Pop These 25 Bottles and Become a Champagne Master
Champagne lovers, put down that glass (not for long, don't worry), pull up a chair and get ready to transition from enthusiast to know-it-all. Not only has bubbly long been the choice drink of great emperors, royal families, celebrities, world leaders, hip-hop artists, and professional athletes alike, but there is also hardly a wine drinker who would turn down a glass. So, whether you’re a royal or just a fan of a brilliant, celebratory sparkler, it’s time to take a deep dive.
First things first: Champagne must come from its eponymous region in the north east of France, which is centered around three main towns: Reims, Épernay, and Aÿ. But you knew that already. What you may be surprised to learn is that ethereal, sparkling Champagne as we know it today is a relatively modern invention. In the 17th and 18th centuries, secondary fermentation — which occurs in the bottle and creates the drink's famous bubbles — wasn’t an intentional winemaking technique, and was considered a nuisance. It was Madame Veuve Clicquot (yes, that Vueve Clicquot) who, in the 19th century, developed techniques to control secondary fermentation and perfect the art of making Champagne.
With this basic information in mind, the next step to becoming a pro is, of course, to pop open a bottle, or in this case, 25. These 25 sparklers are some of the most iconic Champagnes out there, featuring an array of styles and price-points, so study up and become the Champagne know-it-all you've always wanted to be.
1. Salon Cuvee 'S' Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France
With rare exception, most Champagne houses produce a sparkling wine each year. One of those rarities is Salon — a collector’s dream bottle that fetches triple- and quadruple-digit price tags on major Michelin-starred wine lists. Only in exceptional years when grapes achieve a perfect balance between sugar ripeness and acidity does Chef de Caves Michel Fauconnet (who is also the cellarmaster at Laurent-Perrier), declare a vintage and produce a wine. Salon is situated in le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a commune (or village) within the Côte des Blancs, one of the five main regions of Champagne. Grapes from a tiny 2.4-acre vineyard called “Salon’s garden” are harvested along with select bunches from 19 other parcels in Mesnil-sur-Oger, to yield a sublimely complex cuvée revealing decadent citrus, floral, mineral and toasty brioche notes. Since its first release in 1905, Salon has only produced a wine in 40 vintages!
2. Krug Brut, Champagne, France
It’s the holy grail of Champagnes — one even coveted by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which awards a golden “Krug Cup” to anyone who passes all three tests (theory, service, and tasting) on their first attempt. In 1840, Joseph Krug came up with the idea to blend older vintages of reserve wines as a way to overcome any curve-balls mother nature could throw in a growing season. It was a revolutionary idea and is what makes a bottle of Krug’s Grande Cuvée so unique — no vintage is precisely the same, but each is a work of art. Chef de Caves Eric Lebel begins each year with around 250 different vineyard plots, and 150 reserve wines from up to 12 different vintages, with some wines as old as 15 years of age. From all this, he crafts the next vintage of Krug.
3. Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades Gold Brut, Champagne, France
This is the obvious choice Champagne for anyone who is a regular at the poker tables in any of Las Vegas’ major casinos. And when you’ve arrived at eminent high-roller status, the move is to hit the big clubs along the Strip, and when the moment strikes, order a big bottle of Ace of Spades. The room will stop, the spotlight will shine on you, and you’ll get your Vegas 15 minutes of fame. The rest of us will just hope to catch some of the vivid, red-berry and toasty brioche mist from the bottle you’re using to spray down your guests. This just isn’t the kind of Champagne to sip on in an elegant setting. It really calls for raucousness.
4. 2009 Dom Perignon Brut, Champagne, France
For the longest time, Dom Pierre Pérignon, the 17th century cellarmaster of the Benedectine Abbey of Hautvillers, which sits smack in the heart of the Champagne region, was rumored to have invented Champagne. The truth is, he did not. But in the 1600s, bubbles in wine were considered a flaw and Dom was tasked with trying to stop the secondary fermentation, which creates the bubbles. He wasn’t successful, thankfully, but he did master the art of blending—a hallmark of exceptional Champagne. And today, you’ll only ever see a vintage-dated bottle of Dom, and typically only about six bottled vintages per decade. That’s because bottles are held at least six or seven years before release, and are a blend of several older vintage base-wines. They typically reveal a mix of toasty brioche, complex citrus, honeyed and terrific baking spice notes.
5. Henriot Blanc de Blancs Brut, Champagne, France
Chardonnay grapes take center stage in every bottle of Henriot, officially founded in 1808 by a woman named Apolline Henriot. “Blanc de Blancs” translates to “white of whites,” or rather, a white wine made from light-skinned grapes. With fruit from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards rounding out the cuvée, this packs a vibrancy and purity of fruit you’d expect from a much more expensive Champagne.
6. Louis Roederer Cristal Brut Millesime, Champagne, France
For a time, Cristal found itself in the limelight as the glorified Champagne that graced the lips of hip-hop artists like Jay Z and Kanye West. Today, sadly, hip-hop and Cristal are not speaking. But there’s much more you should know about this pillar of bubbly. For one thing, the name “Cristal” is a direct reference to the custom-made flat-bottomed lead-crystal bottles that 19th-century Russian emperor Tsar Alexander II asked Louis Roederer to make for him. The Tsar demanded that the best cuvée be set aside for him every year and bottled in the precious crystal. Today, all the vines that produce this stunning sparkler are farmed biodynamically.
7. Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rose Brut, Champagne, France
Every Champagne know-it-all should be dialed in to how rosé Champagne is produced. Either a small amount of red wine is blended into a white, or, the freshly-pressed juice of just-harvested grapes are left in contact with the grape skins for a short period as color tannins are extracted, lending that famous pink hue. And once you’ve explained all that, be sure and pop the cork on this simply quintessential sparkling rosé Champagne — deliciously creamy and brimming with red berry flavors.
8. Drappier Brut Nature Zero Dosage, Champagne, France
So many founders of great Champagne houses came from France’s textile industry, and the Drappier family (cloth merchants in Reims) is no exception. Today, some eight generations later, they’re making some of the greatest bubbly in Champagne. Charles de Gaulle famously served up Drappier for dignitaries, but he likely never tried a “Zero Dosage” Champagne. To counterbalance the high natural acidity in Champagne grapes, the last step in the winemaking process is to add a dosage — a small mixture of sugar syrup and wine (the liqueur d’expédition in French) which balances the wine while determining its final sweetness level. A “Brut Nature” like this Drappier, which offers vivid stone fruit notes finishing with a hint of almond, is a wine that received no dosage at all, and is instead bone-dry.
9. Gosset Brut Excellence, Champagne, France
If challenged to name the oldest established Champagne house, you can rest your laurels on Gosset. In 1584 — just over 19 decades before American Independence — Pierre Gosset established a winery smack in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ. This Brut Excellence is a blend of three of the primary Champagne grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier) and delivers beautifully delineated stone and tropical fruit flavors.
10. Ayala Brut, Champagne, France
One way to really assert yourself as a Champagne know-it-all is to drop little knowledge bombs like this one: Bollinger — one of the great icons of Champagne — purchased Ayala in 2005. So, you could argue that the same quality and expertise goes into a bottle of this Brut, which is about $20-$25 less than a bottle of Bollinger. That’s why you brought this sparkler —redolent of green-apple skin and pear, and bolstered by lip-smackingly bright acid, with a distinct smoky finish — to the party, while the Bollinger patiently awaits your return, safe in your refrigerator.
11. 2006 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, Champagne, France
While Taittinger produces a classic styled, and moderately priced “Brut” each year, only in the best years do they declare a vintage and produce their “Comtes de Champagne,” which is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes — a distinction of the house. It is one of the few remaining family-owned estates that was actually sold, but repurchased by the family. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, grandson of the founder, has a note to share with anyone with a wine cellar: "A happy cellar is an empty cellar,” he once told me, adding that he believes in sharing all he can in this lifetime. This Comtes shows beautifully tiny and persistent bubbles giving way to apple, peark apricot and smoky mineral notes. Can’t make it to France? They also own Domaine Carneros in California.
12. Benoit Lahaye Rose de Maceration Extra Brut, Champagne, France
Shakespeare’s King Richard II was not talking to winemakers when he said, “This is no month to bleed,” but if he’d been speaking to the Benoit-Lahaye, who makes a rosé Champagne by the saignée method, he’d have been shown the door. This method involves the “bleeding” of free-run juice from newly-crushed dark-skinned grapes, which is also considered the best and most-prized juice. A 100% Pinot Noir, enticing strawberry and cherry notes mingle with minerality and lively persistent bubbles.
13. Ulysse Collin 'Les Pierrieres' Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, Champagne, France
In your arsenal of Champagne knowledge-bombs, knowing this “grower-Champagne” will go a long way with Sommeliers and impress just about anyone working professionally in wine. First of all, Collin is a rising star grower-producer that all the critics have their eye on. Second, “Les Pierrieres” is a tiny 2.9-acre vineyard in a more obscure area southwest of Champagne’s better-known Côte des Blancs region. Typically, “growers” simply grow grapes and sell them. But more and more growers are also making their own wines, and Collin is one of the best. Full-bodied, rich and bursting with citrus and baked tropical fruit notes.
14. Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque, Fleur de Champagne Brut Millesime, Champagne, France
When I forget the difference between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, my favorite reminder is this “Belle Epoque” Brut Champagne, which offers a veritable effervescent journey into the beautiful world of Art Nouveau. Artist Emile Gallé, “one of the movement's most celebrated artists,” according to Perrier-Jouet, is responsible for designing the white Japanese anemone flowers that are outlined in gold and etched onto the label in one of the most famous Art Nouveau images the wine-world around. Napoleon III, Queen Victoria and Princess Grace of Monaco were all fans of this gorgeous bubbly, which boasts classic white-floral notes (hence the label design), along with candied citrus and a creamy mouthfeel.
15. Piper-Heidsieck Brut, Champagne, France
When it comes to absolutely classic Champagne, Heidsieck is it. Perhaps it has something to do with the Champagne houses' first true “brand ambassador”: none other than Marie Antoinette. This lively and energetic sparkler reveals toasty aromas and flavors along with baked fruit notes and spice.
16. Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut, Champagne, France
Remember that bottle of Bollinger you've got stashed in your fridge? It's the only Champagne good enough for James Bond. Is that because the vineyard own their own cooperage and make all their own oak barrels — the secret ingredient to their voluminously rich style of Champagne? Hardly. Is it because the primarily Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes that make up this “Special Cuvée” yield a full-bodied, voluptuous Champagne, bursting with creamy candied citrus, elegant perfumed notes, and a mouthwatering finish? Who knows. Whatever the case, Bollinger offers up a license to...enjoy.
17. Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, Champagne, France
The benchmark Champagne rosé upon which all other pink bubbly is judged is Billecart. This 200-year-old estate has perfected the art of producing a consistent silky, sensual, red-berry flavored rosé sparkler tinged with toasty oak notes. This is pink perfection.
18. Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut, Champagne, France
Without question, the greatest icon and most recognizable Champagne bottle is that of the hallowed yellow Veuve Clicquot label. So, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It” by Tilar Mazzeo, and take a deep dive into this legendary bubbly. While you’re at it, you might enjoy reading some spirited blog debates over whether the label is yellow or orange.
19. Pol Roger Brut, Champagne, France
With this illustrious Champagne from a family that was intimate with British Royalty and Sir Winston Churchill comes the defining moment in your Champagne education. Tyson Stelzner, one of the world’s foremost Champagne experts, notes that a hallmark of Pol Roger is a noticeable chalkiness. And the best vineyards in Champagne are planted on calcareous soils — those rich in limestone and chalk deposits. So, let a bottle of Pol Roger ignite the “ah-ha” moment for you, marrying the French notion of terroir (a sense of place) with taste.
20. Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut, Champagne, France
With bottles gracing shelves in more than 150 countries, this might be the most widely distributed Champagne from France. After Moet & Chandon merged with Hennessy cognac, the luxury giant LVMH was formed. Today, the Champagne houses of Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Mercier and Krug, all fall under the same LVMH umbrella company. This bubbly is the bottled essence of luxury, but luckily, it costs a mere fraction of a genuine Louis Vuitton handbag — a company also owned by LVMH. It's precisely made, clean and delicate with pure citrus notes and a lengthy finish tinged with toasted almonds.
21. Duval-Leroy Brut, Champagne, France
Of the few women to lead a Champagne house, Carol Duval-Leroy has built her family business into a pillar of exceptional bubbly. She currently runs the show while priming her three sons to eventually take over the business. A couple years back, this house announced it was vegan-friendly. How? As Champagne wines are intended to be vivid and clear, they generally require a fining agent to filter the wine, and that’s often done with gelatin or egg white protein. But Carol allows her wines to sit undisturbed for three months or more, while natural sediment in the wine settles to the bottom of her tanks and barrels. The wine is then racked off that sediment, clear as a cloudless sky. Think white florals, creamy citrus, apple and pear notes on a fresh-baked bread finish.
22. Paul Dethune Grand Cru Brut, Champagne, France
Here is another “grower Champagne” that comes entirely from Grand Cru vineyards — the most prestigious sites of the region that, in turn, typically yield Champagnes that fetch high price tags. What makes a vineyard a Grand Cru site? It must fall within the boundaries of any of the 17 Grand Cru villages that exist within Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, and the Côte des Blancs. Expect a decadent, creamy mouthfeel with delightful citrus, white florals and a distinct honeyed note.
23. Laurent-Perrier “Harmony” Demi-Sec, Champagne, France
Most Champagne wines are labeled “brut,” which is a style of sparkling wine that ranges in sweetness levels from bone-dry to off-dry — meaning there’s either zero residual sugar or very trace amounts of up to 12 grams per liter. However, there are also sweet styles of Champagne, labeled as “Extra-Sec” (off-dry), “Sec” (off-dry to semi-sweet), “Demi-Sec” (half-dry or medium-sweet), and the very rare “Doux” (lusciously sweet, dessert-style). This “Harmony” Demi-Sec from Laurent-Perrier is utterly brilliant, boasting a rich mouthfeel, spiced-apple, honeysuckle and toasted hazelnuts. What’s not to love about that?
24. 2014 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, North Coast, USA
This list wouldn’t be complete without one of my favorite California sparkling wines. But what’s this doing in a list of French Champagne? Two things: First, as a Champagne boss, at some point you’ll have to burst someone’s bubble and explain why only sparkling wines from Champagne can be called “Champagne.” (Refresher: Champagne is not a style a wine. It is a region in the north east of France. So, calling a sparkling wine from California a “Champagne” would be like calling a sparkling wine from Champagne a “Napa Valley sparkler” — really weird.) Best to explain over a bottle or Schramsberg, because when the conversation gets heated, you can turn to history: This was the bubbly that President Richard Nixon served in 1972 at his famous “Toast to Piece” with China's Premier Zhou Enlai. And it happens to be delicious, bursting with granny smith apple, caramelized pear, baked bread and stony minerality.
25. Contadi Castaldi Brut, Franciacorta DOCG, Italy
This explanation leads us to something real know-it-alls should be able to do: Name a handful of other sparkling wine regions as a point of comparison to France’s Champagne bubbly empire. First, you might point out that sparkling wine also comes from the Loire Valley in France, that Cava comes from Spain and Prosecco from Italy. Then you could surprise everyone with a mention of Franciacorta. Made in Lombardy, these brilliant sparklers are Italy’s answer to Champagne. They are made in the traditional Champagne method with secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle. This Contadi Castaldi is one of my favorites — a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco grapes, with lively citrus aromas giving way to tropical fruit notes on a creamy and smooth mouthfeel finishing with just a hint of toasted almonds. Salut!