Illustration by Fabrice Fortin for Paris By Appointment Only™
Before you head to the shop to pick up some bottles of bubbly to fête the New Year, check out this alternative list of champagnes compiled especially for ParisBAO by blogger extraordinare and private wine consultant, Sharon Bowman.
One of the greatest pleasures in daily life is something that allows us to slip outside of daily life. Champagne transports us in a way that still wines do not. The distinctive sound of its cork popping, heard across a city courtyard or a bustling wine bar, immediately turns heads and piques desire and appetite. It conjures up images of pleasure and sparkling indulgence. But why leave the bottle in a neighbor’s flat or some other carouser’s glass? It’s the holiday season, and is now the time to start (or continue) a happy little habit that brings joy festivity.
Honor bubbles by forgoing the easy route, of course. Because taste and quirk are part of delight, there is no reason to stop at the glaring, well-known names on mass-market shelves. Here is a hand-picked selection of champagnes from today’s best new guard of growers. Alchemists of the grape, they turn pure chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier into sparkling gold.
1. NV Jacques Selosse Rosé – Rethink your thinking about rosé champagne. Far from light and frivolous, this vinous beauty from renowned vigneron Anselme Selosse is both deeply marked by the terroir it harks from – the chalky, chardonnay-laden lands south of Epernay – and deepened by a gourmand streak brought in by the small amount of Ambonnay pinot noir added to it for color and a different type of depth. Mellow and full, this is a wine for swooning. Which, come to think of it, is appropriate to its color, after all.
2. NV Tarlant “Cuvée Louis” – One thing always to remember with champagne, and which is very often proved in talented hands, is that champagne is wine, not some “other” form of beverage. What better honor to pay to its grapes, then, than to make a bubbly that is unabashedly vinous in style? A blend of two older vintages with as many younger ones makes up this rich yet spirited offering, further rounded by the judicious use of some old oak barrels.
3. NV Jacques Lassaigne “Vignes de Montgueux” – Champagne, however, is also about quick, sparkling refreshment. Here, you could not find a more apt vignette of that ideal. A spirited bubble with a quick, mineral liveliness on the palate and the unparalleled finesse of the chardonnay grape (the sole one used in this cuvée) make for a dazzle of white fruit and flowers that will open your guests’ palates immediately. Plan on having more than one bottle on hand.
4. 2002 Diebolt-Vallois “Fleur de Passion” – Aging is an interesting phenomenon in champagne, which is often (correctly) seen as something sold ready to consume and not in need of further cellaring. But bottles with the stuffing to go the distance reward the patient wine lover, and the 2002 Diebolt-Vallois “Fleur de Passion” is one of them. While already offering irresistible command and raciness, this will open with time, developing deeper and headier tastes. Hold. Then drink.
5. 2004 Prévost “La Closerie” – The exciting thing about this young producer, who has only been making champagne for a decade, is that each year, he produces just one bottling. The climatic and other differences from one vintage to the next are a strong reminder that wine is a living, changing element. After tasting through the past five years of this single-vineyard, all–pinot-meunier offering, my heart was caught by the 2004, a lovely year which is currently drinking beautifully, with notes of quince and marzipan and a lushness that boldly treads without any unneeded sugar.
6. NV Vouette & Sorbée Blanc d’Argile – Off the beaten track can be said both of Bertrand Gautherot’s location, near Troyes – far south of the bulk of the Champagne appellation, with its hubs around Reims and Epernay – as well as his soil, here including clay (argile), and methods of production. The mix of clay in with the traditional chalk of Champagne terroir gives a kind of earthy roundness and lushness to this wine, while organic farming canted slightly toward biodynamics make for lively and quirky fare.
7. 2006 Chartogne-Taillet Pinot Meunier – Lucky Alexandre Chartogne, to inherit a parcel of old-vines pinot meunier planted on their own rootstock*. And doubly lucky us, for this rich offering by a talented young grower working in tiny quantities we should all be lucky enough to taste.
8. NV Drappier Brut Nature Sans Soufre – The trend in grower champagnes these days is more toward bucking the trend. Gone are the age-old shibboleths of mixed vintages (with the resurgence of single-vintage fare), blends of parcels and grapes. In a similar vein, Drappier has, for this bottling, done away with a key element for the stabilization – and some would say, sterilization – of champagne (and still wines): sulfur. Though much more sensitive to appropriately cool storage conditions and unapt to age, the Brut Nature Sans Soufre is vibrant with life on the palate; especially instructive is to taste it side-by-side with its sulfured twin (the same bottling, only with sulfur) to see exactly what complexity unfurls when not tamped down by that additive.
9. 1999 Veuve Fourny Faubourg-Notre-Dame – Terroir is nowhere as in evidence as in single-parcel wines, and this is one of my favorite. From Vertus, the southernmost village on the aforementioned Côte des Blancs stretching south from Epernay, this champagne is utterly of its place. A tiny parcel just next to the Fourny family estate, and vinified with care. Lovely, and particularly rooted in its land.
10. 2002 Huet Pétillant – Our tour of uncommon finds would not be complete without straying even farther from the straight and narrow. Here, we have in our hands (and in our glasses, if we’re lucky) a sparkling wine not from Champagne, but rather from Vouvray in the Loire Valley. One-hundred percent chenin blanc, with reserve wines from the best of Huets timeless cellars, this is gorgeously spicy, bready, complex, and age-worthy. Hands down the best bubbly not from the hallowed bounds of Champagne.
*Phylloxera 411: in the 19th century, a root louse destroyed the vineyards of France; ever since, all vines are grafted onto American rootstock, which is resistant to the beastie. A few daring vignerons have since replanted own-rooted vines without grafting. These are still susceptible to the louse – a sort of Russian roulette, which nonetheless pays off when it works, as the wines made from nongrafted vines often have a different sort of depth to them, as well as a different aging curve. Chartogne’s vines are own-rooted, amusingly enough, not from some early pioneering desire to get back to tradition on the part of his forebears, but because in the 1950s, it was cheaper to plant away with meunier – considered the poor cousin and “blending grape” in Champagne – and risk losing the vines to phylloxera, rather than shelling out for pricy American rootstock.
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