by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW
True Champagne, the unique sparkling wine from the Champagne region in northeastern France, will never be inexpensive. It just costs too much to make. But some Champagnes are relatively well-priced and, in view of their quality, can be very good values. These wines are the non-vintage Bruts.
The Champagne region is so northerly that its climate is marginal for grape growing. On average, only four or five vintages each decade are warm enough for making vintage Champagne—providing grapes so ripe that they can stand alone without being blended with wines from other years (although the local weather clearly has been warmer than usual since 1989). The Champenois concluded long ago that if they wanted to stay in business, they had to combine wines from several years to compensate for all those vintages when the climate is poor. In the 19th century, these so-called “non-vintage” Champagnes were the only type sold. Today, 85 to 90 percent of all Champagne is still non-vintage.
Most Champenois find the term “non-vintage” distasteful because they believe that vintage-conscious consumers, especially Americans, might think something is wrong with non-vintage wines. Rémi Krug of Champagne Krug insists on calling his Krug Grande Cuvée a “multi-vintage” Champagne; “non-vintage” is a misnomer, he argues, since there are several vintages in his Champagne. Nonetheless, the cumbersome term “multi-vintage” has not caught on. But you will never see the words “non-vintage” on a non-vintage Champagne, either; what you’ll sometimes see is the word “Classic,” such as in “Deutz Classic Brut.”
Champagne producers themselves invariably refer to their non-vintage Bruts as “classic Bruts.” Their rationale for the term is that this type of Champagne was the original—and for many years the only— type of Champagne produced.
Non-vintage Bruts are the world leaders in sales. They are the least-expensive Champagnes for several reasons: they’re made in the largest quantities; the average price of their grapes is lower than for those of vintage Champagne; and they are aged fewer years than vintage Champagnes. Three years of age is the average for the better non-vintage Champagnes that we see in the U.S. (The poorest quality non-vintage Champagnes are sold in French and UK supermarkets, and elsewhere in Europe.)
The average retail price range of non-vintage Champagne is $25 to $45. Sometimes a non-vintage Brut sells for more than $45, but often this is a “better” non-vintage Brut, such as Gosset’s Grande Réserve, or a non-vintage prestige cuvée (a term used for a Champagne house’s finest offering). Examples include Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle (a great value Prestige Cuvée) or Krug’s Grande Cuvée, which actually retails for over $100. Non-vintage rosé Bruts and non-vintage blanc de blancs Bruts are usually a few dollars more than standard NV Bruts because they are costlier to make and their production is more limited.
We are Champagne lovers, and we drink far more Champagne than the average consumer. What we drink depends on the occasion. For special occasions, we’ll spring for a prestige cuvée or a good vintage Brut; for aperitifs, often a light-bodied blanc de blancs; with dinner, sometimes a rosé Brut. But 75 to 80 percent of the time, we drink non-vintage Bruts—especially at restaurant prices. We’re not millionaires, and even if we were, we’d still buy non-vintage Bruts most times: they’re invariably well-made, and a good value. Prestige Cuvées should be saved for special occasions. How can you appreciate them if you drink them all the time?
Food and Champagne
Although Champagne can be enjoyed on its own, it is particularly food-friendly, and accompanies most foods extremely well.
It’s great with hors d’oeuvres of course, such as stuffed mushrooms, smoked mussels or oysters, crab dip, or an assortment of nuts, especially almonds. It’s also the wine of choice for many non-wine-friendly foods, such as egg dishes, vegetables, spicy Asian cuisines and sushi. Here is a brief list of food and Champagne matchups:
With brunch: Scrambled eggs, bacon or ham and eggs, mushroom omelets, and quiche are especially good with a non-vintage Brut, such as Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve, Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial, or Pol Roger Brut. If you insist on orange juice with your brunch, try a Mimosa: one-third fresh-squeezed OJ, two-thirds non-vintage Brut.
With pasta and risotto: Pastas with vegetables or seafood go better with Champagnes than with other wines. Mushrooms are a particularly wine-friendly food with Champagne; mushroom risotto and Champagne is a marriage made in heaven. Try a good non-vintage Brut, such as Gosset Grand Réserve or Pommery Brut Royal Apanage, with these dishes. Avoid Champagne with tomato-sauced based pasta dishes; the acidity of tomatoes clashes with Champagne. Stick to red wine for tomato-based pasta dishes.
With vegetables: Asparagus is a tough matchup with most wines, but it goes very well with a delicate blanc de blancs, such as Gaston Chicquet, Billecart-Salmon, or Pol Roger Blanc de Chardonnay. Try a good non-vintage Brut with eggplant or zucchini dishes, or ratatouille.
With fish and seafood: Delicate or simply prepared fish go well with a light blanc de blancs, such as Mumm de Cramant or Deutz. Full-bodied fish entrées require a medium-or full-bodied NV Brut, such as Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve. Oysters, clams, and most other shellfish are great with a medium-to full-bodied blanc de blancs Champagne, such as Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs, or Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires. Lobster needs a really full-bodied blanc de blancs, such as Salon, Pierre Peters, or, for a big splurge, Krug Clos du Mesnil. Caviar matches perfectly with light-bodied, delicate vintage prestige cuvées, such as Pommery Louise or Jacquesson Signature Brut.
With poultry or game birds: Chicken goes with most wines, including Champagne; the heavier or creamier the chicken dish, the more full-bodied your Champagne should be, such as Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Veuve Clicquot, NV Yellow Label or their Gold Label Vintage Reserve. With turkey, try a full-bodied rosé, such as Gosset Grand Rosé Brut or Veuve Clicquot Rosé Reserve. Duck needs a powerful, full-flavored Champagne, such as Bollinger NV Special Cuvée or its Grand Année Vintage Brut, or Louis Roederer Vintage Brut. Game birds, such as pheasant or squab, go well with prestige cuvées such as Gosset Célébris, Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, or Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame.
With Asian cuisine: The sweetness and/or spiciness of Chinese, Thai, or Indian cuisine often overwhelm wine. Beer works, but we prefer Champagne. The acidity and the bubbles can handle these cuisines. Any good non-vintage Brut or extra-dry Champagne works well. With more delicate Japanese cuisine, we’d recommend a good, dry blanc de blancs, such as Jacquesson or Bruno Paillard, Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut (very dry), or a good Prestige Cuvée, such as Dom Pérignon, Jacquesson Signature Brut, or Philipponnat Clos des Goisses.
With pork, ham, veal, and lamb: Beef, venison, and other game are probably too full-flavored for Champagne; stick to red wine with these entrées. Veal and pork dishes, however, are fine with full-bodied Champagnes. Ham is great with medium-bodied rosés such as Laurent-Perrier NV Cuvée Rosé Brut, Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Rosé, or for a special treat, Cuvée William Deutz Vintage Brut Rosé. Lamb can be quite gamy, and needs a full-bodied rosé to accompany it, such as Bollinger Grand Année Vintage Rosé or Krug NV Rosé.
With cheeses: Hard, aged cheeses go wonderfully with vintage Champagnes. Try parmesan, aged gouda, or aged cheddar with vintage Krug, Bollinger Vintage Grande Année, Charles Heidsieck Vintage Brut, or Krug Rosé.
With desserts: Avoid Brut Champagnes with desserts; Bruts are too dry and acidic. Instead, try a demi-sec Champage, such as Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial, Louis Roederer Carte Blanche, or Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, and then only with desserts that are not too sweet, such as a bowl of strawberries or raspberries or a lemon pound cake. For sweeter desserts, have an Italian Asti, such as Martini & Rossi, Fontanafredda, or Vietti’s Cascinetta Moscato d’Asti.
Champagne Cocktails and Other Champagne-based Drinks
Champagne blends well with fruit juices and fruit-based liqueurs. Kir Royale is perhaps the most popular Champagne cocktail; it is traditionally made with one part cassis and four parts Champagne. For a dryer Kir, use less cassis. Champagne with strawberries also makes a delicious cocktail. We especially enjoy Champagne with a bit of unsweetened cranberry juice. We mentioned Mimosas previously, with brunch. Make sure that the orange juice is fresh-squeezed, for best results, and use one-third or less orange juice with the Champagne. For a refreshing change, especially if you find Mimosas too sweet, use fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice instead of orange juice. By the way, always use a true non-vintage Brut Champagne, such as Heidsieck-Monopole Blue Top, Charles Lafitte, or Nicolas Feuillate, as a base for Champagne cocktails. You suffer a real loss in quality and flavor when you substitute some inexpensive, nondescript sparkling wine for the Champagne.
Champagne Glasses and Serving Temperature
Flutes are the most popular glasses for serving Champagnes these days, but flutes are best only for young, less complex Champagnes, such as most newly-released, inexpensive non-vintage bruts. For vintage Champagnes, prestige cuvées, and all mature Champagnes, including older non-vintage bruts, we prefer a fairly large, tulip-shaped Champagne glass. A standard white wine glass will work, also. Complex and mature Champagnes need these wider mouthed glasses to express their aromas and flavors.
We prefer to serve most Champagnes cold, at about 45° F. Champagne will warm up rather rapidly in the glass, and its taste suffers in the process. For that reason, we advise you to alertly freshen up your guests’ glasses with more Champagne, which they should be keeping cold, of course, either in an ice bucket or in the fridge—but not sitting bucketless on the table.
Mature Champagnes or complex, vintage Champagnes and prestige cuvées need not be served so cold; you cannot appreciate their complexity at extremely cold temperatures. For these Champagnes, we suggest fairly chilled (50° to 53°F.) temperatures, but not very cold (45°) temperatures. N
Recommended Non-Vintage Brut Champagnes
• Alfred Gratien Brut Classique
• Besserat de Bellefon
• Bollinger Special Cuvée
• Bruno Paillard Brut Première Cuvée
• Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve
• Deutz Brut Classic
• Duval-Leroy Cuvée Paris
• Gosset Grande Réserve
• Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Blue Top
• J. Lasalle Brut Impérial Preference
• Jacquesson Brut Cuvee 729
• Louis De Sacy Grand Cru Brut
• Louis Roederer Brut Premier
• Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial
• Mumm Cordon Rouge
• Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut
• Philipponnat Royale Réserve
• Piper-Heidsieck Brut Cuvée
• Pol Roger
• Pommery Brut Royal Apanage
• “R” de Ruinart
• Taittinger la Française
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