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Best of the Bubbly

Want great champagne for the holiday season? Here are more than twenty of the finest, in every price range.
 
BY JOHN ANDERSON
Pop a cork: If you have $150 to spend, the Krug Brut Grand Cuvée is a good choice.

Two years ago, New York wine merchants and sommeliers were all whispering among themselves: Would there be enough champagne for the millennium? It's hard to believe now, but people in the trade back then were seriously afraid that there would not be enough bubbly. Well, fortunately, the Great Millennium Champagne Scare turned out to be a bust.

This year, your only worry should be which bottle to choose.

What I find so thrilling today is the high quality at the lower end of the range, particularly among the non-vintage(NV) bruts. Bollinger's Special Cuvée has always been one of the best — it was good even when most of the others weren't — and it still is. What's more, it's cheap, at least by Bolly standards. Your target price should be $30 and change. For that, you'll get a classic brut, yeasty and firm. Everything I could want in a non-vintage.

Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, contrary to this year's price-dropping trend, keeps on inching up the totem pole, topping even Bollinger by $3 to $5. The wine is, however, extremely good, and hugely Pinot Noir in character (something like 80-85 percent Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). It's bluefruit and redcurrants compared to the butter and cream, hazelnuts and almonds of a more Chardonnay-based champagne. I like it a lot.

After all these years, I still think Pol Roger White Foil Brut NV is one of the greatest bargains on the shelves. Discounted, it can be found for less than $25. It's almost as yeasty as the Bolly, though not as firm or structured; and it doesn't taste quite so mature. But is it very good? Absolutely.

Still in the under $30 range, there are two somewhat esoteric NVs from small growers that I'm wild about. The estimable Terry Theise (who also brings in America's best selection of Austrian wines) imports Charton-Taillet's Cuvée Ste.-Anne. It's just great and reminds me of Pol Roger. Daniel Johnnes, wine director extraordinaire of Montrachet, brings in the Lenoble Blanc de Blanc, sourced from 100 percent grand cru vineyards. You might have to search a bit to find these two wines in your neighborhood, but I can tell you that Windsor Court Wine Shop in the Murray Hill area (474 Third Ave., 212-779-4422) carries Charton-Taillet, and Tribeca Wine Merchants (40 Hudson St., 212-393-1400) carries the Lenoble champagnes. Seek them out.

Among vintage champagnes, look to the 1995s — and be prepared to love the '96s when they come in. The '95 Clicquot, both Brut and Rosé alike, are splendid. I wish they weren't as expensive as they are ($68-$75), but I admire them without reservation. These are wines with real structure and purpose and length on the palate. And they are delicious. Not surprisingly, the '95 Pol Rogers, the Brut Chardonnay in particular, are in pretty much the same high price range. My choice for a bargain among vintage champagnes ($40-$50) is the shockingly good Lanson '95 which is really, really structured. (I'm sure it will be better still in 2-3 years.) I'm wild about it.

No bargain, but highly intriguing is the Trilogie from Moët: 100 percent grand crus champagnes, one each made of 100 percent Chardonnay, 100 percent Pinot Noir, and, most unusually, 100 percent Pinot Meunier, all from single vineyards. The three bottles come beautifully packaged in wood and would surely make some champagne-loving fiend a good present. Would that it were under my Christmas tree!

The very best champagnes, of which there are perhaps more than you might imagine, are still those wonderful 1990s, particularly among the so-called tetes-de-cuvées. Piper-Heidsieck Rare is, for a change, really quite good (and cheap at about $80). Dom Pérignon took a decade to come 'round. Now it is supreme. Signature from Jacquesson is also quite splendid, as is the Alfred Gratien '90. Perfectly immense, chewy even, is the 1990 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. Interestingly, the '88s, which took even longer to show their best, are almost as good. The Lanson Brut Noble Cuvée costs about $90, but it is grand. So too is Charles Heidsieck's Champagne Charlie (about $100). Grander still, more austere too, are the magnificent Krug and Bollinger R.D. 1988s. If you've still got money in your pockets, open up ($150 or so). These are fabulous champagnes close to or at the very summit.

(A good source for these and other '88s and '90s, all of them extremely well priced, is, somewhat surprisingly, to be found in the hinterland of Massachusetts, a place called Table & Vine in Northampton. Check out their Website, www.tableandvine.com.)

In a category of its own, never a vintage champagne, but instead a "multi-vintage," as the former owners always liked to call it, is the triumphant Krug Brut Grande Cuvée. If you can spring for $150, make the leap.

Earth to Anderson: Get real. So I will, with a hearty praise for the Mise en Cave series of semi-hemi-demi-quasi-vintage Bruts from Charles Heidsieck. These aren't exactly vintage since they do have reserve wines from previous harvests in the blend, but they are "dated." And they are damned good. In this case, $40-$50 gets you a very, very nice wine. Now go drink up.

 

John Anderson is deputy editor of the American Lawyer magazine and, has written about wine for the New York Observer, Boston, Food & Wine, Fortune and Texas Monthly.

 

Photo taken at D'Vine Wines & Spirits, 764 Third Avenue at 47th St., 212-317-1169.

 
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