Uncorking a Bargain

A champagne buyer's guide

Reims, the Disneyland of bubbly, is the capital of the French Champagne district. Under the streets of this ancient metropolis, miles upon miles of multilevel passageways have been bored through the chalk. They lead to underground caverns filled with millions of bottles of champagne. It's like the city was built over a giant ant farm.

To pronounce Reims correctly, try to say "France" like a Frenchman would -- then leave off the "f." Whenever I say it, people think I'm clearing my throat. But I love to hang around there anyway. The tours through the caves are surreal, and they always end with some free champagne.

Piper-Heidsieck's tour resembles the "House of Horrors" ride at an old amusement park. You ride on little cars through the dark tunnels, lurching and spinning while dramatic lights come up on cardboard cutouts of wine makers at work. The tour at Taittinger is probably my favorite. The catacombs are particularly elaborate, and the tour guide likes to read you graffiti scratched into the soft rock walls that dates back to the Roman era. (They say things like Hermogenes was here.)

Bear Dalton: "Young, [luxury cuvées] aren't very impressive, but if you put them away for a while, they develop a lot of depth."
Troy Fields
Bear Dalton: "Young, [luxury cuvées] aren't very impressive, but if you put them away for a while, they develop a lot of depth."

Location Info


Spec's Deli

2410 Smith
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Montrose


Spec's Liquor Warehouse, 2410 Smith, (713)526-8787. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines, 2124 South Shepherd (and other locations), (713)529-4849. Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Whole Foods, 2955 Kirby Drive (and other locations), (713)520-1937. Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

The first couple of times I visited Reims, I went as a tourist. But in the last six years, I've been back twice as a wine writer. At first I was quite impressed with all the folderol I read about the region's unique terroir and fascinating history. But over the years, I have wised up. The wine makers in the Champagne region make great wines -- and they are also brilliant at cooking up self-serving propaganda. The supposed shortage of bubbly last year was a classic example of their marketing genius. There was no real shortage of wine, of course. But the imaginary crisis provided an excuse to jack already high prices to unprecedented levels.

I have since come to doubt the French terroir theory as well. The French argue that no other place in the world has quite the same combination of elements -- cool climate, chalky soil, short growing season, long summer days, etc., etc. -- as those found in Champagne. This is no doubt true. But so what? California producers like Schramsberg market their sparkling wines by blind-tasting them against Dom Pérignon, Grande Dame and other overpriced French champagnes. Hardly anyone can tell you which wine came from where. When you take away the label, the terroir seems to disappear as well.

"I've never met anyone who can always identify French champagne in a blind tasting," says Eileen Moore, the managing director and wine maker at Domaine Carneros, a winery in California that's owned by the French champagne maker Taittinger. "If you put 20 glasses of sparkling wine out for a blind tasting, ten French and ten Californian, an expert might get eight of the French, and eight of the Californian, but never all 20."

In a blind tasting I held two years ago for food and wine writers from the Austin Chronicle, inexpensive sparkling wines from both France and California outscored vintage champagnes that cost two and three times as much. The reason was simple. The writers were all in their twenties and vastly preferred the crisp green apple and lemon flavors of cuvées (the blend of grapes) with high chardonnay content. Chardonnay-based champagnes often combine citrusy crispness with a creamy sort of texture. And that's a sensation that's pretty hard to beat.

The more expensive vintage and luxury cuvée champagnes are more individual in their flavors and especially in their bouquets. Many of them are made from cuvées with a higher pinot noir content. One of the older, more complex bottles we tried at the blind tasting gave off an aroma that the other writers characterized as "wet dog." It sounds bizarre, but it is not unusual. The last time I sampled Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin's 1985 rosé, I thought it had a gamy barnyard smell. Such bouquets are also common among top burgundies, which also are made with pinot noir. If you aren't charmed by this kind of complexity, then there certainly isn't any point in spending a lot of money on it.

A couple of weeks ago Bear Dalton from Spec's gave a French champagne tasting at L'Alliance Française de Houston, which covered the entire spectrum of French sparkling wines. Dalton, who is as entertaining as he is knowledgeable, took us step-by-step from a surprisingly tasty $3.99 mass-market bubbly called Opera 2000 all the way up to the $99 Cuvée Louise Pommery, 1988, with stops at all the intermediate increments along the way. Somewhere on this rising price scale, every member of the audience reached his or her personal point of diminishing returns.

Thanks to its long experience and the sheer volume of production, Champagne still makes the finest sparkling wines in the world. But it doesn't necessarily offer the best bargains. The trick to picking a bubbly is to find one that perfectly suits your tastes, adequately impresses your guests and fits within your budget. Sometime this millennial weekend, you will probably have to walk this tightrope. So in the interest of helping you keep your balance, I've asked Dalton from Spec's, John Cooper from Richard's and Alex Gibb from Whole Foods to recommend some sparkling wines from France, California and around the world.

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