Pop the Cork
Most people limit their champagne intake to the holiday season, and it shouldn’t be that way. It is so good! Champagne’s bracing acidity also makes it the ideal partner for a wide variety of foods. You have to know that champagne must come from the Champagne region of France; sparkling wine made anywhere else in the world must have a different name (Cava, Prosecco, etc.). Though champagne is light colored, it is usually made from a blend of two red grapes and one white. Blanc de blancs is champagne made entirely from Chardonnay. It is lighter, crisper, and better on its own as an aperitif. Blanc de noirs is champagne made from only red grapes with their skins removed, mostly Pinot Noir. It is softer and fuller-bodied. If you like dry champagne, look for Brut on the label. Extra dry means medium dry, sec means slightly sweet, and demi-sec means quite sweet. Drink demi-secs after a meal or with dessert. Nonvintage champagne has no year on the label. Wines from multiple harvests go into the blend, and bottles typically sell for $35 and under. Drink such champagne within five years of purchase.
If you want champagne with more heft, more profundity, look for something with a date on the bottle. Most champagne is nonvintage, meaning it’s a blend, or cuvée, combining wine from the most recent vintage with reserves from prior years. The goal is a consistent “house style” that never fluctuates.
In great years, exceptional wines are selected for a vintage-dated cuvée. Vintage champagnes are aged a minimum of three years before release, as opposed to just fifteen months for nonvintage.
Cristal, Dom Pérignon, and La Grande Dame are “prestige cuvées”—the most rarefied vintage-dated wines, which age even longer before (and after) release.
Nonvintage champagnes skew cleaner and lighter, whereas the vintage stuff brings a toastier, more appley richness; it has a potent structure more suited to dinnertime than to the cocktail hour.
You should try: Champagne Dom Pérignon, vintage 1999, $150
Like all champagnes, rosé has to be made only in the Champagne region of France (otherwise it’s simply sparkling pink wine). The pink hue comes from a little red wine being added to the base or from grape-skin contact early in the process. Despite the bubble-gum color, almost all rosé champagne is completely dry. This is often indicated by the word brut on the label. Sweeter bottlings usually have the word demi-sec. Drink these after dinner or with dessert. Rosé champagne pairs better with food than white champagne. It has a bit of the richer, firmer structure of a red wine, so you can drink it with roast duck, lamb, or even rare steak.
You should try: Nicolas Feuillatte NV Brut Rosé, $38
Champagne‘s Indie Movement
The champagne industry might be dominated by big brands, but lately it’s the tiny grower-producers that are attracting all the attention in the fizz biz. These are small-production, artisanal wines, produced by vineyard owners who might have otherwise sold their grapes to large houses such as Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot (two brands that, by the way, account for more than half of all champagne sold in America).
Although grower champagnes still represent a mere blip on the screen in terms of sales, it’s a much bigger blip than it was a few years ago, thanks at least in part to the enthusiasm of the pros.
You see those supersize bottles of wine gathering dust on backbars and store shelves and you wonder: Who buys those things? The answer is You, at least on New Year’s. A large dinner party is the perfect occasion for the everyday wine guy to invest in magnums. Not only does wine mature more slowly (and taste better) in larger bottles, but the bottles themselves look impressive in hand and give your wine presentation some focus. One magnum (two bottles’ worth) easily serves a dozen, enabling you to pour the group in one shot for all your friends!