I am not a big fan of the best of lists, because they are always representing someones opinions which others can value or not, but I think this list of the best champagnes is valuable because it is selection made by several people who are champagne aficionados and their opinion is valuable to me. So I am passing it on to you in hope that you will be able to enjoy some of the gems from the list.
Late great Lily Bollinger once said “I drink it when I am happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I truffle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I am thirsty” She clearly knew what to do with a spare few minutes, and she was, clearly, one of the biggest names in champagne industry, the biggest promoter of this fine bubbly drink in the world.
More than any other drink on Earth, champagne has an unshakeable image, and it is the only wine area in the world where branding has been truly successful. Consumers regularly buy the same product, and an association with fashion and music can be as important as what is actually in the bottle, and of course, with successful brands come big multinational companies, marketeers and public-relations teams. In fact, spin and hot air are as much a part of modern champagne as the fizz. So, today Modern Gentleman will present you with a guide to the classics. Before we all get into the tasting bit let me give you some facts about champagne which you can use to impress people at your next business dinner.
The facts behind every great champagne
- Champagne is a region in the northern France, and only bottles produced in this region are called champagne.
- It can be made from three grape sorts. Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. If you noticed, first two wines are red. The color in red wine is extracted from the skin and by squeezing the juice and then not letting it sit with the skins you can get white juice.
- The fizz in the bottle is created by secondary fermentation. So the first job is to make normal, still white wine. Put it into a bottle, add some yeast and sugar and seal it. The yeast feeds on the sugar, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. As the bottle is sealed there is nowhere for the carbon dioxide to go, so it dissolves in the wine, thus creating a sparkle when opened. The key point here is that the second fermentation is done in the bottle.
- Most champagnes are non vintage, meaning it will be a blend of different years. Only exceptional years will be made into vintage wines.
- Champagne is expensive to produce. So don’t bother to buy anything cheap.
Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut NV
Bollinger makes champagne for grown ups. One of the few big names left in the region, and still family owned, it is obsessed
with quality control, producing a charter of ethics. Trying to get the other big names to sign-up mostly failed as it would have outlawed many of the shady practices harmful to quality that are still rife today.
Bollinger is all about power and complexity, as well as poise and balance. Serve it to those who understand the finer points of life, and, for what it’s worth, in Ian Fleming’s novels it’s also James Bond’s champagne of choice.
Mumm Cordon Rouge NV
For many years this famous house’s offerings were distinctly average. Now, though, quality has improved dramatically, which I can testify cause I have enjoyed Mumm several times. The Cordon Rouge (‘red ribbon’) on the bottle was added in the late 19th century as a tribute to the Legion d’ Honneur, France’s highest civilian award.
This fresh, zingy, mid-weight style is perfect for everyday consumption and has good value for money. Also it is great food pairing wine due to high proportion of Pinot Noir, and if you had doubts about the pronunciation it’s pronounced ‘moom’, not ‘mum’.
Larmandier-Bernier 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut NV
Most big champagne producers don’t actually own many of the vineyards they use for production, instead they buy the grapes of small growers. The upper hand in the region is now with these growers as an increasing number stop selling their grapes and start making wine. They are unequivocally the best-value bottles the region has to offer.
Larmandier-Bernier is leading this new movement. The vineyards are run organically which is very rare in Champagne region and they make brilliant wine. Being a Blanc de Blancs, this is 100 percent Chardonnay. It’s seductive stuff, a creamy nose leads onto a palate of cut white bread (sounds odd, granted, but this is a classic note for Chardonnay champagnes}.
Moët et Chandon Brut 1999
Of the really big brands that dominate our shelves, Moët is certainly the biggest, with over two million cases produced a year. Quality has got better and better over the last few years, and it has done a fine job in re-branding, from the champagne of choice for your local corner shop to the favored tipple of the fashion world.
Its vintage offering is typically only a few bucks more than the non vintage, making it a canny purchase. The 1999 is young, but has enough ‘flesh’ (grape taste and texture) to drink now. A few more years in the bottle and it will open up to show extra layers of complexity.
Now, here’s the thing: when you abbreviate the name to just Moët, you pronounce the ‘t’. However, if you give it the whole name (“Moët et Chandon, my friend!”), then you don’t.
Pol Roger Brut Reserve ‘White Foil’ NV
This champagne is made out of all three grape sorts, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay which are sourced from the top quality vineyards. An impressively rich, dry style from one of the oldest and most distinguished Champagne houses.
Perfect both as an occasion wine or for impromptu celebrations, and great value. Lighter in style than Bollinger, it is toasty and finely poised. Great for the perfect apéritif.
Salon ‘S’ Blanc de Blancs
If real exclusivity and class is what you’re after (and if it isn’t, what are you after?), Salon should hit the spot. Made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, it takes quality control to a new level, as Salon doesn’t bother to make any wine at all unless the vintage is good enough. Since its start in 1911 there have only been just over 30 types made.
Stylistically, it starts off life taut and slightly reticent with flavors of lemon and minerals, and needs aging to show the full breadth of flavors. The current release is 1997 (good luck finding anything older, I certainly had no such luck). If, however, you ever see any 1990 about, do whatever is necessary to get a glass.
Considering that the most people who consume Cristal do so because of the label and not the contents, the quality remains very high. It was created in 1876 for Tsar Alexander II of Russia and famously presented in a clear bottle, apparently at his request.
It is the vintage, prestige blend of Louis Roederer and is lush and rich, balanced by toasty complexity. Consumed by rappers and the vulgar rich is not necessarily a good thing for long term success and Cristal has already started to acquire a slight whiff of footballer’s wives about it.
Taittinger Brut Reserve
Another of the big houses still in family hands, Taittinger has been at the top of its game for some time, and its whole range is exemplary.
For sheer hedonistic drinkablity, Taittinger is hard to beat, as it has a relatively high proportion of Chardonnay in the blend and this gives it a distinctly rounded, generous character. Taittinger is excellent and really affordable champagne and I highly recommend it.
If Cristal is all a bit too bling for you, Krug is the answer. You know you’re dealing with a serious player with the price tag of more than $300 in US. It is definitely worth trading up, though. This is heavyweight stuff, very serious and complex, and designed for those who know what they’re drinking, as opposed to those who like to be seen drinking.
Think of it as a great white wine that just happens to have bubbles. This powerhouse of a wine is very firm on the palate with lots of depth. White it is beautiful nice and young, Krug Vintage can certainly benefit from some extended cellar time.
Krug also does you the massive favor of aging the bottles before selling so while most prestige champagnes are drunk too young, it can offer the 1998 as its current release. Also look out for the otherworldly 1988.
Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut NV
As the name implies, this is an extra dry style. Before bottling, most champagnes have a small amount of sugar solution added to them, known as ‘dosage’. Ultra Brut has none. This style is all about delicacy and fresh acidity. It is a great palate-awakening apéritif but is also sensational with food; this and a dozen oysters is a dead cert. Trust me.
What does it all stand for?
Champagnes are full of unregulated terms that very few know what do they stand for.
I have found explanations for them so you can remember them and impress some gorgeous woman while drinking one of the champagnes from the list.
- Brut – it means dry
- Demi sec – medium dry. You will not see this label on many bottles but when you do find demi sec champagne then know that it is a great refresher after a big meal or a great sip with strawberries in summer.
- Blanc de Blancs – champagnes wearing this label are made from chardonnay grapes.
- Grand Cru or Premier Cru – The vineyards within Champagne region are classified. Only wines made from Grand or Premier Cru (meaning “the best”) vineyards can put it on the label.
Which one from the list is your favorite? Share your thoughts or if you think I have missed some of the labels that deserve to be on this list post a comment and I will try to enlist it.