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.)
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.
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."
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 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
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.
N.V.-Scharffenberger, Pacific Echo, Rosé, $22.99 at Whole Foods: An American beauty
Iron Horse Rosé, $25.79 at Richard's: America's best rosé
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé First Cru N.V., $27.99 at Spec's: 100 percent pinot noir, a great value
Lanson Brut Rosé N.V., $42.99 at Whole Foods: Toasty and complex
Taittinger Cuvée Prestige Rosé, $43.79 at Spec's: A real stunner
These sparkling wines are made in regions outside the Champagne district with grape varietals not usually associated with champagne. French Cremants aren't quite as bubbly as champagne, so they don't hold their fizz as long, but they are excellent bargains.
Ackerman Brut Saumur N.V., $10.53 at Spec's: Crisp and clean from the Loire Valley
Willm Cremant d'Alsace, $11.99 at Spec's: Citrus and yeast flavors
Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace, $13.49 at Richard's: Alsatian pinot blanc
Labet Cremant de Bourgogne, $12.99 at Spec's: Chardonnay from Burgundy
Spanish cava, Italian spumante and sparkling wine from other parts of the world can be quite impressive -- especially for the money. Cava, the Spanish variety of sparkling wine, is very much in vogue. It is made by the same labor-intensive method as French champagne, but with grapes native to the east coast of Spain. Some Spanish cava producers use strains of yeast imported from Champagne.
Italian spumante is not very popular lately, but some other Italian sparkling wines from the Trentino region are selling well. The Australians have also gotten into the business lately with a sparkling chardonnay.
Segura Viudas Brut Riserva, $7.99 at Spec's: A good Spanish cava
Cristalino Cava Brut, $7.99 at Whole Foods: Another quality cava
Rotari Brut Arte, $8.89 at Richard's: Italian sparkler made with the Champagne method
Marques de Gelida, $9.48 at Spec's: A step up in Spanish cavas
Albet i Noya Cava 1995, $13.27 at Spec's: A top cava with real depth and complexity
Banrock Station Sparkling Chardonnay, $9.99 at Whole Foods: Straight from Down Under
Blanc de blancs: Literally "white from whites," which, in Champagne, means 100 percent chardonnay.
Blanc de noirs: "White from blacks," a white wine made with a dark grape. In Champagne the dark grapes are pinot noir and pinot meunier.
Brut: It literally means "natural," but in the case of champagne, it really means dry. Brut is drier than "extra dry."
Charmat bulk process: A process to make less expensive sparkling wine by speeding up the traditional champagne production method.
Méthode champenoise: Made by the expensive champagne process.
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Cremant: French sparkling wines, generally with fewer bubbles (about two-thirds the pressure of champagne) produced outside of the Champagne region.
Cuvée: The blend of wines used to make a champagne.
N.V. or nonvintage: Champagnes made by blending wines produced in several different years. Nonvintage champagnes are consistent in taste from year to year.
Vintage: Champagnes made from wines produced in a single exceptional year. These vary widely in character from one vintage to another.