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Life's Too Short for Cheap Champagne

By Michael Franz
Wednesday, December 31, 2003; Page F01


If you've still not bought your bottle of bubbly for tonight, there's a good chance you'll make your purchase in a hurry and on impulse. And if you are buying on impulse, I've got a chance to catch you in an unguarded state and goad you into doing something reckless -- like shelling out for the really, really good stuff.



Sure, buying high-end vintage Champagne or an ultra-high-end Cuvee de Prestige bottling may not make economic sense. If you took the alternative of buying a bottle of cheap swill and investing the unexpended funds, you would probably be better off at some point in the long run. But as the great economist John Maynard Keynes once noted, "In the long run, everybody's dead." This is worth remembering on the one holiday we devote to the passage of time, so please consider making this the night you find out what really fantastic Champagne tastes like.

Maybe you'll be underwhelmed. But maybe you'll be thunderstruck. I know what I'm talking about here, since my first taste of bubbly from the very top shelf completely changed my life. I was an occasional and largely indifferent wine drinker until I was transformed by a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee shared with my wife on the ride from our wedding to the reception. And though I was of course completely riveted on my beautiful bride, that Krug still managed to produce a world-rocking epiphany with its astonishingly complex aroma, flavor and texture. I was irresistibly compelled from that moment to learn how such a thing could result from mere grapes.

Sadly, many casual wine drinkers don't quite think of sparkling wine as real wine, dismissing it as something for launching a ship or dousing a victorious locker room. But it most certainly is real wine, and arguably the greatest of all wines. Excellent Champagne can provide innumerable aromatic nuances and remarkable depth of flavor while remaining restrained in intensity and delicate in body. Its subtle power is demonstrated by its (underappreciated) ability to stand up to many foods and to develop positively over many years of aging. No other wine is as invigorating, and no wine can match it for textural complexity. Period.

Here are recommendations of top vintage and Cuvee de Prestige (also called "Tete de Cuvee") Champagnes tasted recently. Regular-size bottles are fine, but never buy half-size, 375-milliliter bottles (which are very irregular and often disappointing, like my Krug sample for this column). Magnums are optimal, provided that you've got enough fellow revelers and your retailer will vouch for the freshness of the bottle. Recommended wines are listed alphabetically rather than in order of preference, since all are on a stratospheric level, differing from one another more in terms of style than quality. One last thing: Price competition is especially keen in this category, making a couple of phone calls a good idea even for last-minute shoppers.

• Besserat de Bellefon "Cuvee des Moines" Brut Blanc de Blancs ($60): So soft it is almost creamy, this is a completely endearing wine full of gentle, subtle flavors.

• Billecart-Salmon "Cuvee Nicolas Francois Billecart" Brut 1997 ($100): An immensely impressive, deeply flavored wine that somehow remains poised and elegant.

• Bollinger "Grand Annee" Brut 1996 ($90): 1996 is a fantastic vintage for Bollinger, with all the usual heft and power given lift by extraordinary acidity.

• Cuvee Dom Perignon Brut 1995 ($120): Don't let the hype turn you off: This is an indisputably great wine, with perfect proportion and balance. And if you're really feeling flush, Dom Perignon Brut Rosé 1988 ($300), currently at the height of its powers, is one of the five best Champagnes I've ever tasted.

• Gosset Grand Millesime Brut 1996 ($80): Like the Bollinger, this muscular wine is brighter and fresher in this vintage than any rendition I can recall, thanks to the amazing ripe acidity of the vintage.

• Alfred Gratien "Cuvee Paradis" Brut Rosé ($95): A wonderful wine with gorgeous pale copper color, excellent breadth and depth on the palate, and a fresh, taut finish.

• Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle ($80): The vintage-dated Grand Siecle from this house is always magnificent but painfully pricey, so try this delicious alternative. Complete and beautifully balanced, with very fine bubbles, this is a relative bargain.

• Lilbert-Fils Grand Cru Cramant Brut Blanc de Blancs 1996 ($60): If you love lean, fresh, taut, "linear" wines like Sancerre, this is a Champagne you must try -- especially in this vintage.

• Nicolas Feuillatte "Cuvee Palmes d'Or" Brut Rosé 1996 ($160): The regular Palmes d'Or is a very nice wine, but this rosé is just stunning, with remarkable depth of flavor and impeccable balance.

• Philipponat Clos des Goisses Brut 1991 ($115): A great wine at the apex of its complexity, this features amazingly detailed aromatics and a wonderfully rich, soft finish.

• Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay 1995 ($65): I've never tasted a less-than-excellent bottle of this wine, which tastes great young, ages with astonishing grace and offers excellent value relative to Champagnes of comparable quality.

• R. Pouillon Extra Brut Chardonnay 1996 ($45): This is a very elegant, classy wine, with ultra-small bubbles and very delicate texture, but also a fine acidic edge. A good buy.

• Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs 1995 ($150): With an uncanny combination of deep richness and light freshness, this is perhaps the ultimate argument in favor of Chardonnay.

• Trouillard "Cuvee du Fondateur" Brut 1995 ($60): With real Cuvee de Prestige complexity and depth of flavor at the price of a regular vintage Champagne, this is a conspicuously attractive value.

• Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin "La Grande Dame" Brut 1995 ($140): The nonvintage, "Yellow Label" Brut from this house is a victim of its own astonishing success, since it is ubiquitous and therefore commonplace -- which is a mixed blessing for any luxury product. But there is nothing common about Grande Dame, which is invariably fantastic and always impossible to peg. Too fresh to be called full-bodied, but too flavorful to be called light, it is always an object lesson in balance and symmetry.
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