Champagne is the best-known wine in the world; you could also say it’s the most celebrated, except that the idea always becomes self-referential - we celebrate everything with Champagne, which makes it a sort of Zen equation: It’s both journey and destination, a means to an end and an end in itself. Luckily, it’s also so delightful that serious thoughts float away with the bubbles. Charles Dickens called it “one of the elegant extras of life,” while Napoleon took it into battle with him (his motto: “In victory, you deserve it, in defeat you need it.”) For those of us who can’t watch a championship game without regretting how much first-rate bubbly is going to be sprayed over a bunch of sweaty athletes at the end, it’s just a delicious affirmation, more of a necessity than an extra.
Technically, it’s amazing that Champagne tastes so good. Although it’s made from fine-wine grapes, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Champagne region is so cool that the grapes don’t quite ripen, and because most Champagne is made as a white, the wine is drained away from the flavorful and colorful skins of the red Pinot grapes as soon as it’s fermented. Then, after a few months, wines from different parts of the region, and often different grapes as well, are blended together, with some older wine from previous vintages added. If any other wines were made that way, they’d be lucky to fetch five bucks a bottle.
Instead, Champagne is not only consistently expensive, it’s also continually successful: Sales have been increasing for decades, and the governing body in France just responded to the increased demand by passing a law expanding the vineyard area - by a mere 3 percent, which is major news not only because it’s the first change allowed in 80 years, but because the upgrade will increase the value of the lucky vineyards by more than $750,000 an acre.
The question of value comes up often with regard to Champagne. With most wine, you get what you pay for most of the time, but in this case, there’s that celebratory image, that luxurious mystique, the sheer glamorous aura of the stuff, that can make it difficult to judge. Is Cristal, copiously swilled by rappers and rock stars, worth $300-500 a bottle? Dom Perignon, named for the alleged inventor of the wine, costs almost as much. Value? I don’t think so, but as Duke Ellington once said, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t afford it.”
Most Champagne - more than 90 percent - is non-vintage. Luxury blends and vintage versions can be marvelous, as well they should, but the best of the non-vintage Champagnes are really fine wines, quite marvelous too. One thing that makes them so is the amount of older wine, known as “reserve wine,” that is blended in, to give the wine complexity and depth of flavor; this is the advantage the best-known, well-established older brands have. Each aims for a specific “house style” in their skillful blends, so if you find one you like, you’ll probably enjoy it again and again over the years.
The Best Non-Vintage Champagnes:
The new releases are coming out right now - Spring 2008 - and these notes are based on extensive tasting of those newest versions. Some blends may be slightly different from earlier in the decade, because of poor harvests in 2001 and 2003, which meant more reserve wine had to be used to bring the wines up to par and some wineries are still re-building their stocks.
With the best champagne, celebrate the perfect moments in your life. We recommend expensive champagne and cheap champagne that offers superior quality at the best price.