Revolutionary changes in the Champagne world have come with astonishing speed. Even five years ago, grower Champagne—wine made by the same farmer who grows the grapes—was still remarked on with a whiff of the esoteric, as though drinking them was a whimsical departure from the routine of grandes marques, those big-name brands like Moët, Veuve Clicquot and the like.
While change has been rapid, the seeds were sown long ago. The years of hard work by advocates of small-scale Champagne have finally paid off; it’s now the exception to find a wine list at an important restaurant where Champagnes made by small producers don’t at least rival, if not dominate, their big-time counterparts. Indeed, we’ve evolved to a place where the discussion of Champagne is no longer really grower versus big house, or more virtuous modes of farming or the dosage (a bit of added sugar) used in the wines. Those things, as Peter Liem puts it in his extraordinary new book, Champagne, “are reflective of a larger transformation, which is, rather simply, the acknowledgment of champagne as a wine like any other.”
That we can taper some of the facile rhetoric that surrounds Champagne—did somebody say celebrate?—and talk about it as real wine is a crucial change. Still, this is the time of the year when we set our minds to fizzy things. And frankly, there’s no reason that we can’t exult in Champagne for its unadorned, true charms—and still love it for its festive side.
With that in mind, we set out to do a holiday Crib Sheet that could manage both. We set a price cap of $50 for bottles to taste, which raises a side issue that comes along with thinking of Champagne as real wine: Along with the rise in single-parcel and small-production wines has come at least a modest bump in prices, especially among those small producers. Among other things, it’s fair to blame the weakening dollar, worth nearly 12 percent less against the euro than at the beginning of 2017. But it’s also the inevitable result of demanding specificity and siding with artisanship over industry. (Big Champagne houses can cut their margins far more easily than individual producers.)
Certainly $50 still buys you a lot of wine—or should. Our price cap put a few of our favorite wines off limits, and in many cases we opted to taste producers’ nonvintage or blended cuvées. But frankly I was impressed at how much is available at that price: distinctive, expressive Champagnes that fulfill the modern mandate of being real wine as well as Champagne. We would have had a much shorter list even a few years ago. And even though I occasionally worry that we’ve exceeded Peak Grower Champagne, with importers clamoring to sign up every new name that appears in the right Paris wine bars, the net result is unwaveringly positive. There’s a bounty now available.
As to exactly which you’ll like, that too has become a more complex question. Even the big Champagne houses have always had a diversity of styles, although I suspect most people were Clicquot or Pol Roger partisans more out of habit than taste. But that spectrum of styles and flavors has been exploded, which means that we as Champagne consumers also have to do more work to figure out what we like.
I take that, again, as a good thing—not least because it’s an excuse to drink more Champagne, which anyone should do as often as their means allow. But also because it’s a valuable exercise in discovering your own tastes, guided now by the specifics of these various wines rather than a vague brand allegiance.
In any case, all these wines would make fantastic choices to serve through the holidays—and we’ve tried to highlight different wines for different purposes. But they all serve the larger goal of demonstrating how exceptional and diverse Champagne has become today, while also allowing us to, yes, celebrate just a bit.
NOTE: All these wines are nonvintage, although we’ve marked disgorgement dates and other information where available.
These bottles will take you through any of your holiday needs, from casual parties to formal dinners. They can frequently be found around $40 or less, which makes them affordable if you’re buying by the case.
Geoffroy Expression Brut Premier Cru Champagne
Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy makes some dramatic Champagnes from exceptional terroir, including the towns of Cumières and Hautvillers. While his reputation was earned on wines like the unique Rosé de Saignée, the entry-level Expression is the also result of a lot of careful work and attention: a mix of Champagne’s three essential grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay) with three years of aging. The style here is subtle, with warm chardonnay flavors of pear compote reined in by an acid-driven tension and chalky mineral aspect. It’s quiet, but that quiet side rewards those who want nuance in their bubbles.
Moutard Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne
The Moutard family does its work under the radar in Buxeuil, at the very southern tip of Champagne, in the ever-popular Aube region. Perhaps because the Aube’s fame hinges on iconoclast producers, these wines are often overlooked, but they deliver something we could use more of: nonvintage bottlings that serve as utility players, for when you need several bottles without geeking out. Even their basic brut is still precise, with ripe fig fruit and a softness to the texture from ample dosage.
See also: Aubry Fils Brut
A Light Touch
Some Champagnes are meant to be big and dramatic; others are subtle enough that they shine best at the start of an evening—for a first glass, or with hors d’oeuvres. You won’t find the rich, toasty side of Champagne here—just unadorned minerality and fresh fruit.
Christophe Mignon Brut Nature Pur Meunier Champagne
Mignon works on the lesser known southern bank of the Marne Valley, specializing in pinot meunier, a grape being elevated from its onetime reputation of lesser status, thanks to Mignon and counterparts like Jérôme Prévost. Here, the pure, finessed side of meunier is on display, with lacy flavors—lots of green fruit (greengage plum, quince) and a delicacy to it.
Pierre Gerbais Cuvée de Reserve Champagne
Young Aurélien Gerbais is one of the emerging stars of the Aube, elevating his family’s property with wines that are distinctly lean and mineral, often showing a flinty aspect indicative of their location not far from Chablis. That’s on display here, along with a pleasing lemon-tea astringency that keeps things fresh.
See also: J. Vignier, A. Margaine Le Brut Premier Cru
With Your Meal
While some Champagnes fare best on their own, others are more forceful and distinctive in their flavors. These often are the ones to pair with food, as they enhance spices and savory flavors on the plate.
R. Pouillon & Fils Réserve Champagne Brut
Fabrice Pouillon is one of the emerging stars in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a town known for generally powerful wines thanks to extra ripeness from its south-facing position on the Marne. His Reserve has that, but it also matches riper pinot noir flavors with a certain chardonnay-like creaminess—a product of malolactic conversion (a rarity in Champagne). That’s balanced by a subtle chalky bite, and added complexity from 30 percent older reserve wine. While it’s mostly made from red grapes, consider it in place of a rich chardonnay with scallop dishes and the like. (Lot CR1611)
Bourgeois-Diaz 3C Brut Champagne
Jérôme Bourgeois-Diaz’s family has been farming in Crouttes-sur-Marne, at the far western edge of Champagne (nearest to Paris, and just west of Meaux, whence comes classic Brie) for four generations. Lately he’s converted their land into biodynamic farming, and his wines are a great snapshot of a little-known area of Champagne. 3C is his blend of the region’s three major grapes (“cépages”) and despite more than three years of aging, it’s lean, fresh and steely—with lots of raspberry ice and celery water, and yet also a surprising muscle to its flavors. Just right for more intense foods. (Disgorged March 2017)
Huré Frères Invitation Brut Champagne
Pierre and François Huré farm in Ludes, just south of the city of Reims, and they find a wonderfully fine-boned expression of red fruit (pinot noir and meunier) that’s more subtle than the often powerful wines of neighbors like Raphaël Bérèche. There’s a spicy distinction here: kelp, toasted rice, white nectarine and more minerality than obvious fruit. Here, indeed, is sushi Champagne.
See also: R.H. Coutier Brut Rosé
These wines pack an awful lot into bottles that reasonably could be much more expensive.
NV (2012) Pierre Paillard Les Parcelles Bouzy Grand Cru Extra Brut Champagne
Bouzy is home to arguably the most powerful pinot noir in Champagne (although this is 40 percent chardonnay) and the Paillard brothers skillfully harness a goes-to-eleven terroir. This is kick-ass stuff, with an almost overpowering intensity of spice—Szechuan pepper, black mustard—and a stoicism. Firm and almost tannic in its bite, with no sign of that opulent yeasty side to Champagne—just clean, precisely etched mineral and fruit. (Disgorged February 2017)
Moussé Fils L’Extra Or D’Eugène Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut Champagne
Like Mignon, Cédric Moussé is on a quest to elevate the virtues of pinot meunier, in his case from Cuisles, a village with curious (for Champagne) soils like sand and illite clay in a side valley west of Epernay. The Extra is mostly meunier, a long-aged version of his basic wine, given 48 months on its lees. And that time has given it a generosity: a lot of plushness for usually happy-go-lucky meunier, with miso and blackcurrant, and a spicy side from the unusual soils. It’s almost brothy in its way, savory and brooding and full of umami.
Val Frison Goustan Blanc de Noirs Brut Nature Champagne
Valerie Frison is one of the top talents in the Côte des Bar part of the Aube, in Champagne’s great south. She farms organically in Ville-Sur-Arce—tending vines that once serviced négociants and the local co-op. Pinot noir is her specialty, and the Goustan (this one from the 2014 vintage) is fermented in old barrels and bottled without dosage. It’s the best of that flair you find in the Aube: super precise and very pinot in its flavors, with notes of poppy seed and sarsaparilla, and chewy plum fruit, enhanced by a fine-boned mineral aspect. The precision is a perfect example of how no-dosage wines, which can lean toward severity, can be finessed. (Disgorged October 2016)