Plenty of places around the world produce good sparkling wine, but there’s only one Champagne. True Champagne originates only in France’s Champagne region, east of Paris, where the marginal climate and chalky soils confer a unique combination of delicacy, richness, raciness and minerality on the wines. The 85,000 vineyard acres of Champagne — planted primarily with pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier — truly are special, which is why the name should be used only on that region’s wines.
Sadly, that’s not the case.
Trade agreements mostly limit the Champagne name to the French region, but some U.S. producers are allowed to continue using it. The CIVC, the organization representing Champagne producers and growers, says that 50 million bottles labeled as “Champagne” are produced and sold each year in the United States (compared with the 17 million bottles of true Champagne sold here). The best U.S. bubbly producers for the most part don’t use misleading labels.
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But small growers dominate the vineyard scene. In recent years, more of these growers have started producing their own wines — so-called “grower Champagnes.” During a recent trip, I visited several such operations, including Rene Geoffroy, Pierre Moncuit, Henri Goutorbe and J. Lassalle, all of which make excellent Champagnes. Only about 4 percent of the Champagne exported to the States is grower Champagne.
But you shouldn’t write off the big and medium-size houses, which turn out a lot of very consistent, good-quality wines that are easy to find on store shelves.
Champagne makers, large and small, each have a house style that’s most obviously reflected in the winery’s non-vintage brut, a blend of several vintages.
Which brings me to the art of blending. It’s easy to get fixated on the bubbles and forget that Champagne is a wine first. Champagne makers are master blenders, working with dozens of very acidic “base wines” to get just the right result.
At Moet, for example, the winemaking team starts with more than 100 base wines for the non-vintage Imperial Brut, says Elise Losfelt, one of the winemakers. The Imperial Brut ($41) is a good middle-of-the-road style, with racy fruit, some mineral and a hint of yeastiness.
Ruinart, Champagne’s oldest producer of sparkling wine (since 1729), is under the same ownership as Moet and produces an excellent non-vintage blanc de blancs ($65) that’s fresh and finely textured, with white fruit and mineral.
One of my favorite medium-size producers is Champagne Louis Roederer. The non-vintage Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($52) is creamy and a little toasty, with racy fruit and nice richness, while the 2006 Brut ($72) is toastier, with ample fruit and a persistent finish.
For a modestly priced introduction to Champagne, Costco has a non-vintage Kirkland Brut ($20) — yes, it’s really Champagne — that displays racy citrus and a slight herbaceous note that diminishes with a little air.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Laetitia NV Brut Cuvée ($25)
If you prefer to drink local on New Year’s Eve, try this bubbly from Arroyo Grande. It’s lean and racy, with juicy citrus and green apple and fine texture. Laetitia’s 2009 Brut Rosé ($30) is also very good.