From grower to brut to demi-sec, these bottles will help teach you everything you need to know about Champagne.

By Jonathan Cristaldi
December 18, 2019

It’s time to start drinking Champagne—all the time. 

With more than 16,000 growers spread out over three towns divided into five regions (Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, and the Aube in the Côte des Bar) in a region 90 miles northeast of Paris, some 320 Champagne houses are producing a mesmerizing array of styles and formats from relatively cheap to the preposterously high-priced. 

With these 15 bottles, you’ll become an expert on most things Champagne, from history and labeling laws and terminology to differences between non-vintage and vintage-dated Champagne. One writer and critic, Antonio Galloni, has argued we’re in the midst of “Champagne’s Golden Age” with quality at an all-time high.

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I can attest (having sampled some 30 Champagnes for this article), adding only that the world needs more Champagne experts, spreading the good gospel of these wickedly delicious sparklers. No weeknight dinner party should ever begin without a bottle of Champagne. So, make sure the ice bucket is prepared, your bottles are properly chilled, and that you’ve got a glass handy. Approximate reading time: two generous pours.  

1. NV Marquis de la Mysteriale Cuvee de Grand Esprit ($45)

Unlike still wines, most Champagnes are a blend of several different vintages. You might see “NV” or “MV” on a label, which stands for “Non-Vintage” and “Multi-Vintage,” respectively. Champagne houses keep some wine from each harvest in reserve for the sole purpose of blending it down the road. It’s the job of the cellarmaster of a Champagne house (the chef de cave) to maintain continuity in style with each new release, and he does this by blending the older reserve wines with younger recently-harvested wines to achieve the Assemblage—the unique flavor profile that is the mark of the Champagne house.

This Marquis de la Mysteriale Cuvée de Grand Esprit is made by Florent Gauthier, a French-born winemaker who was schooled in Macon. Comprised of 59% Chardonnay and 41% Pinot Noir, the final blend includes a little more than one-third of reserve wines that are up to eight years old, kept in 4,000-liter oak barrels in reserve, which adds that layer of complexity and consistency in the style that Gauthier aims to craft year after year. Candied lemon peel and orchard fruit aromas with a zesty and robust mousse that unfolds with layers of caramelized apples and pear with a dark toffee finish. 

2. 2007 Champagne Delamotte Blanc de Blancs ($110) 

While most Champagne wines are a blend of several years of wines, vintage-dated Champagne is the mark of an extremely favorable harvest, when a single year’s crop is harvested, fermented, and bottled. 

Knowledgeable experts tend to file away some nugget about the growing conditions that may have led a Champagne house to declare a vintage. The 2007 growing season ushered in an unusually warm spring, followed by a cool summer. Then, uncharacteristically, warmer weather returned at the end of August, forcing many producers to harvest earlier than expected for fear of grapes ripening too much, which could lead to an increase in sugar levels and a decrease in acidity—bad news, since acidity is the hallmark of excellent Champagne. 

Talk about high-class bubbly that thrived in 2007: Champagne Delamotte blended grapes from the Grands Crus of Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Avize and Cramant, which today reveals a supremely creamy mousse and lofty candied citrus peel and caramel aromas, super tart yellow apple flavors with bracing acidity, leading to a finish marked by earthy minerality with pops of black truffle—that’s the kind of complexity you can expect from vintage-dated Champers.  

3. Besserat de Bellefon “Cuvée des Moines” Brut NV ($39)

Several of Champagne Besserat’s labels sport the phrase “Cuvée des Moines,” which means “Blend of the Monks” and tips a hat to the supposed inventors of Champagne wines—early Benedictine monks, the most famous of all being Dom Pérignon. However, the claim that he invented Champagne has been refuted over and over. In fact, it’s been noted that Pérignon was trying to stop the secondary fermentation that kept happening in the bottle—a phenomenon they couldn’t explain at the time. 

The reason was that in the 17th Century, the wines made in Champagne often stopped fermenting when cool autumn weather crept in. Those still wines, which hadn’t completed fermentation, would re-ignite in the spring, typically after they’d been bottled and had arrived in England. Celebrated author Hugh Johnson points out in The World Atlas of Wine that if it wasn’t the British who lay claim for inventing sparkling wine (more like discovering it at port), it was “the inhabitants of Limoux,” who claimed to have “made the first brut sparkling wine in the 16th century.” While the truth will likely remain lost to the ages, this Cuvée des Moines should not be lost on you—honeysuckle, white peach, and plum notes mingle with juicy stone fruits, tinged with a hazelnut finish underscored by zippy, assertive acidity. 

4. Ruinart Champagne Blanc de Blancs ($79)

Champagne wines that are comprised of 100% Chardonnay grapes are called “Blanc de Blancs,” which means it is a white wine made of white grapes. Ruinart, the oldest established Champagne house, is home to five miles of cavernous, stunningly beautiful chalk cellars (called crayères) beginning some 124-feet below ground and dug entirely by hand. All told, the cellars reveal more than 20 caves, and in 2015 were classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. 

The caves sit beneath the streets of Reims, one of three main towns that make up the triumvirate of the Champagne region. The other two towns are Épernay and Aÿ. For the Blanc de Blancs, Premier Cru vines from the Côte des Blancs (an area south of Épernay and Montagne de Reims) produce a crisp bubbly, teeming with bright lemon peel, ripe yellow apple, poached pears, ginger spices, brioche, and a smoky flinty mineral finish. 

Eric Vanden

5. NV Collet Art Deco-Grand Art Brut, Champagne, France

In 1911, the village of Aÿ, a ten-minute drive northeast of Épernary, was at the center of a series of riots. Champagne Growers accused producers of incorporating grapes from other regions in their blends and set about torching suspected abusers. The government eventually intervened, putting an end to the crisis, and a new set of laws eventually paved the way for the creation of the Champagne AOC, which was established in 1936. 

Today, Aÿ is home to major producers like Bollinger, Ayala, and Deutz, to name just a few. It’s also where Champagne Collet was established in 1921. In their book, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, authors Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay note that Aÿ is “a powerhouse Grand Cru village,” where vineyards are “generally south facing and lower on the hillside,” which translates to “warmer temperatures and riper wines.”  

While Pinot Noir dominates the vineyards around Aÿ, Collet’s Brut Art Deco Premier Cru blends 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier from 7 Grands Crus and 13 Premiers Crus. What’s the deal with all these Crus? Simply put, Champagne ranks its vineyards from Cru to Premier Cru (prime vines from 41 villages) to Grand Cru (the best of the best from 17 villages). 

In line with Parr and Mackay’s assessment, Collet attributes the Pinot Noir from Aÿ as the reason for the richness and power of its NV Brut. Freshly buttered brioche toast, button mushrooms, poached Bartlett pears, apple skin, and tart acidity, it’s clean, bright, and fresh with power, intensity, and earthy mineral richness. The label’s “art deco” reference is woven into the fabric of Collet as the movement grew in popularity post WWI, just as Collet was getting started. 

6. Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Réserve Exclusive Brut NV ($35)

Known for producing high-quality Champagne at a value, this is one of the most recognizable labels out there. The final blend for this non-vintage cuvée could arguably be a real snapshot of Champagne as a whole—relying on 150 separate sources from “every inch of the region,” according to the house. The blend also combines all three grape varieties planted throughout Champagne—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. 

Nicolas Feuillatte also produces a high-end “prestige cuvée” (best wine) called  Palmes d’Or, which is always vintage-dated. The 2006 Palmes d’Or took advantage of one of the best years of the 21st century. Many houses produced a vintage-dated Champagne in 2006, which is marked by ripeness and power due to very hot conditions in the summer, but supremely balanced with lively acidity thanks to a cool August. The Réserve Exclusive Brut is quite zippy, with toasty brioche and lemon curd notes, deep golden apples and a nougat finish. Building on that, the Palme d’Or shows deeper fruit intensity, leaning toward tropical ripeness, balanced by pronounced crushed chalk minerality. 

7. Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($69)

Bottles produced by Charles Heidsieck offer a lot of important information on the back label, perhaps most critically the disgorgement date. The traditional method (méthode traditionnelle) requires that grape sediment that collects in the neck of the bottle of Champagne be disgorged (the process is called dégorgement in French), which requires flash-freezing of the neck, while a two-centimeter pellet of sediment is expelled out, and replaced by the desired dosage. With the particular bottle of Heidsieck Rosé I sampled, “Laid in Chalk Cellars in 2016” and “Disgorged in 2019” appears on the label, letting me know that this non-vintage Champagne first settled into slumber in 2016, and that in 2019, after three years of riddling, it was disgorged, dosed, and then shortly thereafter left the winery, destined for my doorstep the same year 2019. Pretty cool. 

8. Laurent-Perrier Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature ($84)

The sweetness level of any Champagne is determined by two factors: the liqueur de tirage, the mix of yeast, sugar, and wine added to the bottle to kick-start the secondary fermentation that delivers the famous bubbles of Champagne, and the liqueur d’expedition a mix of wine and sugar added in the form of the “dosage,” post-dégorgement. That level of sweetness in the liqueur de tirage can vary from less than three grams per liter of residual sugar to greater than 50 for lusciously sweet renditions, while the dosage allows for a final balancing act between sugar and acidity. 

“Brut Nature” on a label tells you there was no dosage added, and that the residual sugar accounts for less than three grams per liter, meaning this is a bone-dry Champagne, likely with rather bracing acidity. The challenge for the chef de cave is to produce a balanced Brut Nature Champagne that can develop the kind of complexity common with Champagnes that have received a dosage. That complexity takes the form of nutty and bacon-fat aromas and flavors over long-aging, which is officially known as the Maillard reaction—the process of residual sugars reacting with amino acids and proteins over time, which helps produce those secondary and tertiary flavors. 

Vivid pale straw color with silver streaks, the acidity is tart and bracing and makes for a remarkably fresh Champagne laden with lime citrus, lime peel, and lemon cream with just a hint of nougat and crushed Marcona almonds. 

9. Moet & Chandon 2012 Grand Vintage ($75)

The house of Moët et Chandon was originally known as Moët et Cie (Moët & Co.), established by Claude Moët in 1743 in the town of Épernay. Moët died in 1760, and the house as we know it, Moet & Chandon, was established in 1842. In the brand’s history, it has only produced a vintage-dated bottling 73 times—make that 74 with the release of this 2012 Grand Vintage.

Chief winemaker Benoit Gouez battled a difficult year in 2012, which was extremely cool on the outset but turned warm and generous, allowing him to craft a wine that he felt adhered to the stylistic standard set by his winemaking predecessors some 177 years ago. Labeled “Extra Brut,” because it is bone-dry and scintillating, with 41% Chardonnay, 22% Pinot Noir and 26% Meunier delivering wildflower aromas, ripe orchard fruits, and subtle nutty notes, layered in a zesty, mouthwatering, and creamy Champagne. 

10. Veuve Clicquot Brut Rose ($69)

The wide range of pink-hued rosé Champagnes owes their brilliance and stunning color to either the addition of red wine to the blend, or less commonly by allowing the juice of the wine to remain in contact with the skin for a short period of time, thus allowing the exchange of color tannins. 

In the case of Veuve’s Brut Rosé, some 50 to 60 different separate lots of wine (all Cru level) were blended together leveraging more than one-third Reserve wine from the famous cellars. The pink hue certainly owes its luminous color to the mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which together comprise 67% of the blend, while 33% Chardonnay makes up the rest.

Launois

11. Champagne Paul Launois MV Composition Blanc De Blancs Champagne ($49)

Champagne Paul Launois is a grower Champagne, or Recoltant-Manipulant (RM)—a grower who also produces their own wine. Though new to making their own wine, the Launois family has farmed their vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil for four generations. And grower-producer Champagne is in high demand today.

“Champagne is an under-appreciated region and category of wine,” says Master Sommelier Desmond Echavarrie of the Scale Wine Group. “Similar to Burgundy, each great village in Champagne possesses a distinct fingerprint that is nuanced further by winemaking style. The endeavor of discovering great grower Champagne is far less beguiling and less expensive than the same caliber of wines from Burgundy.”

After staying the night in an Airbnb on the property, Echavarrie was so impressed by the Blanc de Blancs and dismayed to find there was no U.S. representation, that he applied for an import license. Carried mostly in restaurants, and a few retail shops on the west coast, it’s worth seeking out for its racy and elegant nature, defined by the growers who produced it. If you can’t find Launois, other grower-producer to seek out are Agrapart, Jérôme Prévost, Benoit Lahaye, Vilmart & Cie, Champagne Geoffrey, and Egly-Ouriet. 

Paula Kornell Sparkling Wine

12. 2017 Paula Kornell Napa Valley Blanc de Noir Méthode Champenoise ($50)

You’d be right to wonder why a Napa Valley sparkling wine is on this list. Champagne experts should know about the early sparkling wine pioneers of the U.S. who actually labeled their wines Champagne.

But Champagne can only come from Champagne, France. Today, that rule is globally enforced by powerful lawyers from The Comité Champagne (CIVC). Over the course of history, the term “Champagne” has appeared on sparkling wines that did not come from the famous region in France. In fact, more than a few labels produced in California beginning in the 1860s quite loudly proclaimed, “California Champagne.” One producer you might recall was Hans Kornell.  

Not to be confused with the similar-sounding Korbel Champagne Cellars in Sonoma, Hanns Kornell of Kornell Champagne Cellars (now-shuttered) established his sparkling wine house in 1958 in Napa Valley, originally produced in the original Larkmead Winery, a building owned by Frank Family Vineyards today. 

“My father, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany, started making sparkling wine in 1952,” says Paula Kornell, “and he was going to make it in the méthode champenoise style. Of course, at that time, it was going to be called ‘Champagne’ because if it was called ‘sparkling wine,’ that indicated it was more like a second-tier in terms of quality. If he was alive today, he’d understand that Champagne is a geographical area. Of course, we know we are not making Champagne here in Napa, even though we are making it using the Champagne method.”

In partnership with Vintage Wine Estates and rising star winemaker Robin Akhurst, a protege of Food & Wine winemaker of the year Thomas Rivers Brown, Kornell’s sparkling rendition is “something of a dream come true,” says Kornell. Her love of Bollinger R.D, Krug, and Billecart means her style aims for the same richness and blends 98% Pinot Noir with 2% Chardonnay from Carneros.  

13. Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs Brut, Champagne, France ($50)

I’ve mentioned “Blanc de Blancs,” a white wine made from white grapes, but Blanc de Noirs is the mind-bending white wine made from black grapes. I know what you’re thinking. How is it possible? 

Making a white wine from a black grape is actually really easy. Go to the supermarket and buy yourself some really dark-colored red grapes. Then, cut one open and admire the crystal clear flesh inside and give it a good squeeze onto a white napkin. And there you go, the juice will be clear. 

Black grapes, once harvested, are crushed and as long as the clear juice is kept away from the dark skins, it shall remain clear. Some winemakers choose to keep the dark skins in contact with the clear must (or unfermented grape juice) because a small amount of tannin, even a bit of color is extracted, lending texture to the white wine. If the skins remain in contact long enough, presto! You have a rosé Champagne. This Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs Brut reveals red apple skin, plums, and a bright, citrus streak giving way to a creamy mouthfeel and spicy finish. 

14. Piper-Heidsieck NV Demi-Sec Cuvée Sublime ($49)

Brut, sec, demi-sec—what does it all mean? 

These terms indicate the sweetness level of a Champagne. Brut nature and zero dosage mean less than three grams per liter (g/l) of residual sugar remain, and no sugar (dosage) additions are added. Extra Brut means you’re dealing with a bone-dry bubbly of 0-6 g/l. Brut is most common and is dry with less than 12 g/l. Extra is still dry with 12-17 g/l. And Sec, still considered “dryish” is 17-32 g/l, while a Demi-Sec like this Piper-Heidsieck is considered medium sweet at 32-50 g/l, followed by a Doux which is sweet but still balanced by lively acidity clocking in at greater than 50 g/l.  This “Sublime” delivers a kind of candied citrus peel note (like a Sweetheart candy) layered with peach rings, pineapple, and baking spices in a full-bodied package.

15. Mod Selection Réserve Vintage 2008, Champagne, France ($480)

With really expensive Champagne, most of the time, the attention is centered on Roederer Cristal or Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades (both around $200+ a bottle). But now the spotlight is turning on Mod Sélection Champagne. The raconteur masterminds behind Mod are Brent Hocking (known for DeLeón Tequila and Virginia Black whiskey) and hip-hop artist Drake (aka Champagne Papi). 

It’s an extravagant buy for most of us. But hey, 2008 was an exceptional year, one of the finest in the last two decades in which ideal conditions have produced classic-styled Champagnes with vivid acidity and powerful fruit notes. They will age superbly well, and you’ll find warm, toasty aromas open up to orange peel, apricot, and rich baking spices. Full-bodied with super-fine beading and nicely balanced. 

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