Fluteau, José Dhondt, André Clouet (actually a “Société de Récoltant” but it amounts to the same thing), Chartogne-Taillet, Tarlant, Diebolt-Vallois, Michel Turgy, Michel Arnould, Waris-Larmandier, Mandois, Pierre Gimonnet, Marguet-Bonnerave and Larmandier-Bernier are just a few examples worth seeking out. In these cases, the label will sport the letters “RM” plus the code. (Right now, although almost half of all the Champagne that the French themselves drink is made by RMs, they make up less than 5% of Champagne imports to this country altogether; but that small base has been growing over the past few years). Most of them also blend, using base-wines from the parcels they own in one village or the other. But some only have land in one village and will usually put that name on the label (Bouzy, Cramant, Avize, etc.). PS: as they don’t have national advertising expenditure monies built into their costs, they tend to be better values.
While not an RM, the NM Brice offers a neat way of comparing 4 of these “terroirs”: Aÿ, Cramant, Bouzy and Verzenay ($30 each).
Taking the specificity angle a step further, there are the rare “single vineyard” Champagnes. In a region famed for the importance of the blending process, these are a very different approach to the wine. Probably the two best-known are Krug’s “Clos du Mesnil” ($700 plus) and Philliponnat’s “Clos des Goisses” ($125). They have been on the market for a while if at a price a bit high for most. And a few years ago, none other than Moët et Chandon released three single-vineyard Champagnes with mixed success. Less well known and more of a cult wine is Drappier’s “Grande Sendrée” ($100). It’s actually a two-fer in our category of distinctive wines: not only is it a single-vineyard Champagne, but that vineyard lies in the Aube region of Champagne, an area usually looked down upon by many and are hence not often seen here. And then, at last, there’s Cattier’s “Clos du Moulin” ($80-90) which I have tasted in France but have never seen in Chicago before. The vineyard lies in the village of Chigny-les-Rosés in the Montagne de Reims and is a non-vintage Champagne, made as a blend of three years’ wines. Jean-Milan’s “Terre de Noël” is from a single site in Oger. Varnier-Fannière makes the “Clos Saint-Denis” from very old vines in Avize. Billecart-Salmon just released their premier vintage of “Le Clos Saint-Hilaire ($350). From a vineyard of 2.5 acres in Mareuil-sur-Ay, they only make a few thousand bottles a year. This one’s a three-fer: it’s a single vineyard, a Blanc de Noirs (only Pinot noir) and it is non-dosed (see below).
Wood-fermented and/or wood-aged Champagnes are turning up more and more. It might seem counter-intuitive to put the base-wine of a beverage that is usually so fruit-driven into a barrel because the wood tends to cover the fruit. There is, of course, a history of barrel use here because, well, what did they use before stainless steel tanks? But the needs for improved cellar cleanliness and the change in taste towards the cleaner and fruiter styles saw barrel use decline. But if cellar practices can be modernized and the raw material is of good structure, why not? High-profile NMs like Krug, Roederer and Bollinger have been using barrels for all or part of their production for years without saying so on their labels.
Now, however, there is a greater drift woodward. Feuillatte has introduced a barrel-aged and –fermented blend called “Cuvée 225”. The 225 refers to the number of liters in the barrels used (approximately 60 gallons). The result is a seamless integration of the fruit and the wood in a complex but very delicate format (the 1997 is due in after the 1st of the year). Vilmart et Cie.’s “Coeur de Cuvée” (“heart of the blend”: the 1998 is $85-100) is entirely fermented in new French oak barrels; but the oak never takes charge unless you drink it too young (it usually needs 10 years to develop into a spectacularly integrated and complex wine). A very small NM – Henri Giraud – turns out a few barrels of a cuvée called “Fût de Chêne” (“vat of oak”) which is incredibly rich and needs about 30 minutes’ aeration to really show its stuff (1996 is $180)
However, other producers, most of them RMs, have gone a step or two further allowing the wood to take more of the stage. Jacques Selosse is in the forefront of this movement where the oak is definitely noticeable for better or worse. Jean Milan’s “Cuvée de Réserve”’s base wine spends some time in small oak. Diebolt-Vallois, Jacquesson and Michel Turgy all play around with oak for some or all their cuvées, or blends. And Françoise Bedel, also an organic producer from the western fringe of Champagne and using over three-quarters Pinot Meunier, ferments a portion of its wine in small oak.
For the very bored, jaded or whatever the term may be, there are also a few very different Champagnes out there. For instance, Egly-Ouriet, an RM out of the village of Ambonnay, makes a 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne. This grape, while making up more than a third of all the plantings of the region, does not have a stellar reputation for making great Champagne. Rather, it is used in those cuvées that are meant to be light, fruity and unlikely to improve with age. But every dog has its day, as they say; so if you are adventuresome, catch this one soon (it is called “Brut Premier Cru Les Vignes de Vrigny”: very tight availability).
Also, L. Aubry, another RM but based in Jouy-les-Reims, makes a couple of wines called Le Nombre d’Or. The one called “Campanae Veteres Vites” (“old vines of the countryside”) is an unusual blend of grapes. Prior to the application of the Appellation Contrôlée system in 1938, there were several hundred acres of land that were planted to grapes like Arbanne, Meslier, Fromenteau (Pinot gris), Gamay, Pinot blanc, etc. When the new legislation came into effect, only Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier–by far the most widely planted– were thenceforth the only grapes allowed to be planted for the production of Champagne. What happened to those orphaned grapes? They got grandfathered. Growers who had some of these grapes could use them until they got old and the vineyard needed replanting. Then, only the three permitted varieties could be used if the vineyard was replanted (but as usual, this being France, there are loopholes that allow for the re-planting of these orphaned grapes). Aubry, among others, had or found some of these vineyards and rescued them from oblivion. According to Stephen Tanzer’s “International Wine Cellar”, the blend for the 2000 is 25% Pinot gris, 20% each Arbanne and Petit Meslier with the remaining 35% being the three biggies. According to the distributor, only three cases have been brought into Chicago.
Lastly, the latest trend, probably more of a mini-trend or, even better, a squeak on the market, is the super-dry Champagne, labeled “Extra Brut”, “Non Dosé”, etc. As most Champagnes retain a high amount of acidity, coming as they do from one of the world’s coldest climates for grape-growing, it’s usually necessary to tame it, otherwise few would enjoy its rasp-like mouthfeel. This taming process is called the “dosage” and is done after the wine has been cleared of its sediment, shortly before it is to be marketed. The process begins with the “dégorgement” (disgorgement, coaxing the built up sediment out of the bottle’s neck, or “gorge”) in which some of the wine is blown out of the bottle with the sediment by the built-up gas pressure. To replace it, the winemaker adds a little reserve wine from previous years along with some cane sugar both of which tend to soften the acidity. If done right, the sugar is completely integrated into the wine and helps in the development of the wine’s aromatic and flavor profile. “Brut” Champagnes have the least sugar added (legally up to 15 grams per liter but usually less) while the “Doux” (or sweet) versions have the most (over 50 g/l). As the less sugar is added the more time is usually needed for the integration and taming process, most commercial wines get a healthy dosage and only spend 2 to 3 years ageing before release.
But, IF a grower has great raw material, and IF he makes a superb blend which he is willing to age for the many years it takes to soften without adding any or minimal sugar, the producer can turn out that rare bone-dry version. If you have a low tolerance for tart foods or drinks, these are not for you. But if you are the person at the bar sucking the life out of that lemon or lime in your drink, give one a try. Some of the bigger NM’s—notably Laurent-Perrier (“Ultra Brut”), Piper-Heidsieck (“Sauvage”)—have been doing this for years, but without much consumer acceptance. Maybe the entry of interpretations from the smaller guys will change some minds and palates. Egly-Ouriet’s “Cuvée Brut Non Dosé ($50), André Clouet “Silver” and Tarlant’s “Brut Zero” are examples.
As for getting these wines retail, the two biggest sources in Chicagoland are the ones you would expect: Sam’s and Binny’s. Charles Edward Stanfield holds court at the former (in Chicago) and is worth the trip just to listen to. Both operations offer over 50 brands of Champagne. But Randolph Wine Cellars, Wine Discount Center, Sal’s Beverage World and Sav Way come in at a couple dozen each, while Knightsbridge, Schaefer’s, The Wine Seller, Howard’s Wine Cellar, Fox & Obel, Artisan Wine Cellers, A Taste of Vino & Wine Expressions each offer between 10 and 20.
In terms of restaurants and/or bars, Pops for Champagne – for nearly 25 years a Chicago sparkling jewel — is the place for French fizzy. They carry just over 40 brands of Champagne with over 100 variations on the theme. They just recently relocated to new digs at State and Ohio.
Where can you taste? There will be many opportunities for tasting Champagnes and other sparkling wines before Christmas. See the listings above for specifics. Merry Drinking!
Courtesy of Patrick Fegen and the Chicago Wine School, wineschool.com