Champagne. The word alone inspires a sense of pedigree, prestige and nobility. Its history runs long, dating back to the first century. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century, though, when, by accident, these still wines went through secondary fermentation during a journey to Spain and Portugal. Alas, the bliss of bubbles was born.
No matter the century, Champagne’s allure and acknowledged exceptional status has wavered little. It was the choice juice for the Eucharist in the early part of the millennium, the privileged liquid to anoint and initiate royalty, and it danced in the glasses of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and fellow ex-pats during the American prohibition years as they sipped their way through Europe. No other bubbly has ever been held in such universal high regard.
Even so, this pricey piece of perfection has recently been losing favor in hard times. Cava, Prosecco, and domestic sparkling sales are gaining strength, and less people can afford to taste the difference. This is not so much an argument against alternative bubbles. There are some incredible buys out there for everyday sipping or if you’re on a party budget, such as Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($15), Il Follo Prosecco ($12), Marques de Gelida Cava ($16), Schramsberg Mirabelle ($20), Vigna Dogarina Prosecco ($20) and the Bortolomiol Proseccos ($15-50). Unfortunately, the high price of Champagne has kept this elite wine exclusively in the glasses of the elite now arguably moreso than ever. And as a result, sales have plummeted.
Let’s face it. The unnecessary expenses are the first thing to go during economic crisis. Fifty to one-hundred dollar bubbles are hard to justify. Especially when the quality of Champagne has grown more questionable…
I recently took a seminar on ‘recoltant-manipulants’, or ‘small grower’ Champagnes, particularly those coming from the importer Terry Theise. I was fascinated to learn that maybe people were right—most Champagne is overpriced. Not because good Champagne isn’t worth a few extra bucks, rather because well-made bubbles are getting harder to find.
To put it in perspective, 80% of the Champagne produced comes from negociants or cooperatives (this includes many big houses like Dom, Krug, Moet, and Veuve). This 80%, however, only owns 12% of Champagne’s vineyards. How then, you might wonder, does this work? Well, the majority of these houses buy their juice ‘sur latte,’ meaning they purchase the wine once the process is almost complete. They alter a couple things, maybe add some sugar, acid, or yeast strains, disgorge it, bottle it, slap on a label, and sell it as their own. The goal is mass production (and reproduction of a formulaic style year after year in order to make their wine distinctive from the others).
Small growers, conversely, are made in individual villages, from local parcels of land. As such, they taste of that land and are handled in a more delicate, meticulous way. Yields are kept low, allowing each grape to receive the attention it deserves to be worth the price you pay. It becomes a work of art for the grower, and although they are not the wealthiest of farmers, they are proud to be creating one of the most intellectual, fascinating wines in the world.
At this seminar, we were challenged to a blind tasting. Six Champagnes lined up. Three were recoltant-manipulant (small grower) wines, and three were negociant. Not only did I peg them accurately, but the majority of those in my seminar were able to taste the difference. The negociant wines had too much sulfur, imbalanced sugars and acids, and an emptiness about them. They lacked character. These included Veuve, Moet, and Nicolas Feullat. It wasn’t even that they were ghastly, but I never would have wanted to pay $40-50 for any of them. The small grower Champagnes, on the other hand, were layered and complex. They shimmered with minerality and kicked up flavors and aromas that I have had little experience with in other wines. They were memorable.
I was fortunate to try many small grower wines that day. There were a range of prices, but none were over-priced. My favorite was probably quiet, elegant Vilmart & Cie ‘Grand Cellier’ Brut NV ($75). However, it was not far ahead of the Gaston Chiquet ‘Tradition’ Brut NV ($47), which displayed bright raspberry and blueberry notes, as well as the mustier, mineral-kissed Geoffrey Expression Brut ($55). For a more affordable holiday option, we began the seminar with the Aubry Brut NV ($40), which carried a heavy amount of Pinot Meunier and gave off a lovely aroma of apples, pear, and light citrus tones. There is also the Chartogne Taillet Cuvee St. Anne ($43), a wonderful bubbly for the price. In this selection, you will find a certain mustiness to it along with dried apple skins and a touch of hazelnuts. It is incredibly focused and well structured.
Don’t give up on Champagne, undoubtedly still the most complex, age worthy, thought-provoking form of bubbles. Just be sure to try one from a smaller grower (look for ‘RM’ on the front labels near all the confusing numbers—negociants are indicated by ‘NM’). In fact, try one alongside a big house bubbly. Your pennies are valuable. So is your palate. Let economic downturn teach you something. Namely, how to spend wisely.