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Holiday Champagnes: This Season's Best Bets

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Is there any drink that better encapsulates the celebration, joy, brightness and sparkle of the holidays than Champagne? The pop of the cork, the clinking of glasses, the initial fizz of the mousse, the continuing column of tiny bubbles rising in the glass all somehow lift the mood and bring home the sense that this is a special occasion.

There are an increasing number of very good sparkling wines out there, but there's still something very special about a fine Champagne for honoring those memorable moments -- gatherings with friends and family, holidays like Christmas, and the start of a new year. And in 2012, assuming we make it through the supposed final date of the Mayan calendar on December 21, we'll have an additional reason to break out the Champagne in celebration.

Of course, Champagne is not just great for starting a party. Virtually nothing pairs better than Champagne with a great many foods, thanks to its relatively high acidity and minerality. From appetizers of all kinds to salads, to vegetable dishes and chicken or fish entrees, Champagne is one of my go-to food pairings. It's also great with dim sum, tapas and sushi. And it makes a terrific holiday gift.

The great houses of Champagne -- household names like Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon and Krug -- produce huge volumes of wine. While they may own some vineyards, they purchase the bulk of the grapes they need from dozens of the Champagne region's 19,000 growers. They typically blend wines from different vintages, and vineyards, to produce house style wines that consumers can be confident will be virtually the same from year to year.

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In contrast to these major brands are the much smaller grower producers who make Champagne exclusively, or almost exclusively, from their own estate vineyards.

Because of their much smaller production levels, based on the yield of their own vineyards, the Champagnes produced by growers tend to vary more dramatically from vintage to vintage, although many such producers do hold back a certain quantity of wine each year for blending to minimize vintage distinctions in their non-vintage wines. They can also be quite distinctive, owing to the particular vineyards such growers are working with, and their unique terroirs.

Until very recently, only a small portion of the more than 3,500 grower Champagnes available in France were imported to the United States, less than six perecent. They still make up only a tiny percentage of the overall Champagne market-about four percent as of 2011 -- but represent some of the best values.

The vast majority of Champagne is non-vintage, meaning that it's a blend of wines from multiple vintages. Only about two percent of Champagne is vintage, from years deemed particularly good (usually only about three or four years per decade). Vintage Champagnes see longer aging time, usually on their "fine lees," meaning the spent yeast cells, which give these wines toasty and yeasty flavors that many Champagne lovers prize. An even smaller portion of Champagne production, also long aged, are the préstige or tête de cuvée offerings. These are the very top bottlings from great producers, which usually start at about $150.

In selecting a Champagne, the other important thing to know are the major styles available.

Even though most Champagne is made from one white grape, Chardonnay, and two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, care is taken to avoid any contact between the juice and the skins of the red grapes, so as to avoid coloring the wine. The exception to this is rosé Champagne, for which the United States is a big market. Rosés are made either by allowing a little skin contact during fermentation or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of red wine to the final blend. Rosés are often a little richer than other Champagnes, and sometimes have aromas and flavors that suggest red fruits, like strawberry and cherry.

rosé Champagne bubbles (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Champagne that's made exclusively from Chardonnay is called Blanc de Blancs, and it tends to be more delicate than blends containing one or both of the red grapes. Champagne made solely from the red grape varieties is called Blanc de Noir.

Then there is the amount of sugar added to the final blend before the wine is bottled. This mix of sugar and wine is called the "dosage," and it is intended to offset the very high acidity of the base wine, which is accentuated by the bubbles.

Most Champagnes produced are at the brut level, meaning they contain between six and 12 grams of residual sugar, which translates to less than one and a half percent sugar. This is a fairly low level, resulting in wines that are quite dry, which is what most consumers want, in contrast to the Champagnes of a century ago which were typically much sweeter.

Some growers, who pick their grapes a little later than the big houses, so that their grapes are more naturally sweet, dispense with the dosage. Their wines are called either brut nature or zero dosage, and they are gaining a growing following.

As usual, I tasted Champagne throughout the year and attended two of the major Champagne events in October in San Francisco at which a great many of the current releases are usually poured: the Institute of Masters of Wine Champagne tasting, and the Terry Theise and Winewise Grower-Producer Tasting. I was generally impressed with many of the grower offerings this year, and I think a lot of the non-vintage offerings from the major houses are better than last year's versions.

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Masters of Wine Champagne tasting at San Francisco Ferry Building

My full report on these tastings, including tasting notes and ratings on 154 Champagnes from 43 producers, can be found on my blog here. Based on my tastings this year and my survey of current market prices across the nation, my top recommendations for holiday Champagne buys this season are as follows:

The standout for value this year is a zero dosage Champagne from one of the big houses, Ayala's non-vintage Brut Nature, which I rated 92 points and which is widely available in this country for an average of $43.

Other excellent relative values in non-vintage Champagne are:
NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve - 92+ points and averaging $54 nationwide (as low as low $40s at some retailers)
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut - 91+ points and averaging $52 nationwide
NV Moussé Fils Or Tradition Cuisles - 92 points ($48)
NV Pehu Simonet Brut Selection Grand Cru - 92 points ($50)
NV Pehu Simonet Transparence Extra Brut - 92 points ($55)
NV Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Brut Cuvee de Reserve - 92+ points ($56)

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David Pehu, winemaker/proprietor at Pehu Simonet

For rosés, which are virtually always pricier than non-rosés due to the demand for them in the U.S., my top pick is NV Pehu Simonet Brut Rosé Grand Cru -- 92+ points ($64). I can also recommend:
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Rose Reserve - 92 points ($71)
2007 Louis Roederer Rose Brut - 92+ points ($72)

For vintage Champagne, taking both quality and price into account, my top value recommendation is 2002 Charles Ellner Brut Seduction Millésimé (92 points, averaging $50). My highest rated vintage, non-tête de cuvée bottling is 2000 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve Brut (95 points, $97).

I can also recommend:
2005 L. Aubry Fils Le Nombre d'Or Campanae Veteres Vites Brut - 93 points ($63)
2004 Chartogne-Taillet Brut Millésimé - 92+ points ($66)
2006 Pierre Gimonnet Fleuron Brut 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs - 92+ points ($60)
2004 Taittinger Brut Millésimé - 94 points ($84)

If you're really looking to splurge this year, either on yourself or a terrific gift, the very best of the luxury or tête de cuvée bottlings for me so far have been
1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires - 95 points ($166)
NV Krug Grande Cuvée Brut - 96 points ($170)
2000 Krug Clos du Mesnil - 99 points ($766)
2004 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin La Grand Dame - 94 points ($142)
2004 Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvée - 95 points ($129)