It’s natural that during the holiday season—a time of festivity, family and friends—that our thoughts should turn to the ultimate celebratory drink: Champagne. In last week’s Grapevine I made what must have seemed to some to be a contentious claim: I proffered the notion that Champagne is one of the best wine values to be found. And I wasn’t talking about domestic sparkling wines, Italian Prosecco or Spanish “cavas,” all of which can be great wine values. No, I was referring specifically to the real deal: French Champagne.
I never said that Champagne was cheap. It’s not. A decent bottle of non-vintage French Champagne in Utah will usually run you $40 or more. The point I was making is that the best Champagne can be relatively affordable vis-Ã -vis other types of wine. You can get into very fine, high-end Champagne for a fraction of the cost that it takes to procure very fine, high-end bottles of French Burgundy or Bordeaux, or even trophy California Cabernet and Chardonnay. Top of the line Champagne will typically cost $100 to $150 per bottle, whereas you couldn’t touch a top-of-the-line Bordeaux for anywhere near that price. Doing a quick check of the downtown wine store in mid-December, I found that you can pick up a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Grand Dame 1995 for $147.25, and the superb Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blanc ’88 for $114.85. A fine bottle of Roederer Cristal 1997 will set you back $151.30, and I picked up a bottle of the luscious Pol Roger Brut RosÃ© ’95 for a mere $66.95. That’s a pittance for such a lovely Champagne.
These wonderful wines are not such bargains that I’d be tempted to haul them out at a New Year’s Eve party, however. For that I’d probably serve Champagne from Nicolas Feuilatte ($29.95), or maybe a nice domestic sparkler such as Gloria Ferrer Brut ($14.95), Roederer Estate Brut ($20.95) or even something a little off the wall like the Spanish Cristalino Brut for only $6.95. Sorry, but I’ll be saving the bottle of Pol Roger Brut RosÃ© 1995 for me and my honey.
Keep in mind that if you’re planning to serve Champagne for New Year’s Eve, it’s not an especially good idea to serve it with desserts, unless you can find a truly sweet Champagne to match the sweetness of the dessert—say one labeled “Doux,” which is very sweet. All Champagne is sweet insofar as it contains some residual sugar, the result of cane sugar added at the end of the Champagne production process. But while Champagne is sweet, it doesn’t always taste sweet, thanks to the high acidity of sparkling wine that serves to balance the sweetness. For practical purposes, Champagnes are ranked and labeled according to sweetness or dryness. From least sweet (most dry) to most sweet (least dry) the categories you’re most likely to find are these: brut (dry), extra dry (medium dry), sec (slightly sweet), and demi-sec (very sweet). There are also extreme categories at both ends of the spectrum—extra brut (extremely dry) and doux (extremely sweet), but coming across those are fairly rare.
Another trait of Champagne that I love is that it won’t go bad if you buy it now and drink it during the next decade. At the same time, Champagne doesn’t really benefit much from aging, so you can receive instant gratification from it. There’s not a bottle of French Champagne that you can buy—vintage or otherwise—that isn’t ready to drink right now. So if you’re in a hurry, just pick up a bottle of Champagne, immerse it in a bucket of half-ice and half-water for a half-hour and voila! You’re ready to rock.