Celebrate the new year with three stellar Champagnes

By Celia Strong

Here we are, at out final conversation for this year. Because it is our last wine lesson, it means we get to have a serious Champagne discussion. With as much as we’ve learned during our wine lessons each week, I think we have all earned a good bottle of Champagne to end this year and to ring in the new one.

So, off we go to northern France, to the Champagne region, north if Paris. First, we’re going to learn some “Champagne” terminology so that when we talk about our three wines for this week, what we say makes sense. We all do know that Brut is drier than Extra Dry, and the huge majority of Champagnes we see are Bruts.

Champagnes come in three basic levels, or types. First is the non-vintage house cuvée. Because it is so cold in this region, the grapes are not always able to ripen enough to make good wines on their own. By saving wines from several years and then blending them to make their non-vintage wines, producers are able to make their cuvée taste the same batch after batch. (We need to remember that each year of wines are stored individually by grape variety and the exact plot of land where the grapes grew. That means one producer can be sitting on several tanks of Chardonnay wine from several plots, more tanks of Pinot Noir wines from more plots, and even more tanks of Pinot Meunier wines from even more plots. The winemaker has to be familiar with the flavor and weight and texture characteristics of each and every tank in order to come up with the “recipe” of each batch of cuvée he needs to make. And a batch can be a million bottles.)

In years when the weather is more helpful, and the grapes ripen more, a producer can “declare” a vintage. That means all the wine is from the same year and the label on those bottles shows the date.

Vintage Champagnes are more expensive because they are more limited in supply. These wines are expressions of both the house, producer, style and the year the grapes grew. Finally, the third level, in the very best years, producers make a “Prestige” or “Tête de Cuvée” wine. These wines are recognizable by their special names (Dom Pérignon, Cuvée Winston Churchill, Palmes D’Or, La Grande Dame and others) and, usually, by their special bottles. If in doubt, their even higher cost is also a clue.

The key to getting as good a Champagne as you can is, obviously, to know some of these intricacies of this particular wine. For our end of the year celebrations, I thought we could look at three in particular, each special in its own way. Each one of my long-time favorites. And, yep, each available on a deal so we can really enjoy the bottle of our choice!

To start, we have a non-vintage Champagne in a gift set. Laurent-Perrier with two small Champagnes flutes. These small glasses are known as “coupettes” because a full size flute is a “coupe.” Coupettes are nice because, even though you might have to fill them more often, more of the Champagne stays in the ice longer so it stays fresher and colder. I’ve always liked mine very cold, so this smaller glass is perfect. The house of Laurent-Perrier was established in 1812. Even today it is one of the largest independent producers in the region. This wine is known for its delicacy and smooth texture. It comes with honeyed lemon flavors. It is almost half Chardonnay, a large portion of this grape in the world of Champagnes, which is where the delicacy comes from. The non-vintage brut is aged in the cellars over three years, three times the legal required minimum time. This bottle, with the two coupettes, is $37.97. If you’re not interested in the two glasses, though, a bottle of the same wine is available for $39.99.

Our second Champagne is also a non-vintage. And we did talk about this one last year also. The Krug Grande Cuvée is, bar none, the most expensive non-vintage Champagne. Why? This one is a blend, cuvée of no less than  10 years of saved wines. Not only that, though, they are all made from grapes from top, top quality vineyards. Between the extensive saving and the quality they work with, I guess Krug is expensive. But, there’s more. Some of these wines, before blending and the secondary fermentation to make the bubbles, are aged in wood barrels. This by itself would make Krug very, very rare in Champagnes. It is fuller bodied and intense, a Champagne with great density and complexity. It has flavors of lemon, biscuits, gingerbread, nuts and more. The regular price on this bottle is usually over $150. Last year, Bill’s Liquor had it on sale for $110. Obviously a good deal. This year? The same price at $109.97. (No, it is not left over wine from last year!)

Last, and definitely not least, we have a vintage dated Champagne. The Veuve Clicquot 2004. I’m sure we all know the orange-ish yellow label. And, yes, the non-vintage is a good, good Champagne. Interestingly, Clicquot is going to make fewer and fewer vintage Champagnes. The last was 2002, the next will be 2008. Why would they decide to make fewer wines that they can sell for more? It’s one way to make sure they have plenty of better grapes for their house cuvée. One way to keep the wine they sell the most of as good as it can be. And, it’s a way to make a bigger difference between the non-vintage and the fewer vintages. The 2004 was considered to be an excellent vintage in Champagne, and many houses made vintage wine. All of them are good, but the Clicquot is great. (The Clicquot was the first 2004 I tasted. Clean and crisp with apple, herb and lemon notes, the mouth-feel of this Champagne is tight and lively. Exactly what a Champagne should be. Having searched out, and tried, five or six other 2004s, it is still excellent!) At $74.99, it isn’t even twice as much as the non-vintage. Of course, usually it should be, but here’s another deal for us!

Now, the geeks that we are, we have some new wine terms to use. Better yet, we have some great Champagnes to celebrate with. It may be hard to decide between the three, but they are all excellent choices. Here’s to 2014!


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