Thursday, December 31, 2009

"I'm Tasting Stars"

So, for years my wife has thought that she didn't like champagne.

This is a shame, because I rather enjoy a nice glass of champagne every once in a while; and champagne mixed with fruit juices makes a wonderful punch.

However, I had a cunning plan.

I was pretty sure the problem wasn't that she didn't like champagne, it's that she hadn't ever had any GOOD champagne.

Over the past few years, we've found that, as with so many other alcoholic beverages Mel thought she didn't like (wine, gin, tequila, beer etc..); she actually DOES like them, if given the chance to drink a decent example thereof.

In fact, she now quite enjoys gin and tonics, tequila and margaritas, and decent beer.

In this case however, I don't blame her. Most people in this country have never really had decent champagne or sparkling wine.

If the closest thing to champagne I'd ever drunk was Asti Spumante, Freixenet, or Korbel... Yeah, I'd think I didn't like champagne either.

Note, I didn't say EXPENSIVE champagne, I said DECENT champagne (or sparkling wine). A bottle doesn't have to be expensive, to be decent.

So, for our wedding anniversary (the day after Christmas) dinner (at one of our favorite places, Fogo de Chao) I ordered us a bottle of Taittinger Brut Reserve.

It's not an expensive champagne (you can get it around $60-70 in discount liquor stores, or about twice that on wine lists), but a decent one, at a REASONABLE price...

...Well, reasonable except at restaurants and bars anyway; but that's just the way buying wines there works... and besides, it was our anniversary.

Much to her surprise (though not to mine), she liked it.

Even better, it seems her taste in Champagne matches mine closely. She particularly liked how dry and acidic it was in comparison to most table wines.

Oh goody, this is going to be fun.

So, you don't have to spend a fortune to get some decent champagne... and it's new years, so what the heck, lets talk about what I like for a reasonably priced bottle... and maybe a couple of more expensive bottles too just for fun.

Oh and sparkling wine as well. We can't leave California out of it (I'll leave Sekt, Prosecco, Cava etc... for another time).

I'm going to stick to the major houses here; only because I want this advice to be useful for more than just this year. Some of the smaller houses make great champagne, but the ones worth buying change from year to year.

Actually, first things first, If you DO want to spend a fortune on a bottle, please... don't buy Cristal or Dom Perignon... There's nothing wrong with them, they're both excellent champagnes; but the hip hop culture references have driven the prices for either far beyond what I think you should pay.

If you want something very nice and special to celebrate with, buy the Perrier Jouet fleur (cuvee de prestige, vintage, current is '99 - about $300 or a little less from discount places), the Taittinger comtes de champagne (cuvee de prestige, vintage, current is '98 - about $250 from discount).

For a little less money... and I think honestly just as good champagne... the Bollinger grand anee vintage (current is '99, for about $125-$150), or Krug Grand Cuvee ($220 list, but as low as $140 from discount places), are both excellent. In fact I'd rather spend my money on either of those, than one of the more expensive cuvee de prestige (CdP is just a champagne makers term for "top of the line").

Krug and Bollinger both produce other vintage cuvee de prestige, but they are harder to find.

Technically, all Bollinger bottlings except the "brut special", and the all Krug bottlings, are considered cuvee de prestige, including the non vintage grand cuvee... they simply don't produce champagnes of a lower grade; but they do produce what might be called prestige cuvee plus ultra

A Bollinger RD, if you can find one, will run anywhere from $150 for a mediocre year, to over $500 for a very good year. Their top line bottling, the Vieille Vignes Fran├žaises, will run over $750 for a bottle.

Krug produce three vintage cuvee de prestige; the Clos du Mesnil, Clos D'Ambonnay, and an occasional reserve or special vintage.

If you can find one (and you can't), they'll be well over $500 for a mediocre year, and well over $1000 for a good year... perhaps as high as $5,000 for the Clos D'Ambonnay in a very good year. It's expected that when the 2002 vintages come out, they will be, literally, the best champagnes ever produced by Krug.

Current vintage Roederer Cristal (cuvee de prestige, vintage, current is '02) runs about $300 a bottle, and I think it's overpriced. Discount places have it as low as $200 a bottle (a few even go down to $180), and I STILL think it's overpriced.

That doesn't mean it isn't excellent champagne, it is; but because of the high demand in the past few years, they're releasing it before it's ready (actually, at the legal minimum age according to french champagne regulations... though specifically, the '02 is an EXCELLENT year), and at a higher price than it should be.

Specific to the 2002 though, it is a really excellent champagne. I've only had it from uncorking, so it was great, but not "oh my god"; but people who've had it on day two or day three have rated it as possibly the best vintage for Cristal at least since '85.

To be honest I'd rather have the Krug. I drink champagne on uncorking, I don't drink it three days after opening.

Current vintage Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon (cuvee de prestige, vintage, current is '00) is running around $120-$150 at discount places, and it's worth that price; just don't pay the outrageous exaggerated retail price, and for gods sake don't buy it at a hotel or restaurant, where they'll charge you $200-300 for it.

Oh... and I'd still rather spend the extra $20 for the Krug.. or maybe the Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame (cuvee de prestige, vintage, current is '98 - list is about $200, but it's running around $120 at discount).

Yes, Krug is my favorite non vintage champagne; and I prefer it to most vintage champagnes in most years. If you can get it for a good price, I think it should always be your first choice in non vintage.

Ok, now back to the land of REASONABLY priced bottles.

So first, we bought two bottles for tonight(it IS new years after all): a Perrier Jouet Grand Brut, and a Veuve Clicquot Brut "Yellow Label".

Both bottles list around $60 but are available for under $40 from discount (we paid $33 and $37 respectively... and the PJ came in a gift box with two flutes). Both are the base bottlings from each house (and both are among the best houses). Both are quite nice to drink, and are representative of the style of the house.

In fact, we're drinking the Veuve Cliquot right now, with a dinner of pizza and hot wings.

Yes, you can drink champagne with pizza. Actually, I think it's better than beer with Pizza, because the acid, and the nature of the carbonation, pair with the cheese very well... as long as the pizza doesn't have too much garlic anyway (garlic ruins your palette for wine).

There are a lot of good bottles available right around that price range.

You can get a slightly lower cost Taittinger than the "Brut Reserve" we had for our anniversary; the "Brut La Francaise", which is quite decent, and can sometimes be had for as low as $35.

Now, just to confuse you, there are three entirely separate and different houses called Heidsieck (different branches of the same extended family): Charles Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck, and Heidseck Monopole.

The Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, and the Heidsieck Monopole Brut Blue, are both very worthy choices; and again, both are available at discount for a little under $40.

The third Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck, has two offerings in the range we're talking about; with their non vintage brut running as low as $30 at discount (about $50 list), and their vintage brut ('98 is current) available around $60 at discount ($90 list).

At $60, that P-H vintage is probably the lowest cost you're going to pay for a decent vintage, from a good house; and looking around online I found it for as low as $40 from one place (everywhere else was from just under $60 up to $75).

If you want to spend a little bit more, Roederer, the house that bottles Cristal, makes a non vintage "brut premier", and Bollinger makes a non vintage "brut special cuvee"; both available for $50 to $60, and both definitely worth drinking.

Or, if you want the least expensive French champagne from a major house (the house that produces Dom Perignon in fact), the Moet et Chandon Imperial (a.k.a "white star, as it used to be labeled), has been the "default champagne" for most of the world for the last... Oh, 100 years or so. It lists at around $45, but can be had at discount for as little as $30.

Everyone should have Moet et Chandon Imperial at least once. If you've never had french champagne, and want to see if you'll hate it or not, buy the Imperial. If you're having a big party, and you want "the default champagne", buy the imperial.

Now, let me just say, I am limiting myself here to the major houses, but you shouldn't. There are lots of GREAT small house, or grower champagnes out there; and you should be looking out for them. Its just there are so many, and they are SOOOO vintage dependent, that I didn't want to include them here.

Figure out whats good when you're buying, and what is similar to other wines you like on your palette, and if the price is good, grab it. Don't just buy the major houses.

Now, to California...

I'll be honest with you, there's only one house that is completely American, that I particularly care for; Iron Horse.

Iron Horse makes several lovely sparkling wines in the $20 to $50 range; with the current vintage brut ('04, though the better '02 is still available around the same price) coming in around $30 at discount. It's entirely drinkable, and in fact a much better choice than any French house at the same price point... and most in the $40 or $50 range.

Also, Iron Horse releases several limited bottlings, when they have a particularly good year; in brut, extra brut, and ultra brut (or almost completely sugar free) styles.

Unfortunately, I don't care for the rest of Iron Horses general bottlings, because they are mostly in the "wedding style" or "russian style", and are much sweeter. Of course, if you like a sweet sparkling wine, I would certainly recommend them.

I do have two other recommendations; but neither are American houses, though they are grown, produced, and bottled, in California.

Moet et Chandon, and Louis Roederer (two of the houses I recommend above) both have estates here in California; and produce bottlings from under $20, into the $50 range (at discount).

Domaine Chandon bottlings start at $13 (at discount), and are very good. Not "very good for the money", just plain very good (good as in wine spectator rating them at over 90 every year, and as high as 97 in some bottlings).

Yes, a $13 bottle of sparkling wine can be, and is, very good.

Roederer Estates bottlings start at a bit under $20; and again, are very good, not just very good for the money.

I have a couple bottles of the Domaine Chandon in my fridge right now in fact.

As with Iron Horse, I would say that the Roederer and Chandon bottlings are FAR better than the French bottlings at the same price point, or even at twice the price.

You have to go to at least a $40 bottle of French champagne to match a $13 bottle of California Sparkling wine... and honestly, most $40 bottles wouldn't cut it (though I'd say the ones I list above are in the same quality range).

Oh, and again, as with the French houses; there are PLENTY of small houses, and small growers doing some great sparkling wines, at very reasonable prices. Find what's good when you're buying, find a decent price for it, and grab some.

For a bunch of recommendations for current, decent, bottlings of champagnes and sparking wines at lower prices, check out this post (and the links in it and at the bottom of it) from the New York Times wine blog "The Pour".