The French invented Champagne and I think we owe it to ourselves to revisit the source for our most special occasions, like the December holidays — and maybe a random Tuesday in January when those credit card bills roll in. Oceans of excellent French fizz have washed into Mobile Bay and, believe it or not, you can enjoy most of them without exacerbating your January credit situation. There may not be any priced less than $10, but holidays with family and friends deserve a bit better — don’t ‘cha think?
I’ve got a list of reputable recommendations after a few instructive explications. Champagne, as we know, is a legally protected word denoting sparkling wine made in a strictly defined region of north-central France. It’s traditionally made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes — either blended or bottled individually (an all-Chardonnay Champagne is a “blanc de blancs,” for example). It comes in a variety of sweetness, ranging from ultra-dry “zéro dosage” or “brut nature,” through brut and extra dry (brut is drier than extra dry) and on to demi-sec, moelleux and doux (half-dry, tender and sweet, respectively). Demi-sec is too sweet for me and doux belongs on pancakes, but you can ignore my glib generalizations if you like sweeter wines or want a decadent dessert fizz.
All Champagnes are further labeled in two broad categories: vintage and non-vintage. “Vintage” simply means the vintners decided their Champagne was good enough to attach a year to it. This tradition started eons ago, when Champagne makers would harvest their grapes, make their wine and then taste it to collectively determine whether it was good enough for the region to “declare a vintage.” If so, they’d print the harvest year on the Champagne’s label. (These days, Champagne houses tend to decide individually whether to declare a vintage.)
“Vintage Champagne” does not, therefore, mean “old Champagne;” it can mean “better Champagne” because it’s worthy of having its harvest-year called out. Non-vintage (NV) Champagne, on the other hand, is decent — often very good — wine, but either is deemed not sufficiently special to warrant citing its year or is a blend of wines from various years, formulated to maintain a consistent house style. (Remember that “better” can be relative. Krug, which is to Champagne what Maserati is to cars, sells NV fizz for $150 a bottle and you can bet it’s better than some vintners’ vintage bubblies.)
Crémants are sparkling wines made in eight regions of France outside Champagne, and can be outstanding fizzes with budget-friendly prices (you don’t have to go to Tiffany’s to buy a flawless diamond, after all). Crémants usually name their region of origin on their labels, as with Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant du Jura (Crémants from the Burgundy, Alsace or Jura regions, respectively). They are more often non-vintage wines, generally made in accordance with the “Champagne method” and in a range of sweetness from brut to doux. Crémants may also be produced from grapes prominent in their region — such as Riesling in Alsace — rather than exclusively from traditional “Champagne grapes.”
For your festive shopping, let’s start with Duval-Leroy Classic Brut NV Champagne — a true Champagne from the region’s southern quadrant, comprising as many as 15 different Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based wines from a year’s new harvests, as well as wine reserved from several prior years. It’s the color of 10-karat gold with well-distributed bubbles rising throughout the glass and citrusy aromas popping above the rim. Among its flavor layers are toast and raisin, but don’t mistake “raisin” for “sweet,” because this is a dry, palate-cleansing fizz with mouth-watering acidity. Drink it alone or with lighter meats like chicken or fish. (Available at Domke Market and other local wine shops; 12 percent ABV; $40-$45.)
My second choice is Henri Abelé NV Brut, another true Champagne made in Reims since 1757. It has everything you’d want in a fine glass of fizz, with silky harmonious flavors — not shouting one thing or another. Fruit and toast and honey are perfectly melded. It has loads of tiny bubbles and a rich body — so you can drink it solo or with appetizers or seafood (such as caviar, which happily sits in both food groups). Some folks claim Champagne gives them a headache, but I’d virtually guarantee you no morning-after regret from this bubbly. (Available at various local wine shops; 12 percent ABV; $45-$49.)
Next up is Domaine Hubert Clavelin “Brut-Comté” NV Crémant du Jura, from an eastern region of France whose name is more often associated with Alps and cheese. That doesn’t stop this 100 percent Chardonnay fizz from excelling, though, with soft fragrances of ripe peach and gentle little bubbles. Its pear and red-apple flavors linger longer than with some Champagnes, probably because its bubbles don’t scrub. I’m thinking it’s a good partner for lightly battered fried shrimp — hold the sauce. (Available at wine shops on both sides of the Bay; 12 percent ABV; $20-ish.)
In the rosé category, I like Louis Bouillot’s “Perle d’Aurore” NV Rosé Crémant de Bourgogne. It’s a pale-salmon blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir with inviting floral aromas, very fine bubbles and mostly strawberry flavors. This is smooth bubbly, medium bodied, with just enough acidity to be interesting; some folks may find the finish slightly less than dry. Critics have called it everything from “subtle” to “simple,” but I think it’s an accessible, pleasant wine I’d happily invite to any party.
Louis Bouillot also makes a “Perle d’Ivoire” NV Blanc de Blancs, blended from 95 percent Chardonnay and 5 percent Bourgogne Aligoté grapes grown in northern Burgundy, near the town of Chablis. An all-white-grape composition gives this fizz a crisper, more minerally quality with predominantly citrus and green-apple flavors. It’s fresh and bright, but substantial — not sour. The fact that it’s aged 24 months before release tells you it’s a serious wine, and a great value. (Louis Bouillot’s bubblies are widely available at “big box” stores — that is, the store is a “big box,” the wine doesn’t come in one — on line and at wine shops; 12 percent ABV; $15-$20, depending.)