An Expert Guide to Drinking Champagne This New Year’s

From Left: Courtesy of Ambonnay Bar; © Forgotten Man Films

By Carson Demmond Posted December 29, 2015

Ambonnay's David Speer and Corkbuzz's Laura Maniec hash out the ideal mixed case of Champagne for holiday imbibing. 

He runs a Champagne-centric bar and cellar in Portland, Oregon. She is the doyenne of New York’s wine bar-cum-wine education center Corkbuzz, which offers bottles of bubbles at 50 percent off nightly from 10 p.m. Beyond being bon vivants with two of the coolest jobs in the country, they share one important trait in common: They both want us to drink more Champagne. F&W got them together to distill their collective expertise down to 12 must-try bottles that any budding Champagne fanatic should seek out this season (and, really, any time of the year).

“This is an exciting project,” says Speer. “It’s like giving people a snapshot of what Champagne is all about.” Maniec was stoked to highlight Champagne’s versatility and range of styles. “You can get so much crazier with your pairings with Champagne than you can with still wines,” she says. “If we’re talking about pure, lean styles, you’re in shellfish and scallop territory; then, some of the richer styles like certain saignée rosés—those will work all the way through something like a grilled hanger steak.”

Their back-and-forth banter produced a definitive guide to the best of the région champenoise that spans the spectrum from established Houses to small grower-producers, from non-vintage (a blend of years) to vintage-dated, mono-cépage (produced from a single grape variety) wines to blends of all seven Champagne grapes, bone-dry styles to slightly sweet cuvées—and each sommelier was clued into a new bottle by his or her counterpart along the way.

1. NV Louis Roederer Brut Premier, $45 (all prices retail)

LM: Even though I keep a ton of smaller growers on my wine lists, Roederer is still my go-to. This is a great bottle that over-delivers for its price.

DS: I love Roederer, too! I might opt to bump it up into their vintage Champagne, because once you get into the vintage levels of their wine, they definitely over-deliver. But the non-vintage Brut Premier is a great introduction to their style. They blend in some older wines, so it tends to be rich, round and delicious right off the bat.

LM: That’s exactly why I like it—that little bit of oak aging. It’s a great middle-ground wine that’s not too oxidative or nutty and also not austere. It’s a perfect bottle for your "House Champagne."

2. NV Marc Hébrart Premier Cru Brut Rosé, $55

DS: I really like everything Hébrart’s doing. All of their Champagnes are really easy to drink, but there’s also some hidden depth and complexity there, and if you’re into wine, you’ll pick up on it. The Brut Rosé is so pretty—it has these delicate floral tones, and it makes everyone I pour it for at the bar super happy.

LM: Such a great choice. If you’re going to go with a blended rosé rather than saignée (where the color comes from the grape skins), this is one that you really want to just sit down with your friends and drink. If there’s food around, great. But it doesn’t necessarily need food to carry it. It stands well on its own.

3. NV Étienne Calsac ‘L’Échappée Belle’ Extra Brut, $48

LM: This is a non-vintage bottle from a grower in Avize that just appeared on the market in the U.S., so I hadn’t heard of it until recently. Calsac has only been making wine since 2010, so he’s a relative newcomer in general, but I really think that if we’re talking about wines that have a distinctive style, this one has to be included. It’s a blend of 95 percent chardonnay and 5 percent pinot noir from his grandparents’ vineyards that used to get leased out to the big Champagne houses. It’s low-dosage and drinks like a Blanc de Blancs. We just used it at our James Beard dinner to pair with scallops, and it was so good, I fell in love with it.

DS: That sounds really cool! I actually don’t know this producer, so it might not make it over to Oregon yet.

LM: I’ll send you a bottle! It’s really that good.

4. NV José Michel Brut Pinot Meunier, $48

DS: José Michel put the pinot meunier grape on the map for Champagne. Now a lot of the hot new growers are bottling meunier-only cuvées, but he was one of the first. And he’s making it in a way that’s approachable for anyone at a great price. Depending on the base vintage, it sometimes shows more earthy, spicy notes. In other years, you might find more of the floral/blue fruit side of the variety. But year in, year out, it always embodies meunier.

LM: Of all of José Michel’s wines, I especially love the Special Club cuvée. But you’re so right that we should have one meunier in the case to round out the selection, and his is the perfect one. It has a really nice approachable fruitiness, and ditto about the savory notes. When I worked a harvest in Champagne, Aurélien Laherte told me that meunier has an inherent savory—almost stemmy—green element. So if you’re looking for a food pairing for herbal ingredients or vegetarian fare, or anything smoked or grilled, meunier is your wine. Think about a smoked duck terrine with an all-meunier Champagne…

DS: Yum.

LM: Yeah. That’s one of my favorite pairings to date. It really brings out the smoky, savory, peppery elements in the wine.

5. NV Jean Velut Brut Rosé, $50

LM: I love, love, love Jean Velut. He’s way down in Montgueux in the Aube, which is an area known for growing chardonnay because of the outcrop of chalky soil, but this rosé is 100 percent pinot noir. So it’s rare pinot noir planted in white wine terroir. Plus, it’s all saignée method, and you need to have at least one saignée in your cellar. This one is almost magenta in the glass—this really intense color—and it’s so full-bodied it almost drinks like a red wine. If you want something really special, this is your bottle. It’s almost like sparkling Burgundy!

DS: Yeah. It’s delicious. I second everything that Laura says.

LM: I mean, pork tenderloin… pork belly… it can handle all that.

6. NV Waris-Hubert Blanc de Noirs Brut, $52

DS: This is something playful and fun that I was pouring by the glass for a while. They’re a husband and wife team based in Avize, which is prime chardonnay territory, but they have pinot noir parcels in Aÿ and Sézanne, which is where all of the fruit for this cuvée comes from. And I really like this wine because despite being a Blanc de Noirs, which we often associate with a richer, heavier style, it’s light and easy to drink, playing off of the fresher side of pinot noir, with those bright cherry notes and lively minerality. I mean, it’s almost summery in terms of profile—just so refreshing. And that can really take people by surprise.

LM: I’m not familiar! I want to try it!

7. 2007 Marie-Noëlle Ledru ‘Cuvée du Goulté’ Blanc de Noirs Brut, $91

LM: Well, we need to have something from one of the warmer villages in Champagne, like the village of Ambonnay. The producer to look for there is Marie-Noëlle Ledru. She is just this incredible woman to listen to speak about Champagne. This one is a vintage Champagne—it’s really savory and brioche-y, but also has those signature ginger and pear flavors. Of course, her production is small (and it gets smaller and smaller every year), but it just has to go in the case because it’s that special.

DS: I was also going to make sure that we mentioned something from Ambonnay! And Ledru’s wines are some of the most expressive in all of Champagne. Couldn’t agree more.

LM: Yeah, but a real expression of wine—not just of Champagne. It’s a red wine drinker’s Champagne in some ways because it has that roundness and an elegance and aroma that are extremely intense. But it has her touch, which is very pure and fine. So there’s a broadness and power to the wine that’s zipped up and tightly packaged and seems to get more precise as it finishes. It’s everything you want.

8. NV Bérêche et Fils Brut Réserve, $48

DS: I like so much of what I’m hearing, but I feel that a case like this needs to include at least one hot grower that’s pushing the boundaries. And for me, nobody does that more than Bérêche, especially now that we’ve moved into the 2012 base year for this cuvée.

LM: Oooh!

DS: Yeah. The wine is just delicious, and it embodies everything that’s nerdy and fun about the grower movement right now while still being super drinkable.

LM: I love Bérêche so much; I can’t believe we didn’t mention his name sooner! Theirs might be my favorite Champagne house period. I visited them in 2010, and the wines show just like the people. Warm, inviting, generous… You go, and everyone’s playing music. These are feel-good Champagnes. They have such good fruit and such purity, and when you work with great ingredients, you get great results.

9. NV Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut $70

LM: I mean, we need to have another one of the big, important players in Champagne in the mix, and I just fell in love again with Laurent-Perrier. This one is zero-dosage—so it’s bone dry—from a historic producer who was experimenting with the style way back before it became a trend. It’s such a pure expression—clean, fresh, with very fine bubbles. For crudo or raw bar fare, it’s a dream come true.

DS: Good call. People tend to forget about Laurent-Perrier, and it’s good to include a house that represents the Vallée de la Marne. Plus, we don’t have a zero-dosage listed here yet. This is the perfect bottle to check all those boxes.

 10. NV José Dhondt Brut Blanc de Blancs, $59

DS: Well, we’d be significantly remiss not to have a Blanc de Blancs, and I love what Dhondt is doing right now. He’s based in Oger, so has these great Côtes des Blancs chardonnay vines, including some from Le Mesnil. I’ve always loved this Champagne, but the 2012 base year, which is what is currently out there in the market, is mind-blowingly good. It has all of the classic notes of apple, pear and citrus with a nice underlying chalky minerality. But it’s just a bit bolder, a bit bigger, with a leesy richness—you know, that nice toasty tone—mixed with the creaminess you expect from Oger fruit. It’s just drinking so well.

LM: Yes! It’s amazing. It’s a style of Blanc de Blancs that has some weight. There’s something about it that reminds me of… not custard or toffee exactly, but in that family of flavors. The condition of the fruit is riper, you can tell, which gives you more depth. Exotic, concentrated… that’s probably the best way to describe it.

11. NV Laherte Frères ‘Les 7’ Extra Brut, $94

LM: I have to say Laherte Frères. I just have to! Aurélien is this really young winemaker, good friends with Raphaël Bérêche, and a good person to introduce drinkers to all seven grapes of Champagne instead of just the classic three that we know. Les 7 is a field blend from a plot of vines right behind their house in Chavot. All the grapes get harvested together and fermented in aged Burgundy barrels, using a solera to blend in the reserve wines. It definitely feels Extra Brut on the finish (it’s very dry), but up front it’s all about vinosity—this deep, intense, textured Champagne.

DS: I visited Aurélien too! Laura is spot-on. He was on my list, too, since all of his wines are awesome, top to bottom. I like this bottle in particular because it really showcases what the other grapes can do. We’re starting to see more and more Champagnes using those varieties, but there’s no better example than this one.

 12. NV A. Margaine ‘Le Demi-Sec’ Premier Cru, $49

LM: What about a Demi-Sec?

DS: Oh yeah; we should definitely throw a Demi-Sec in there! For me, the best one out there is from Margaine in Villers-Marmery. His is fantastic, because it’s at the lower end of the allowable sugar dosage for the Demi-Sec category, so it’s still very clean and food-friendly. And this is going to sound a little cliché, but it’s the ideal wine to have with strawberries. People talk about strawberries and Champagne, and most of the time, I think that’s a horrible combination because you have tart strawberries with this high-acid sparkling wine, you know? It’s tart on tart. But Margaine has a delicate sweetness that works well in that situation.

LM: So perfect. I don’t love the intensely sweet styles of Demi-Sec either, so this is exactly the one that I would have picked.

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