With the yuletide rising, it’s time to grasp the season’s favorite lifesaver, Champagne. And by Champagne, we mean Champagne and Champagne alone. Enough with prosecco from Italy and cava from Spain. Let’s return this holiday season to the land where sparkling wine is at its most robust, revered and romantic, France’s Champagne.
The trip will be dear. The best Champagne isn’t cheap, given its tradition, precision and marketing, but relative bargains for what it delivers in depth and breadth can be found. I realized that most recently when the Institute of Masters of Wine staged its 11th annual Champagne seminar in San Francisco this fall.
The event included a studious sit-down tasting of 24 prestige Champagnes, followed by a casual walk-around tasting of 138 more. I tasted the 24, but not all of the 138.
This was the first time in two years that I’d attended the tasting, and the printed program this time around included acknowledgment of Champagne’s intensifying internecine rivalry. That is, the listing of Champagne producers included the code to identify what kind of house made the Champagne, usually “NM” or “RM.”
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Such codes customarily can be found on the back label of each bottle of Champagne. “NM” stands for “negociant manipulant,” meaning the producer customarily buys rather than grows its grapes; the older, larger, more traditional Champagne houses, such as Charles Heidsieck, Taittinger and Bollinger, are “NM.”
Over the past couple of decades, more grape growers in the region have hung on to their grapes to make Champagne under their own brands. They are identified by “RM,” for “recoltant manipulant,” and generally are known as “grower Champagne,” though New York importer Terry Thiese, an early advocate of the breakaway producers, likes to call such sparklers “farmer fizz.”
Champagne sales in the United States, incidentally, are on the rebound, reflecting, perhaps, the country’s revitalized economy. More than 23 million bottles were sold here in 2006 before sales slumped to about half that at the depths of the recession in 2009, according to tracking by Champagne Bureau USA in Washington, D.C. Last year sales were up to 19 million bottles, a surge of more than 1 million over 2013.
In the meantime, grower Champagne has been enjoying an expanding slice of the market, though its representation is still slim, a 5 percent share, but that’s more than twice what it was a decade ago. Thiese says 282 growers now export Champagne to the U.S., up from 32 in 1997 when he started to campaign on their behalf.
While grower Champagne excites sommeliers and retailers for its aura of artisanship, the San Francisco tastings showed that it can be just as uneven and disappointing as Champagne from the traditionally large and dominant houses.
Nevertheless, I came away with enthusiastic notes concerning several Champagnes from both camps:
▪ Champagne Larmandier Bernier 2009 Premier Cru Terre de Vertus Blanc de Blancs ($65): An “RM,” the Larmandier Bernier is precisely what anyone should want in classic Champagne – brioche, smoke, yeast, apple and minerality, all in one dry, lean and elegant package. Thiese calls the 2009 vintage “ripe and strong, less flowery than fruity.”
▪ Champagne Doyard 2007 Collection d l’An 1 Blanc de Blancs ($120): An “RM,” the Doyard was unusually rich and sturdy, with a smokiness and gaminess rare for the breed, though its fruity core evoked a sense of strolling through a pear orchard at the peak of harvest. Thiese notes that the 2007 vintage was small, with barely adequate ripeness in several vineyards, though yielding “many beautiful wines.” This is one of them.
▪ Champagne Geoffroy 2008 Cuvee Empreinte Brut ($65): An “RM,” the Geoffroy, like the Doyard, was husky and effusive, but with a current more of mineral than game. Thiese has declared 2008 the “best vintage of the decade after 2002,” noting that the 2008s are high in acid and extremely flowery.
▪ Champagne J. Lassalle 2005 Premier Cru Cuvee Speciale Brut ($90): My favorite “RM” of the day for its atypical spiciness and surprising persistence. It has character, complexity and stance, with a fresh toastiness evocative of strolling past a bakery in a small French village early in the morning. Of the 2005 vintage, Thiese says: “Its basic nature is an undisciplined power; it is not a gracious vintage, even when it’s clean.” I’d quibble with that, at least regarding the equilibrium and concentration of the J. Lassalle.
▪ Champagne Pol Roger 2002 Sir Winston Churchill Brut Cuvee ($263): Wouldn’t you know it, my favorite “NM” of the day also was one of the more expensive pours, though we didn’t know price until after tasting. The Sir Winston Churchill, made in part with grapes from vines that were yielding fruit in his lifetime, during which he reputedly drank a lot of Pol Roger, is a traditional Champagne in its creaminess, layering and depth, yet modern for its fresh citric vivaciousness. “Certainly a marvelous vintage; potentially a classic,” writes Thiese.
▪ Champagne Taittinger 2005 Comtes de Champagne Brut Rosé ($213): Also a pricey “NM,” the Taittinger aptly was tasted right around this fall’s “blood moon;” both had the same deep and bright red and orange hues. On the palate it was no less shy, delivering richness, layering and surprise. This is what Thiese meant by power in sizing up 2005. Rosées from Champagne, incidentally, are on a roll; over the past decade they’ve jumped from less than 4 percent of all Champagne shipped to the U.S. to more than 16 percent.
▪ Champagne Bollinger 2002 R.D. Extra Brut ($321): Another precious “NM,” the Bollinger shows why the brand long has been James Bond’s favored bubbly – it’s mature, steely and powerful, with a quiet complexity and agile moves.
▪ Champagne Veuve Fourny et Fils 2008 Vertus Premier Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs ($80): An “NM,” the Fourny is perfumey and sleek, its subtle and dry fruit in perfect harmony with its lean but reliable build and crisp acidity. Overall, exquisitely refined; if oysters are on the holiday menu, so should be the Fourny.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.