There was a time I didn’t care for Champagne. Now, a week doesn’t go by without me wishing I had more Champagne in my modest little cellar. But perhaps even more often than that, I find myself wanting a glass in my hand. Champagne, it turns out — at least when it’s good, has all of my favorite things when it comes to wine: texture, complexity, savoriness, and acidity. My particular problem, however, is that I tend to find these qualities most concentrated with, and in direct correlation to, the price of the bottle. Turns out that I have Champagne taste and a Cava budget.
In fact, I might never have come to enjoy Champagne if I hadn’t had the chance to taste a few expensive bottles. You see, most of my experiences with Champagne had been with the stuff that I and my friends could afford. For many years, the most expensive stuff I had tried was non-vintage Veuve Cliquot — their standard orange label that, as far as I was concerned, cost a pretty penny. It was OK, but didn’t wow me.
But as I grew as a wine lover, and met people with bigger budgets than I, opportunities arose to taste $100 and $200 bottles of Champagne. Needless to say, a few older vintages of Dom Perignon, a taste of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, and a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee later, I understood what all the fuss was about.
The difference between most $100 bottles of Champagne and the $30 stuff that I had been drinking (on a spendy day) was remarkable. Far more drastic than the difference between a good $30 bottle of Cabernet and a $100 one.
With a few exceptions that I am constantly looking to find (and hoard), really good champagne doesn’t seem to be available for less than at least $40 dollars a bottle here in the U.S. Yes, that’s a gross generalization, but it’s an unfortunate truth in my experience. Unfortunate in both a general and a specific way. It means generally that a lot of people can’t afford to taste what really good Champagne tastes like, and more specifically it means that I can’t afford to either. And that’s a damn shame, because, if I could, I’d drink a $100 bottle of Champagne every day.
The good stuff is just hard to make — incredibly time and labor intensive, not to mention requiring the expertise of a very experienced hand in the winery. Whether it comes from a tiny operation that is run by a couple of people, or one of the big houses that spares no expense to achieve an almost magical consistency in their quality, great Champagne simply takes more money to produce. And, it turns out, to drink.
All of which is why I try not to miss the annual Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting when it comes to town. For a couple of hours this week, I and about 200 others got easy access to try some of the world’s top Champagnes in the helpful company of a bunch of Masters of Wine.
While there were several bottlings missing from some of the producers, and several top producers absent, but there were plenty of fantastic champagnes on offer, each bottle a painful reminder of the gulf that lies between my preferences and my pocketbook.
Having said that, there are some perfect gems of value/price ratio to be found below, in particular the Philipponat Grand Brut as well as a few others that I intend to drink more of after this week’s reminder of just how good they are. Enjoy the tasting notes, and remember: life is short. Drink more Champagne!
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 10
1995 Charles Heidsieck “Blanc des Millénaires – Rare Millésime”
Yellow gold in the glass with minuscule, very fine bubbles, this wine all but undresses you as you inhale. Aromas of biscuits, a hint of oak, and roasted salted nuts start your mouth watering before you even take a sip. In the mouth the wine is nothing less than stunning, and defies any attempt to spit it out. A gorgeous melange of salty butter cracker and lemony gorgeous electric…sunlight mix and swirl on the palate in a glowing aurora of flavor. The saline quality of the wine makes you simply want to gulp this wine, while the deep mineral flavors and filigreed mousse make you want to roll it around on your tongue a little more. Either way you resolve this conflict, you’re in for nothing but pleasure. Utterly, gob-smackingly fantastic. $190. click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9.5 AND 10
2002 Dom Ruinart
Palest gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles this wine smells deeply of minerals: rainwater, sea air, and wet stones. In the mouth crystalline flavors of apple and pear have a wonderful saline quality to them along with nice biscuity toastiness that is utterly delicious. The mousse is quite velvety, and the acid searing and sharp. The finish is long, clean, and full of crushed stones. Awesome stuff. $170. click to buy.
2003 Dom Pérignon
Light gold in the glass, with extra fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasty bread and nuts with some sweet floral overtones. In the mouth the wine is uncharacteristically rich for Dom Perignon, with roasted nuts and much more saltine cracker flavor than usual. Expansive and broad with a silky mousse, the flavors are perfectly balanced and linger extremely long in the mouth. Excellent acidity. Quite untypical for this producer (though the heat of 2003 clearly was untypical, too) and on balance totally remarkable. Quite possibly one of my favorite vintages of Dom Perignon ever on release. Exotic. $135. click to buy.
NV Krug Grande Cuvée
Light gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine has a biscuity, buttery, saline nose that starts the mouth watering. In the mouth the wine is velvety and almost weightless at the same time. A wonderful fusion of tart apple, ocean air, and buttered sourdough toast linger and swirl with perfectly balanced acidity and richness through a long finish. Regal. Disgorged 211017. $140.click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5
1999 Doquet, Grand Cru Le Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs
Pale greenish gold in the glass, with extra fine bubbles, this wine smells of saltine, apples and pears. In the mouth it is super velvety on the palate with flavors of apple and pear and a hint of butter crackers. An appley sweetness lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity and wonderful balance. Stunning. $80. click to buy.
2000 Pol Roger Brut
Light gold in the glass with extra-fine bubbles, this wine smells of sweet sourdough toast with butter. In the mouth the wine offers nutty, saline flavors that are incredibly juicy thanks to the tangy plum-skin fruit that swirls amidst the more savory notes. Wonderfully balanced and gulpable. Phenomenal. $88. click to buy.
2004 Philipponnat Grand Blanc
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of floral notes with hints of apple and wet stones. In the mouth stony and mineral flavors mix with a hint of lemon while velvety mousse carries floral flavors across the palate. The wine has a lightness to it that is quite remarkable, and seems to float above the tongue. Rockin. $75. click to buy.
2004 Pol Roger Rose
Pale salmon pink in the glass, this wine smells of a slight funky, cidery aroma like apples fermenting. In the mouth flavors of bright apple, wet leaves, and rosehips mix with a wonderfully tangy personality. Fantastic acidity lingers through the finish which turns slightly sweeter with hints of hibiscus. $110. click to buy.
2004 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame”
Palest yellow-gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of warm butter crackers and freshly baked bread, with a distinctly salty note. In the mouth the wine delivers all the rich savoriness that the nose promises. Saline lemon and buttered toast flavors have a deep briny quality that is quite arresting. Balanced and delicious. $125. click to buy.
2004 Taittinger Récolte Millésime
Light gold with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of freshly baked biscuits and melted butter. In the mouth the wine tastes much older and richer than I would expect from such a young vintage, with salty butter cracker and juicy lemon curd flavors that meld beautifully with great balance and harmony. Fantastic. $80. click to buy.
2007 Roederer Brut Rosé
Palest baby pink in color, with fine bubbles, this wine smells of rosehips and orange peel. In the mouth flavors of berries, rosehips and seawater have a wonderfully bright, event steely quality to them. The wine has a very long finish. Compelling and delicious. $70. click to buy.
2007 Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier d’Or” Brut
Pale greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of green apple and green plums. In the mouth it is quite velvety, with a finely textured mousse, and crisp flavors of green apple and green plum that skate across a hard ice pond of stony minerality. The wine turns slightly saline in the finish, making it that much harder to not take another sip. Fantastic. $70. click to buy.
NV Pierre Péters “Cuvée de Réserve,” Brut Blanc de Blancs
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a slightly sulfury funk on the nose that eventually resolves into almost a smoky quality with a hint of biscuit. In the mouth the wine is salty with flavors of lemon zest, wet stones, and eggshell. Nicely balanced and quite unique, it lingers long in the finish. $49. click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5
1998 Henriot “Cuvee des Enchanteleurs”
Light gold in the glass with extra fine bubbles, this wine smells of freshly buttered hot biscuits or white bread and wet stones. In the mouth the wine tastes of wet stones and butter crackers with hints of oak. Nice yeasty biscuity flavors linger through the finish with a nice crisp fruit and good acidity. $170. click to buy.
2002 Bollinger “La Grande Annee”
Light gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells nutty with aromas of sourdough toast and lemon zest. In the mouth, crisp flavors of roasted nuts, wet stones, and a hint of citrus linger through a long finish. Excellent acidity. $100. click to buy.
NV Charles Ellner Brut Rosé
Pale salmon in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of tangy berries and wet stones. In the mouth, flavors of red apple skin have a remarkably tangy, vinous quality to them while citrus notes float across the palate. Nice zip to the acidity and tartness to the wine. $55. click to buy.
2002 Charles Ellner “Seduction” Brut
Palest greenish gold in the glass, with extra fine bubbles, this wine has a deep, deep mineral quality to it which is welded to tart green apple flavors and the bite of malic acid. Quite arresting. $47. click to buy.
2004 Chartogne-Taillet Millésime Brut
Pale greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of unripe pears and crushed oyster shells. In the mouth flavors of tart apple and oyster shell mix with a nice saline character that lingers for a long time. Great acidity. $50.click to buy.
2004 Perrier-Jouet “Belle Epoque” Brut
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of baked apples. In the mouth flavors of baked apple mix with a nice deep wet stone minerality that is quite compelling. Excellent acidity. $120. click to buy.
2004 Perrier-Jouet “Belle Epoque” Rose
Palest baby pink in the glass, this wine smells faintly sweet, with bright berry aromas. In the mouth berry flavors mix with wet rocks and a bit of citrus, plus a tiny hint of sweetness that brings a smile to your lips. $300. click to buy.
2006 Roederer Blanc de Blancs
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of apple and lemon curd. In the mouth lemony saline flavors have a deep wet stone minerality to them, and the mousse is quite smooth and silky. Delicious. $75. click to buy.
NV Taittinger “Prestige” Rose
Pale salmon in color with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of crushed rosehips and wet stones. IN the mouth berries and rosehip flavors have a nice stony aspect to them and a hint of saline that makes the wine quite delicious. Great balance. $50. click to buy.
2000 Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs. $110. click to buy.
2002 Gimonnet-Oger Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Millésime Premier Cru. $??
2003 Philipponnat Cuvee 1522 Grand Cru. $82. click to buy.
2004 Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Cuvée Oenophile” Extra Brut. $65. click to buy.
2006 Pierre Gimonnet et Fils “Paradoxe” Brut. $50. click to buy.
2006 René Geoffroy “Cuvée Empreinte” Brut. $55. click to buy.
NV Pehu-Simmonet “Transparence” Extra-Brut. $57. click to buy.
NV Varnier-Fannière “Cuvée Saint-Denis” Brut. $66. click to buy.
NV Bollinger Rose. $85. click to buy.
NV Devaux Cuvee L’Ultra C (Non-Dose). $??
NV Devaux La Cuvee D Brut. $75.click to buy.
NV Henriot Blanc de Blancs. $50.click to buy.
NV Philipponnat Brut Royale Reserve. $37.click to buy.
NV Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve. $36. click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2002 Devaux Cuvee D Millésime. $75. click to buy.
2005 Taittinger Récolte Millésime. $85. click to buy.
2004 Veuve Clicquot Rosé. $80. click to buy.
2005 Henriot Brut Millesime. $80. click to buy.
2006 Roederer Brut. $66. click to buy.
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve. $36. click to buy.
NV Charles Heidsieck Rosé Reserve. $70. click to buy.
NV GH Mumm Cordon Rouge. $30. click to buy.
NV GH Mumm de Cramant Blanc de Blancs. $60. click to buy.
NV Henri Goutorbe Brut Rosé. $50. click to buy.
NV Henriot Brut Rosé. $60. click to buy.
NV Lamiable Grand Cru Brut. $50. click to buy.
NV Gaston Chiquet “Tradition” Brut. $38. click to buy.
NV Jean Lallement Et Fils, Verzenay-Grand Cru Brut. $55. click to buy.
NV Pehu-Simonnet “Selection” Brut. $54. click to buy.
NV René Geoffroy “Cuvée Expression” Brut. $45. click to buy.
NV Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier” Brut. $68. click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2004 Henri Goutorbe “Spécial Club” Brut. $80. click to buy.
2004 Veuve Clicquot Vintage. $78. click to buy.
2006 Marc Hébrart “Spécial Club” Brut. $80.click to buy.
NV A Margaine “Cuvée Traditionelle” Brut. $40. click to buy.
NV Ayala Rose Majeur. $80. click to buy.
NV Bollinger Special Cuvee. $48. click to buy.
NV Doquet Blanc de Blancs, Brut. $50. click to buy.
NV Doquet, Premier Cru, Blanc de Blancs, Extra Brut. $55. click to buy.
NV Henriot Brut Souverain. $34. click to buy.
NV Pehu-Simonnet Brut Rosé. $65. click to buy.
NV Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Cuis 1er Cru Brut. $49. click to buy.
NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut. $30. click to buy.
NV Roederer Brut Premier. $36. click to buy.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2002 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Blanc. $70. click to buy.
NV Aubry Brut. $40. click to buy.
NV Ayala Brut Nature. $45. click to buy.
NV Devaux “Le Rose D” Rosé. $70. click to buy.
NV Jacques Chaput Brut Tradition. $40. click to buy.
NV Lété-Vautrain Brut Traditionnel. $??.
NV Marc Hébrart “Sélection” Brut. $50. click to buy.
NV Piper-Heidsieck Rose Sauvage. $46. click to buy.
NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. $63. click to buy.
NV Taittinger Brut La Francaise. $48. click to buy.
NV Chartogne-Taillet “Cuvée Ste.-Anne Brut. $38.click to buy.
NV L. Aubry Fils Brut. $40. click to buy.
NV Moussé Fils “Or Tradition” Blanc De Noirs Brut. $40. click to buy.
NV Trepo Leriguier “Cuvee Solennelle-Célébrons L’Instant” Brut Blanc de Blancs. $??
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
NV Didier-Ducos Fils Cuvée Brut Rose Pétale de Rose
NV Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut
NV Pol Roger Rich
NV Roederer Carte Blanche Extra Dry
NV Moussé Fils “Noire Réserve” Brut
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8
NV Jeaunaux Robin Brut Rose
NV Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee Sublime
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
NV Doquet Premier Cru Rosé