From "Devil's Wine" to Festive Cheer
Grapevines carpet the terrain in what is the world-famous Champagne wine region. Since the 14th century the sparkling wine that bears the region’s name has been crafted here. Once reviled as “the Devil’s wine” (because accidental second fermentations caused explosions of bubbles to pop corks and burst bottles cellared in medieval monasteries), it is now forever linked with the trappings of luxury, sophistication and the festive celebrations of the winter holidays. But not all Champagnes are created alike: there are Champagnes, and then there are Champagnes.
Almost all Champagnes are blended wines, produced from three main grape varietals: the white Chardonnay and the reds Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. About 90 percent of those sold are non-vintage (NV) — that is, blends from harvests of several different years sourced from grapes grown all over the region — and required by law to age for a minimum of 15 months in the bottle. Although each vintner adheres to a consistent style, NV Champagnes can vary widely in quality and price. But of significant greater quality (and price) are the remaining 10 percent, the vintage Champagnes, laboriously crafted from grapes hand-harvested from a single exceptional growing year (perhaps three to four times per decade) from the best vineyards in the region. Aged for a minimum of three years (although most producers at least double that), these are connoisseurs’ Champagnes, less fruit-driven and with profound complexity — more time on the lees (contact with the spent yeast cells in the bottle) adds depth, structure, and roundness while developing rich, creamy notes of toast, briôche, figs, spices, toffee, honey, almonds and hazelnuts.
The top tier of vintage Champagnes are the prestige cuvées — a Champagne house’s best and most expensive offerings made from grand cru (superior) grapes from the oldest vines. These are wines of finesse, depth, and elegance. The famous Dom Pérignon is one such Champagne, as are Roederer’s Cristal, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame, and Belle Epoque from Perrier-Jouët. Vintage Champagnes are exceedingly age-worthy, capable of decades-long cellaring, and they garner more quality with each passing year.
Ray Advare, Binny’s Beverage Depot 790 Royal St. George Dr., Naperville. (630 717-0100)
NV Louis Nicaise Brut Reserve (France) $40. Aromas of peaches, citrus, apples and briôche embrace a creamy palate of citrus and orchard fruit, balanced by juicy acidity and hints of minerality.
2009 Louis Roederer Brut Nature (France, $85. An intense bouquet of peaches, cherries, grapefruit, lemons and hazelnuts then seductive flavors of sun-kissed peaches, pears, citrus and creamy briôche and biscuit. Rich and complex, with extra-fine bubbles.
Nancy Sabatin, Mainstreet 5425 S. La Grange Rd., Countryside. (708 354-0355)
NV Gonet-Médeville Premiere Cru Brut (France) $42. Aromas and flavors of apples, currants, lemon and almonds mingle with notes of briôche and spice, for a lively acidity and an undercurrent of gravelly minerality.
2006 Tattinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut (France), $160. A Pinot-driven vintage with a nose of cherries, apples, black currants and berries and a palate of the same, plus brioche, spices, and hazelnuts. This is a potent, elegant wine, with vibrant acidity and fine-grained bubbles.