Okay, folks. There's good news and there's bad news.
The good news is that price of Champagne is a little bit easier to swallow this year.
That wasn't the case during the 2009 holiday season: In one of the great wine controversies of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Champagne industry reacted to the economic crisis by cutting yields and raising prices. Yes, raising prices.
"As a means of trying to cushion the blow to their profits," reported The Guardian in August, 2009, "France's champagne houses are demanding a limit be put on this year's grape harvest so that the market -- already saddled with unsold stock from last year -- is not flooded, and prices, which reached unprecedented heights in the post-millennium boom, are maintained."
In other words, producers opted to cut yields in order to restrict supply and they maintained a pattern of price increases that had been established during the dick-wagging years.
This year, prices seem to be leveling out -- at least in our market here in Texas. And although I'm basing my observation on my own anecdotal data, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that "the fizz is back in Champagne sales." (In light of this recent post, it's worth noting that favorable pricing we're seeing here in Texas may be the result of Texas-based distributors offering deeper discounts as sales pick up again.)
The bad -- well, not so good -- news is that Champagne still ain't cheap. It doesn't need to break the bank, but I'm setting $60 as the price ceiling for our Champagne shopping this year.
And, folks, I have to be honest here: As much as I love traditional-method wines made outside Champagne -- like Franciacorta and Trento Metodo Classico from Italy and Saumur Crémant from the Loire Valley, France -- there simply is no substitute for Champagne.
It's true that "traditional method" wines are made using the same méthode champenoise that was developed and perfected in Champagne. (In Europe, only Champagne producers are allowed to write méthode champenoise and Champagne on the label; beyond Europe's borders, winemakers are not subject to this restriction and sadly, many unscrupulous producers label their wines as champagne or champagne method).
And it's also true that Champagne is not alone in its ability to deliver superb sparkling wine.
But Champagne is Champagne: It is tradition, it is the unique identity and style of each domaine, it is history, and it is brand recognition (yes, that's important, too!).
Climatically, geologically, and topographically, Champagne stands apart as a unique terroir that produces acid-driven wines with nuanced flavors and aromas. But it also represents a historic approach to winemaking and wine marketing that stands alone in our psyche: It is the wine of the Czars of Russia, the wine of the Royal Court of the United Kingdom, the wine that Kate and William drank at their wedding... and it is one of James Bond's favorites.
"Bollinger?" asks Bond when he sees that CIA agent Holly Goodhead has chilled some Champagne for him in Moonraker (1979), "if it's '69, you were expecting me."
It is a wine that transcends its purely vinous state. It's one of the ultimate expressions of hedonism. It's the wine we reach for when we want to celebrate a momentous event in our lives (like marriage or the birth of a child). And it's the wine we drink on New Year's Eve.
There is so much great wine out there and I can't emphasize enough how important it is to develop a relationship with your salesperson when selecting a wine like Champagne for New Year's. (If you don't have a relationship with your salesperson, now is a great place to start.) Nearly every retailer will be offering specials deals, and nearly every one will have a special allocation stashed away (Selosse, anyone?). Here are my top five picks for Champagnes under $60 readily available in the Houston market.
5. Taittinger Brut La Française - When people talk about Taittinger, they use descriptors like "creamy" and "soft fruit." You can find this wine for as low as $35 in the Houston market. A great price for a delicious, food-friendly wine.
4. Henriot Brut Souverain - When I taste Henriot, I expect freshness, crispness, and vibrant citrus and red fruit. It's one of the Champagnes we reach for when we need a pairing for a meal of "small plates," tapas, or cicheti. You'll find it in Houston for under $40.
3. Ruinart Blanc de Blanc Brut - Blanc de Blancs or white from whites denotes a Champagne made from 100 percent Chardonnay (Pinot Noir is the predominant grape in Champagne). I love the freshness and nuanced minerality of this wine. You'll find it for around $45 in Houston (one of the greatest values from the appellation).
2. Gaston-Chiquet Brut Tradition - This is one of the many "grower" Champagnes that have begun to reach our market and is probably the easiest to find. It's part of an expanding movement of small farmers who have begun bottling their own wine in the appellation instead of selling their fruit to the big houses. Freshness, acidity, and nuanced white fruit, melon, and minerality. One of our favorites. You should find it for under $55.
1. Bollinger - What can I say? Bollinger is our all-time favorite house. We drank this toasty, yeasty wine at our wedding. We drink it every year for New Year's. I even wrote a song about it. I wish we could afford the Grande Année (vintage designated) and RD (recently disgorged) bottlings. But for under $60, we splurge on the Special Cuvée a few times a year.
Please keep in mind: These are just a handful of the Champagnes that we like and regularly drink. But there are so many delicious wines out there. And when it comes to price point, the sky is the limit. Please visit your favorite wine shop and if you don't already have a relationship with your salesperson, don't hesitate to ask for the shop's Champagne Specialist.
Check out our other 2011 holiday gift guides: