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Holiday Champagne Buyer's Guide

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view of Champagne's Marne Valley from hill near the Abbey of Hautvillers

My annual Holiday Champagne Buyer's Guide includes ratings on 325 current releases. It's packed with some amazing wines and many excellent values.

This is the time of year when most American wine buyers do their Champagne purchasing and retailers are well stocked with a variety of options. The end-of the-year holidays are, of course, a great time to enjoy the celebratory qualities of fine Champagne. Given the terrific quality level of today's Champagnes and their tremendous food versatility, however, I submit this season is also a good time to lay down a number of bottles to enjoy throughout the year. I must also share what I learned this year from a fellow wine writer about the virtues of this special product as a daily "reset button."

My buddy John Foy -- who writes about wine for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey -- was a successful restaurateur in New Jersey for many years. After a long day in the kitchen, he found the only thing that would invariably clear up his palate and help "reboot" his energy to face several more hours of preparing meals and being a genial host was a glass of Champagne. He started this practice in 1976 and has continued for 37 years now to enjoy a glass of Champagne at 6 pm every evening for its singular revitalization qualities.

I have aimed to emulate John by having a glass of the stuff at least a couple times of week, especially after a trying day. I have to report that it works. It's a mood lifter and a palate cleanser. It's hard not to be reminded of all that's wonderful about life after indulging in a single glass of Champagne as a start to the evening. And Champagne keeps beautifully once you've poured out a single glass, better than any other wine I can think of. An inexpensive Champagne stopper provides an airtight seal, and the carbon dioxide released by the bubbles keeps the wine fresh and sparkling so another glass can be enjoyed the following night, or even several nights later.

As detailed in the Guide, the current releases of the non-vintage tastings I sample virtually every year from major producers are as good, or in many cases better, than the prior editions of those wines I've tasted in the past. The quality of rosé Champagnes has also never been greater in the decade or so that I've been seriously tasting Champagne.

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Rosé Champagne

As usual, it is important to remind ourselves why Champagne remains a costly product. Most Champagne available in the U.S. starts in the high $30s, and most of significant quality begins at $40-$50. These prices have everything to do with the costs of production. The entire plantable acreage of the Champagne region is already covered with vines. With the high demand for quality Champagne grapes, the raw materials themselves are expensive. Then there's the elaborate process involved in making the wine, which includes the need for lots of specialized equipment as well as substantial space for aging the wines.

The lengthy period of time required to age the wines on their yeasts, which ties up inventory and adds to the cost of production, is arguably the most significant aspect leading to the distinctive and seductive nature of Champagne.

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bottles aging on their lees in Drappier's cellars that date to the Middle Ages

The gradual death and decomposition of yeast cells that perform the secondary fermentation in bottle releases molecules that slowly interact with the wine. This process is known as autolysis. It's these dead cells remaining in contact with the wine until disgorgement that has a number of beneficial effects including the production of the amino acids that lead to some of Champagne's wonderful aroma and flavor characteristics, like bready and hazelnut flavors.

Many Champagne lovers covet the very autolytic kinds of Champagne the most. And for the increasing numbers of us who are either allergic to gluten or who have for other health reasons greatly reduced bread products in our diet in recent years, these autolytic Champagnes can make a wonderfully aromatic, delicious and evocative bread substitute.

Top Ratings

My top rated Champagnes currently on the market are both vintage Champagnes that I rated 97+ points: 2000 Krug and 1998 Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Rare. The latter was only produced in magnum. The average U.S. price on the 2000 Krug per wine-searcher.com is $245, while a magnum of the '98 Cuvee Rare will set you back $400.

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As to the top wines of particular styles, my top Blanc de Blancs is the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires (96+ points, $180). My top rosé Champagne is the 2005 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut (96+ points, $221). Both the current Krug Rosé (96 points) and the Vilmart Cuvée Rubis (95+ points) are also wonderful, with the latter being my high end rosé value of the year at $82.

My favorite non-rosé, non-vintage offerings of the year are the Krug Grande Cuvee (95 points, $198) and the Serge Mathieu Cuvee Prestige Brut (95 points, $42).

And for those who like their Champagnes thoroughly autolytic, I recommend the 2000 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill (96 points, $237) and 2000 Charles Heidsieck Millésimé (94+ points, $89).

Top Value Recommendations

In terms of values, the least expensive Champagne at 95 points or higher--where the price spread runs from $42 to $509 -- is the NV Serge Mathieu Cuvee Prestige mentioned above, followed by the 2006 Serge Matthieu Brut Millésimé at $57. At 94 points, Serge Mathieu again is the best priced at $40 for the NV Brut Rosé, followed by their NV Cuvée Tradition Blanc de Noirs at $45 and the NV Chartogne-Taillet Brut Rosé at $55.

Among the more than 50 excellent Champagnes I rated at 93 points the best priced are the NV Ariston Aspasie Brut Prestige (93+), NV Ariston Aspasie Brut Rosé and 2010 Franck Bonnville Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, all averaging $40.

At 92 points, we finally break the $40 floor with the very tasty NV A. Lancelot-Pienne Blanc de Blancs at $37.

For all my ratings and tasting notes, including other highlighted value offerings, see the complete Buyer's Guide on my blog here.