Top Champagnes and Bubbles

This is part 2 to ‘Champagne’s Dirty Little Secret’ where we questioned the higher prices of Champagne sparkling wine and discussed marketing practices. If you would like to read that first, click here

Is it worth it for us to spend the extra money on a bottle of Champagne?

Champagne does indeed have a unique terroir – the soil, the climate, and the complete natural environment – is unlike anywhere else.

A Vineyard in Champagne

The marginal climate is wrought with frosts and fungal diseases and the grapes just barely ripen during long, cool seasons that create this region’s calling card . The high diurnal temperature fluctuations between daytime and nighttime help to maintain the steely, mouthwatering acidity that Champagne lovers crave and which allow the wines to age for decades in a cellar. Veritably, grapes intended for bubbled Champagne would not taste good if made into a still wine. They are too austere; too lacking in flavour; too acidic for any other kind of wine. Therefore, as high yields cause dilute, uninteresting wines in other regions, here it works beautifully. The purpose for great bubbles is to avoid concentrated flavours. Therefore, as the CIVC (Comité de Champagne) sets the yields each year to ensure that there is never an overproduction of wine – as opposed to them setting a limit to maintain quality – fits in Chamgapgne as the bar for quality remains high.  As Tom Stevenson points out, it is ‘ripe acidity’ that is the perfect result of Champagne’s climate.

But critics are correct to point out that the question of ‘terroir’ for Champagne can be easily debunked. Most Champagne’s are blended; from different villages, across from the five major districts, from various grape varieties and often from different vintages. In fact, Krug has over 200 separate wines that it draws upon to produce its non-vintage brut. The purpose here is to produce the same consistent house style from year to year, devoid of vintage variation, and it seems to follow that it is therefore, devoid of terroir. Furthermore, the style of each Champagne is just as dependent on what the winemaker does to the base wine, blurring the footprint of terroir further. As my friend argued, Champagne is defined mostly by winemaking techniques.

And yet, there is just something about Champagne…!

No where else can you achieve such racy acidity (if this is what you like, and I do!).

gyropalette for ageing and riddling Champagne. Photo: CC Olivier Colas
pupitre at Pol Roger. Photo: CC Thomas Er

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Realizing the expense and effort that goes into each bottle is worth mentioning. The wines are held back for a long time before being sold. Even the non-vintage wines must be aged for a minimum of 15 months before they are disgorged and rebottled. Have you seen the way that the bottles need to be spun a quarter turn every day until they are upside down (sur pointe)? Pol Roger has 5 people who do this every day by hand during the ageing process. Others must buy a gyropalette, a massive machine that mimicks this process.

 

Here is a selection of some of my favourite Champers…

Delamotte Brut Champagne $62.99

Gloriously creamy and crisp and lasts forever in your mouth.  The style is elegant; the brioche, and macademia nuts are enveloped in lemon juice and white flowers and finishes crisp and long. In fact, if you ever see any Delamotte on the shelves, it’s worth picking it up. Their vintage Champagnes are only made in the lesser years. Why? Because in the good vintages, it’s bottled as Salon, one of the most sought after Champagnes for sommeliers.

 

Pol Roger Cuvee de Réserve Brut Champagne NV, $65.99

This is more widely available than the Delamotte but offers that same crisp lemon juice finish. One of the amazing feats of Pol Roger is they still riddle their bottles by hand to move the lees to the top of the bottle. Pol Roger is another elegant Champange with a crisp finish as the one above.

If you prefer richer, more toasty Champagne’s, buy Louis Roederer Brut Premier featured on the right. $67 in BC Liquor Stores

 

Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Extra Brut

This is a grower’s Champange (not owned by a large negociant house who buys grapes from other producers) and a husband and wife team who farm their vineyards biodynamically (organic and then some). Taking a large step away from commercially produced Champagne, this couple keeps yields down to a measly 50hl/ha which is less than half of what the maximum yield is in Champagne. This is also a 100% Chardonnay. It is leaner and has less bubbles than the previous two Champagnes (because there is a lower dosage (Extra Brut) it. For those people whose stomachs can’t take all of the persistent bubbles of Champagne, this could be for you (Shawna L – I’m talking to you!).

And as Champagne is not in everyone’s budget. Here are some amazing bubbles at more affordable prices.

For those of you fortunate enough to live in British Columbia Canada, I have an even better option for you.

Blue Mountain Sparkling wines. I can’t believe the consistent quality the Mavety’s produce. Their family owned vineyards in Okanagan Falls have a large temperature range (diurnal) between daytime and nighttime leading to this incredible mouthwatering acidity throughout all of their wines. Most of their sparklers sell out each year and top restaurants and wine shops who have formed long term relationships with the Blue Mountain vineyards get an ‘allocation’ each month or year.

 

Blue Moutain Winery in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, Canada

 

Thank goodness they released the Gold Label Brut last year (pictured on the right), the only non-vintage wine in the lineup with higher production levels so you are more likely to find this wine in private liquor stores in the province (think Liberty Wines and Marques in Vancouver or Blackcomb Cold Beer and Wine in Whistler). Excellent crisp sparkler without the intense toastiness of other wines (yet still aged for 24 months before release) and for $30 it is an amazing find.

For those who prefer ‘vintage’ wines that have longer ageing and more of that toasty, brioche complexity search out their other bubbles. They carry a Vintage Blanc de Blancs (crisp, lemon curd, creme brulée and toast made with Chardonnay and the 2009 was their last release) and ONLY $40 – can you believe it?!  The Vintage Brut Reserve (currently the 2009) is actually still available to buy online so snatch it up!

 

Brut Rosé RD 2013

My favourite! The Rosé is aged on on lees (dead yeasts) for 36 months (not as long as the Blanc de Blanc and Brut Reserve). So a little less brioche and toast and slightly more fruity. If you find this, buy it!! If you can’t find it, the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler sells this by the glass year round. Or go and sabre a bottle in their wine cellar.

 

 

Is it worth it to spend the extra money on Champagne? If you have it to spend. Otherwise, seek out other wines that are every bit as delicious and easier on the pocket book too.

Champagne’s Dirty Little Secret

In ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blonds’ Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Diamonds are a girls best friend’ in a pink satin dress surrounded by dapper men in black tuxedos.  I’m a brunette and Champagne is my best friend?

 

 

Champagne and diamonds are two luxury products whose value is questioned because of their actual lack of rarity. It was the marketing genius of DeBeers that led to the perceived scarcity of diamonds. It is the Comité de Champagne (CIVC) that controls the amount of Champagne allowed to be made each year. This amount is based on the world’s demand for Champagne. Just like DeBeers, the CIVC makes sure that the growers will not sell enough grapes to cause a reduction in price (and following that, the perceived value) of Champagne.

Indeed, most Champagne houses produce bottles in the millions each year. In fact, Dom Perignon, does not even admit what their production is. Moët makes upwards of 30 million bottles: Veuve Clicquot sits at 13.5 million. Clearly, just as with diamonds, there is no possibility of the world running out of Champagne. This is Champagne’s dirty little secret.

How does Champagne market itself as a luxury product? First, by aligning itself with the upper classes. Roederer’s Cristal was made at the request of Tsar Alexander II. Champagne was a favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sir Winston Churchill drank so much Pol Roger that they dedicated their top wine to him. Then in the 19th century, Champagne crossed the transatlantic and enraptured wealthy Americans via Champagne Charlie (Charles Heidsieck) and Lily Bollinger. In 1973, Bollinger partnered with the world’s greatest spy, James Bond and is featured in 13 Bond films.

 

Rap stars have also promoted the frothy fun. Tupac’s song serenades the recipe of ‘Thug Passion’ – one part Alizé Passion Fruit Liqueur and one part Cristal. Cristal is the cuvée prestige, the flagship or the top wine of the Louis Roederer house that sells for $300/ bottle.

Originally, Jay-Z also promoted Cristal. That is until the Economist interviewed the managing director of Roederer. When asked if the attention from rap artists was detrimental to the Cristal image, he responded, “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” It seems that rap culture may not quite bestow the polished image that all the Champagne houses are looking for.

In the follow up, Jay-Z took the comments as racist and promptly pulled all Cristal from his nightclubs. Then, business-savvy Jay wisely bought the Armand de Brignac Champagne house before  featuring the gold-laden ‘Ace of Spades’ bottle in his next music video, “Show Me What You Got”. Watch how he turns away the bottle of Cristal and then see how the girl’s eyes light up when they present the bottle of Armand de Brignac. Burn! Then quick move to positive product placement.

 

And since my sister celebrates her birthday this weekend, I just have to bring some Champers to celebrate the milestone. We’re staying at the luxurious Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon, British Columbia built by the owner of Swarovski crystal jewelry. The place is adorned with crystal chandeliers, snowflake crystal lights, crystal fireplaces, and more crystal throughout the steam rooms of the spa. Marilyn, you can take your child labour, environmental abuse blood-diamonds, I’ve got ethically made Austrian crystal to pair with my Champagne! (In fact, Marilyn Monroe was garbed in Swarovski crystal for the movie, not in diamonds.)

And if 20th Century Fox didn’t put out the extra dough for Marilyn to wear real diamonds, is it worth it for us to spend the extra cash on the coveted name of Champagne?

The answer: it depends.

More on Champagne and other sparkling wines in the next post.