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Champagne

 
A bubbly buyer's guide.
 
By Joseph Nase
 

There are few loyalties as firmly held as those of champagne lovers to their favorite brands. There are those who only drink Cristal, for example, and if you try to sell them something else -- something that might be better with a particular food or is perhaps a better value -- they look at you like you have two heads. Each major brand has its adherents, and many folks are content never to branch out.

There's nothing wrong with a strong preference, but I wish people would sample bubblies from a variety of houses before settling down, especially now that the champagne market has become so attractive for the consumer. Anybody who plays the field a little will find that there are many ravishing styles out there, ranging from big, round and voluptuous to soft, graceful and demure. I for one can't imagine choosing between Sophia Loren and Grace Kelly, and with champagne, you don't have to.

One of the most popular champagnes on the market is Veuve Clicquot, especially the unmistakable signature yellow-label, non-vintage bottling. But while Clicquot used to be a safe bet, the brand's recent output has been thin and acidic. If you're a long-time yellow-label loyalist, I urge you to taste a bottle and ask yourself if it's really as good as you remember. The only Clicquot release I recommend right now is the top-of-the-line Grande Dame, which remains as ripe, rich, toasty and satisfying as ever.

Another persistently fashionable brand is Louis Roederer's Cristal. Properly handled, Cristal can be a wonderful bottle, but it's too often consumed in its infancy. I find this champagne austere and lean upon release, and I strongly advise people to lay it down for at least five to ten years, when it will begin to demonstrate its charm.

According to the company, someone somewhere pops the cork on a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne every two seconds. Dom Pérignon, the brand's flagship product, is inarguably great. For many consumers, it's the benchmark against which they evaluate all other bubbly -- and for good reason. Dom Pérignon is a refined, feminine champagne, with a soft, creamy mousse and a fine, delicate bead. It's quite approachable upon release, but, as with most top-flight luxury champagnes, aging will yield great rewards.

One of my favorite champagnes is Krug Grand Cuvée, the flagship bottling from one of the most prestigious Grand Marque houses in France. Krug's uncompromising commitment to quality winemaking is evident year after year. Krug's Grand Cuvée reminds me of full-bodied white Burgundy but with bubbles. The flavor completely fills your mouth, and the opulent gold color and signature toasty, nutty bouquet are unmistakably Krug. A half-bottle of Grand Cuvée and a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano is, for me, the ideal al fresco lunch.

Dating back to the fifteenth century, the house of Bollinger consistently turns out full-bodied champagne with great structure. Bollinger's house philosophy is that good champagne needs time to develop its complexity and personality, and this thinking is reflected in every bottle -- Bollinger ages beautifully, developing greater subtlety and nuance with each passing year.

Often overlooked as a serious champagne, Perrier-Jouët's unmistakable hand-painted-flower bottle is more than just pretty packaging. It's an exquisite glass of bubbles; graceful, with a fine mousse and an appealing, yeasty, biscuity bouquet. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by this bottle. "Blanc de blancs" denotes a champagne made entirely from the chardonnay grape (champagne is typically a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier). Salon le Mesnil, which produces only blanc de blancs and only in worthy years, is astonishing: concentrated fruit flavors, toasty walnuts on the nose and beautiful acidity. If I could promote greater awareness of just one champagne, this would be it. Another notable blanc de blancs is the Comtes de Champagne from Taittinger. Among the most long-lived of champagnes, these wines will benefit from ten to fifteen years age or more -- if you have the willpower to leave them in the cellar.