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Uncorking a Bargain

A champagne buyer's guide

Dom Pérignon, Grande Dame and the Luxury Cuvées

Is the $150 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne five times better than the $30 nonvintage Taittinger Le Française Brut? Not for my money.

After a few glasses of the brut, I once asked the sales representative from Taittinger how the makers justified the whopping disparity in price between their nonvintage and their premium label. "There will always be Arab sheikhs, rock stars and wealthy people who have to have the very best," he said with a grin. "And the supply of our top-quality sparkling wine will always be very limited."

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

Map

Spec's Deli

2410 Smith
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Montrose

Details

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.

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Translated into English, the statement means that these wines are for people who pay too much for things in order to impress other people. That may sound silly to you, but it makes a lot of sense if you are a wealthy old man who likes to date exotic dancers. Or if you are just filthy rich.

"If you drive a Rolls-Royce and wear a $20,000 watch, then you ought to be drinking Cristal," says Cooper of Richard's. The luxury cuvées also improve dramatically as they age. "I used to tell people that Dom P. and those luxury cuvées weren't worth the money," says Dalton. "But lately I've changed my mind. Young, they aren't very impressive, but if you put them away for a while, they develop a lot of depth."

Here's what the luxury bottles are selling for this year:

Roederer Cristal, $150.40 at Spec's

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, $148.91 at Spec's

Dom Pérignon, $120.95 at Spec's

Clicquot Grande Dame, $119.99 at Spec's

Cuvée Louise Pommery, $99 at Spec's

Bollinger Grande Année, $73.49 at Richard's

French Nonvintage Champagnes

These are by far the Champagne district's biggest sellers and generally your best bet in French champagne. The best-selling wine in this category, Clicquot Orange Label, has achieved such a loyal following that it is no longer a bargain. Once available for as little as $25 a bottle, Orange Label is now selling for $36.89 at Richard's. "I hear they're selling Clicquot Orange Label at Sam's now," says Cooper.

French nonvintage champagnes are made from a blend of wines to conform to a house style, so they stay pretty consistent in flavor from year to year. If you want to ring in the millennium with a real French champagne, here are a few that strike a good balance between quality and price:

Oudinot Cuvée Brut, $19.89 at Spec's: The best bargain in real champagne?

Roederer Brut Premier, $29.39 at Richard's: A good deal on a famous name

Taittinger Le Française Brut, $29.99 at Spec's: Another deal on a brand name

Lanson Brut N.V., $31.99 at Whole Foods: A lesser-known quality French house

Audoin de Dampierre, Cuvée des Ambassadeurs, $32.96 at Spec's: Served at French embassies around the world

Selosse Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs N.V., $45.99 at Richard's: Made with 100 percent barrel-fermented chardonnay

The Californians

The Schramsberg winery of California tours the country putting on blind tastings in which the wine makers pour their Schramsberg Reserve alongside top luxury cuvées from France including Grande Dame, Dom Pérignon, Krug Grande Cuvée, Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne and Roederer Cristal. Alex Gibb attended one such tasting at Cafe Annie a few months ago. The Schramsberg, he reported, came in second to Grande Dame, a wine that cost more than twice as much. And it outscored all the others. "Clearly Schramsberg is every bit as good and better than some of these French champagnes," Gibb says.

John Cooper laughs when I ask him about the Schramsberg tasting. "California wines are very fruit forward and precocious -- they always do well against the French," he chuckles. "But Iron Horse makes the best California sparkling wines -- very fresh-tasting. They make seven sparkling wines, and I like them all better than Schramsberg, which is more yeasty and old-fashioned."

But everybody agrees that with the dollar rising steadily against the French franc, California is getting to be a better and better bargain. "The French champagne makers all have wineries in California now. That says it all," says Gibb.

Roederer Estate Brut, $18.59 at Richard's: Easy to mistake for Roederer Brut

Scharffenberger, Pacific Echo, Blanc de Blancs, $22.99 at Whole Foods: Compares well to most nonvintage French

Iron Horse Classic Brut 1995, $23.09 at Richard's: One of California's best

Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée 1996, $24.29 at Richard's

J Brut 1996, $25.79 at Richard's

Schramsberg Reserve 1993, $49.99 at Whole Foods

Iron Horse Brut Late Disgorged 1991, $55.99 at Whole Foods: Kept on the lees for a toastier flavor

Rosés

Rosé champagnes are my favorites. They are often made with pinot noir, and they tend to be more complex than regular champagnes. They also benefit incredibly from a little aging. Rosés represent only 3 to 5 percent of total sparkling wine production in France, but they are taken very seriously by many champagne houses, which consider them among their very best wines.

Rosé champagnes can be made by leaving dark grape skins in contact with the wine until they give it a rosy color. But the more expensive method involves adding red wine to a white wine blend. Some top champagne houses, like Veuve Clicquot, maintain a separate winery operation that produces red pinot noir wines for the sole purpose of blending them into their rosé champagnes. Some American sparkling wine producers do an excellent job with rosé as well.

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