There is no wine more thrilling than a good Champagne. The sensual interplay among mousse, bubbles, aromas, and that crisp snap on the tongue have a unique power to take your breath away. And that’s before you even really start tasting the wine.
Good Champagne – sparkling wine made in a particular northern region of France, from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – is gettable but maybe a little less easily than you’d think, because most widely available wines are bland. Sure, they’ll do, if what you’re looking for is something pretty in a flute-shaped glass, followed by a few muffled whispers.
Champagne is dominated by very large brands with an interest in playing it safe. If you want to drink a truly expressive nonvintage Champagne, one to make your eyes widen and your heart race, you need to work for it. And it will cost you (though not much more than generic big-house Champagne will). Some of the best available in Maine are Gimmonet, Egly-Ouriet, Aubry, Beaudoin, Vilmart & Cie, and Maillart.
Those are wines made by the people who grew the grapes, rather than at the “grand marques,” which buy grapes and then blend to a “house style.” The economics are against the smaller grower-producers, because land goes for about $1 million per acre, and the labor and machinery costs for producing Champagne are high as well.
The processes involved in making Champagne, or sparkling wine from elsewhere using Champagne’s “traditional method” of in-bottle secondary fermentation, are intense, and show it with the price tag. But in other areas where real estate is more reasonably acquired and paid for, an increasing number of producers are making fascinating, vivacious sparkling wines that present much of Champagne’s brilliance, at significantly lower prices.
The next week or so sees something like 142 percent of our annual sparkling-wine consumption. If you want to pop something fizzy and forget about it, and you don’t care about status, bring a silly prosecco to a party and move on. If you do care about status, buy the yellow-label big-boy Champagne and ignore the fact that you’re unimpressed. But if you want to find something excellent, a delicious wine with independent personality that you love so much you’ll start drinking it with all sorts of non-special meals once 2014 begins, read on.
A few background notes: “Traditional method” means that a base wine is placed in bottle with a “tirage,” an addition of yeast and sugar that induces a secondary fermentation that captures carbonation since the bottle is capped. In the “charmat” method, that secondary fermentation is induced in large tanks, after which the finished sparkling wine is bottled. Charmat is cheaper, and generally leads to less distinctive and complex flavors, with less fine bubble delineation. Most prosecco and cava is made by charmat.
Another important consideration is whether the wine utilizes “dosage,” a shot of sugar added after the “disgorgement” of the secondary fermentation’s dead yeast cells, used to balance out flavors and/or leave the final wine with a marked sweetness. Dosage-or-not is not – to me anyway – a quality issue, but rather just a question of personal taste: Do you want a bit of sweetness in your wine?
Let’s start with two so-called “brut natural” wines, so called because they do not take a dosage and are therefore supremely dry. Just because you like (or think you like) perfectly dry still wines, don’t assume you prefer brut nature sparklers. They are seriously bracing, and emphasize mineral, briny traits over any fruit-based ones. They’re closer in character to dry ciders, or maybe geuze, than to Champagne-with-sweetness.
These parched-bone wines are brilliant with oysters, olives, walnuts, smoked fish, goat cheeses or some bloomy cows’ milk cheeses. For toasts, though, or most multifarious meals, drink a brut or sweeter. There is a confusing number of sweetness designations, varying from region to region: sec, demi-sec, doux, extra dry (believe it or not, sweeter than brut).
Castellroig is an exceedingly rare bird in Spain: a grower-producer of cava, and the first to be awarded the “vi de terrer” designation of organic viticulture and other land-conscientiousness. There are millions of gallons of mediocre cava out there, and here’s the exception, immediately recognizable by its layers of flavor, precision and pulsating drive. Castellroig Brut Nature Reserva 2010 ($20, Wicked) is tense, austere, pinpoint and exhilarating, like etched crystal. (If you fall for it, you can bump up to the Grand Reserve Brut Nature – $69 – almost unbearably fine and fierce.)
The Castellroig appeals to my imagination. But the brut nature that has stolen my heart is the Château de Lavernette “Granit” Brut Nature ($28, Crush, and available for around twice that in magnum). I usually prefer a touch of noticeable sweetness in sparkling wine, but the “Granit” is testament to how exciting, culinarily useful and flat-out delicious a no-sugar-added wine can be when it’s in balance.
The wine is a “blanc de noir”: a pretty-much-white wine made from a red-wine grape – gamay, the star of Beaujolais. Pale yellowish pink, like a spring honey, the wine has that inimitable grippy, chalky pull that I love in Beaujolais. The gamay fruit itself is subtle, imbuing a bit of sunny warmth into the middle of a wine that everywhere else is suffused with baking soda, coarse salt and pepper, dry stones.
It is a conversational wine, lively but collaborative: All its parts talk to each other, in harmony. It’s compact, but not all straight edges and corners; rather, a series of coiling and uncoiling curves.
One aspect I find missing in no-dosage wines, even the serious ones, is a certain weightiness that wines with balanced sweetness have. While the “nature” wines’ minerals are exciting, they forgo the earthy qualities that make good sparkling wines so ideal for accompanying substantial meals.
For a prime example of the latter, the widely available Schramsberg sparklers from California are exceptional. The Blanc de Blanc 2008 ($30, Pine State) is ethereal, but I especially love their regally rugged Blanc de Noir 2008 ($33) and the knee-melting Demi Sec 2007 ($36). Superior wines for food, that three-wine line-up would complete a tremendous New Year’s Eve feast.
My short list of other beautiful sparkling wines made traditionally includes Gruet from New Mexico; Aubuisières from Vouvray; and the Blanquettes of Martinolles from Limoux, the collection of AOCs in France’s Languedoc that pioneered traditional method production before Dom Perignon sought their advice and brought the process to Champagne.
These wines are all made by real people, using the grapes that have always grown in their home territory. They sing eloquently of sparkling wines’ unique ability to present terroir, support all sorts of food and bring a unique joy to the act of drinking. Champagne might not be happy for all the competition, but it should be proud.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at: