If you can’t answer that question, you really should pay attention to the next few morsels of information. Not only do they explain what you’re buying, but they also give pointers on what the house style of some of the biggest and most popular brands are, as well as tips on what the words used to describe Champagne really mean.
Spend a few minutes getting to know Champagne before heading out to buy the real deal this holiday season. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did when you finally find the Champagne of your dreams. Now the only thing you’re going to need to do is to remember it for next year!
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Non-Vintage House Style
Every large Champagne producer relies on the non-vintage blend to set their house style and earn a consistent revenue stream.
This is, not surprisingly, a mix of several vintages that allows a blender to combine the freshness of younger wines with the complexity contributed by older, more mature wines. The goal in making a non-vintage wine is to offer a consistent style from vintage to vintage. I am a big fan of non-vintage Champagne, but prefer to age it for several years so that it softens up and gains more depth and complexity. Three to five years in the cellar is perfect for my palate.
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In certain vintages, the Champagne is so good and has such a distinctive character that it may be bottled as a vintage wine. In general, these wines are a step-up in quality from the basic non-vintage bottlings, though there can be exceptions. As with the Crème de Tête, a vintage sparkling wine may require several years in the bottle to offer the drinkability of a non-vintage. You should also be familiar with the style of the vintage. Great vintages come in different stripes, from opulent and ripe to chiseled and structured. It’s easy to love one vintage and hate another, so ask a trusted retailer if you have any questions.
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Tête de Cuvée
These are wines that define a house’s style and go by proprietary names like Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Cuvée Winston Churchill (one of my faves). These represent the pinnacle of the Champagne blender’s art and are wines that frequently benefit from (and many times demand) cellaring to release their potential. Right off the shelf, the current release of these wines can be somewhat disappointing.
If we are looking for value, we should be looking at Crémant, as opposed to Cramant, which is a great vineyard, ironically in Champagne. Crémant sparkling wines are wines made with the Méthode Champenoise process but that come from regions outside of Champagne. Thus there are Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne and, the greatest in terms of production, Crémant de Loire. These are wines that rely on the grapes most well suited to each region, but are always produced in the traditional style.
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Moët & Chandon
Moët is the world’s largest Champagne house and the one with the most famous brand of all, Dom Perignon. Whether or not the myths that the Dom Perignon created the first bottled sparkling wine are true, the quality of the wine is undeniable. It is one of the Tête de Cuvées that really requires cellaring, like 20 years worth, to reveal its glory.
The house style is one that is simple, clean and fresh, creating a wine blend relatively free from obvious wine making influences.
Tête de Cuvée: 2002 Dom Perignon $150
Veuve Clicquot is a successful Champagne brand that seems to be resting on its laurels a bit. The wines have seemed to be a shadow of their former selves for years, though that doesn’t seem to bother consumers very much.
The house style is one that is very bright and lean, with citrus fruit and a touch of yeastiness. The Tête de Cuvée La Grande Dame takes this style to a much higher level, remaining refined and elegant with great length and finesse.
Tête de Cuvée: 1998 La Grande Dame $125