When I look back on my days as a beginning wine drinker, I find many reasons to chuckle, and more than a few at which to shake my head. As we begin our journeys to becoming wine lovers there are so many things we do not know. Our limited experiences tell us something about the world of wine, but only much later do we realize how little.
For many years after I started drinking wine, I didn't like Champagne. I found it bitter and parching, an angular sort of drink that needed to be sipped politely when occasions called for it, but surreptitiously traded for a glass of white or red whenever the opportunity arose.
Only after several years of enjoying wine seriously did I realize that my experience with Champagne was like trying to see an entire landscape through a tiny peephole. It turns out that I simply just hadn't ever had any really good Champagne. In part, that is because neither I, nor the people whose parties I attended, bothered to pay enough to get the really good stuff.
For you see, the moment I learned the difference between really great Champagne and poor Champagne, I also learned just how much the good stuff costs. Are there a few great values under $40? Sure. But all the best Champagnes will cost you $60 or more.
It just took me many years to realize that they really are worth it.
Great Champagne is one of the world's most phenomenal wines. The best of them are both incredible versatile food wines, as well as utterly quaffable soloists.
At its best, Champagne offers the perfect blend between savory qualities -- saline notes, roasted nuts, or buttery brioche -- and the more typical floral and mineral elements we expect to find in white wine. The best Champagnes seem like meals in themselves, but without significant mass -- as if you could simply go on drinking glass after glass after glass.
I don't drink nearly enough Champagne, and chances are, neither do you.
And if you've never had the opportunity to sample well-aged Champagne, you're missing out on one of life's greatest pleasures.
My cellar is modest, and my pocketbook not so deep, so my chance to sample many of the world's top Champagne bottlings comes once a year when the Institute for the Masters of Wine comes to town and puts on their annual tasting. While it doesn't pretend to offer comprehensive coverage of the top Champagnes of the world, it does a fair job of bringing a number of the best small growers and large houses together for an evening of tasting.
Here are my favorites from this year's tasting.
ROSE CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5
NV Ruinart Brut Rosé $70
Pale baby pink in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of sappy rosehips and apples. In the mouth, beautiful notes of rosehip, hibiscus, and red apple skin morph to pink grapefruit as the wine finishes beautifully. Juicy and delicious. click to buy.
2008 Louis Roederer Brut Rosé $65
Palest baby pink in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine has a very stony aroma, with only the barest whiff of flowers and fruit. In the mouth, very juicy sour cherry and saline flavors leave the mouth puckering and wishing for more for a very long time. Delicious. click to buy.
2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque $260
Pale peach in color with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus peel and hibiscus. In the mouth citrus and hibiscus notes merge with a deep stony quality that lingers for a long time through the finish. Quite pretty and bright, with lovely balance. click to buy.
2004 Pol Roger Brut $100
Light salmon in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus peel and rosehips. In the mouth, the mousse proves quite velvety, and carries delicate lemon and grapefruit flavors through a very long finish. Delicious. click to buy.
ROSE CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2004 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rosé $75
Light baby pink in the glass with a hint of salmon, and medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasted wood and berries. In the mouth yeasty flavors of oak, forest berries, and saltines are delivered on a velvety mousse. Ultimately a bit too much wood for my taste, but undeniably tasty. click to buy.
ROSE CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
NV Champagne Bollinger Brut Rosé
NV Jacques Chaput Brut Rosé
NV La Caravelle Brut Rosé
NV Henri Billiot Brut Rosé
ROSE CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
NV Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Rosé
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9.5 AND 10
2002 Piper-Heidsieck Brut Rare $150
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells beautifully of hazelnuts and sea air. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful toasted brioche quality that sings with bright lemon curd and lemon zest flavors over a bed of deep, resonant minerality. Beautifully soft mousse. Utterly mouthwatering and gulpable. Fantastic balance and acidity. click to buy.
2000 Pol Roger Brut Sir Winston Churchill Cuvee Prestige $200
Light gold in the glass with extra-fine bubbles, this wine smells of yeasty, toasted levain with a whiff of wet stones and dried flowers. In the mouth a velvety mousse delivers flavors of tangy green apple, fuji apple, and the salty buttery note of saltine, all on a lovely wet stone underbelly. Yum! click to buy.
1990 Veuve Clicquot Cave Priveé $215
Light greenish gold in the glass with extra-fine bubbles, this wine smells of very toasty, buttered sourdough. In the mouth the wine has a fantastic salinity to it, with more than a modicum of toasted oak, but the wood is forgivable amidst such a compelling melange of spices, buttered biscuit, and juicy citrus notes. Delicious. click to buy.
NV Krug Brut Grande Cuvée $135
Pale gold in the glass with extra-fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasted nuts and cream brioche bread pudding. In the mouth a gorgeously soft mousse delivers lemony, resiny toasted brioche flavors along with notes of creme brulee touched with sea salt. Perfectly balanced and just. So. Damn. Good. click to buy.
1995 Charles Heidsieck Brut Blanc des Millénaires Blanc de Blancs $190
Pale greenish gold in the glass with extra-fine bubbles, this wine smells of sappy lemon oil and toasted brioche. In the mouth the mousse is quite velvety with strong lemon oil and toasted brioche flavors and a pure crystalline minerality that is stunning. Gorgeous, with a long finish. click to buy.
2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs $125
Pale gold with a hint of greenness to it and extra fine bubbles in the glass, this wine has a wonderful lemony saline aroma. In the mouth, it is regal, with a laser-straight backbone of lemon zest and seawater that push the salivary glands to overdrive. Savory and delicious in a way that makes you want a gulp, and then another. Filigreed, with fantastic acidity and balance. click to buy.
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5
2004 Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon Brut $150
Pale greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasty biscuits, and a sappy citrus aroma that is quite arresting. In the mouth saline notes of green apple have that same resinous quality of the nose, and a hint of toastiness as the wine heads to a very long finish in which the mineral quality of the wine emerges. Fantastic. click to buy.
2000 Gosset Brut Grande Millesime $90
Light gold in the glass with extra-fine bubbles, this wine smells of baked apples and toasty buttery biscuits. In the mouth the wine is mouthwateringly saline, with a mix of toasty biscuits, hazelnuts, and a kelpy note that is quite delicious. Perfectly balanced, and quite delicate. Yum! click to buy.
1998 Henriot Brut Cuvée des Enchanteleurs $165
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of green apples with a hint of yeasty biscuits. In the mouth, a velvety mousse delivers flavors of green apple and wonderfully saline butter biscuits. A stunning mineral undertone crackles through the wine electrically. Remarkable. click to buy.
2003 Philipponnat Brut Millésime Cuvée 1522 $80
Light gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of lemony asian pear. In the mouth gorgeous asian pear and lemon juice flavors float on an ethereal foamy cloud that perfectly balances the floral and mineral components of the wine. Quite refined and utterly delicious. Wow. click to buy.
2005 Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Cuvée Special Club Millésime $80
Light blond in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of resinous apple and a hint of toasted sourdough. In the mouth, the mousse is quite soft and sensuous as it flashes notes of green apple, wet stones, and a trace of butter biscuits. Juicy and delicious, and utterly compelling. click to buy.
2002 Pol Roger Brut $85
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of bright apples and pears dusted with saltine crumbs. In the mouth the wine has an effortless quality to it, sliding easily down the throat without a second's thought. Deceptively light on its feet, this wine is a stunning feat of balance between mineral, floral, and citrus touched by a faint saline toastiness. click to buy.
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5
2005 Gaston-Chiquet Brut Cuvée Special Club Millésimé $80
Light gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine has a wonderfully mineral and saline aroma. In the mouth, the wine is quite stony, with deep mineral tones that lend the overall package a sense of glassiness. The mousse is ethereal and delicate. Focused and linear, with an edge that seems like it might cut you if you weren't careful. click to buy.
2005 Henriot Brut Millésimé $60
Pale greenish gold in color with fine bubbles this wine has a stony nose of green apple tartness. In the mouth a velvety mousse delivers flavors that all seem saturated with greenness -- green apple, cucumber, and a kelpy sea air quality that is quite attractive. Delicious and nicely balanced. click to buy.
2006 Louis Roederer Brut Vintage $65
Light gold in the glass with a greenish tinge and fine bubbles, this wine smells of bright lemon and apple aromas. In the mouth it has a piney aspect, with sappy lemon, apple, and unripe pear flavors that merge with a stonier quality. Notes of mineral, grapefruit, and fleur de sel linger in the finish. click to buy.
2006 Piper-Heidsieck Brut $70
Light gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of unripe pear and apples. A moderately fine mousse delivers a cloud of apple, pear, and crushed stone flavors to the palate. Bright and juicy and delicious. click to buy.
2004 Veuve Clicquot Brut La Grande Dame $125
Light greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of ripe apples and oak. In the mouth, a nice balance of bready, yeastiness and crisper apple flavors have a nice saline kick, but the finish doesn't measure up to the juicy flavors. Tasty, nonetheless. click to buy.
NV Vilmart & Cie Brut Cuvée Grand Cellier $60
Palest gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of cold cream and white flowers. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly floral, with gorgeous mineral tones and flavors of cold cream and vanilla, but little trace of oak. Crisp and bright and quite distinctive. click to buy.
2005 Ayala Brut Blanc de Blancs $80
Light gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of apples, wet stones, and pear skin. In the mouth, a crisp package of stony green apple and mountain spring water leaves a beautifully clean, long finish in its wake. Lean and delicious. click to buy.
2002 Pol Roger Brut Blanc de Blancs $90
Light gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasty bread, apples, and asian pears. In the mouth a velvety mousse delivers wonderfully long and saline flavors of toasted oak, apples, and asian pears. Juicy and bright. click to buy.
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2004 Bollinger Brut La Grande Année $110
Light gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine has a bright saline and yeasty aroma. In the mouth a soft mousse offers bright yeasty and lemony flavors with a nice tang to them. click to buy.
2004 Perrier-Jouet Brut Belle Epoque $125
Light greenish gold with medium-fine bubbles, this wine has a coarse mousse which reveals flavors of apple, pear, and a hint of biscuit. Mineral notes emerge on the finish. click to buy.
2004 Veuve Clicquot Brut $85
Palest gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of apple and sappy lemon aromas. In the mouth stony flavors of lemon, grapefruit, and pomelo zest have a tart and tasty quality. click to buy.
2006 Demiere-Ansiot Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru $70
Pale greenish gold in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of crushed cashews and sour citrus. In the mouth, flavors of lemon and pink grapefruit are juicy and bright and crisp. Tasty. click to buy.
2002 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs $90
Light blonde in the glass with medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of old parchment and asian pear. In the mouth, saline flavors of apple skin and a hint of biscuit stay juicy and bright through a crisp and lengthy finish. click to buy.
NV Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée $50 click to buy.
NV Gosset Brut Grande Reserve $58click to buy.
NV Perrier-Jouet Brut Grande Brut $35click to buy.
NV Varnier-Fanniere Brut Grande Cru $48click to buy.
NV Henriot Brut Blanc de Blancs $40click to buy.
NV Pascal Doquet Le Mesnil sur Oger Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs $80click to buy.
2006 Louis Roederer Brut Blanc de Blancs $80click to buy.
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
NV Ayala Brut Majeur
NV Camille Saves Brut Carte Blanche Premier Cru
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut
NV Charles Ellner Brut Cuvée de Réserve
NV La Caravelle Brut Cuvée NiÃ±a
NV Lamiable Brut Grande Cru
NV Louis Roederer Brut Brut Premier
NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut
NV Pol Roger Brut Réserve White Foil
NV Roederer Estate Brut
NV Taittinger Brut La FranÃ§aise
NV Pol Roger Rich Extra Cuvee de Reserve Dosé
NV De Souza a Avize Brut Réserve Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
NV La Caravelle Brut Blanc de Blancs
Nv Demiere-Ansiot Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2007 Lamiable Cuvée Les Meslaines Blanc de Noir
NV Devaux Brut Cuvée D
NV Eric Rodez Brut Cuvée des Crayeres Grand Cru
NV Gaston-Chiquet Brut Tradition
NV Michel Loriot Brut Cuvée Réserve
NV Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Réserve
NV Pol Roger Non-Dosé Pure Extra Cuvee de Reserve
NV Gosset Brut Grand Blanc de Blancs
CHAMPAGNES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
NV G.H. Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge
2004 Pierre Moncuit Brut Grand Cru Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs
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