I love Champagne — the way it smells, tastes, and bubbles up while I’m enjoying a nice full glass. As we stride toward the time of year (and what a year) when Americans consume the most Champagne, there are decisions to be made, should we all be so lucky: namely, which bottle to pick?
Champagne’s legacy of luxury and connection to upper-class marketing has created a worldwide industry distributing 300 million bottles a year. It’s also resulted in a good deal of confusion and opacity when it comes to choosing what to drink. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this reality, doing away with public tastings, wine bar shindigs, and the dreaded (but occasionally fruitful) inter-office exchange. Now, choosing what to accompany a Christmas dinner at home or a 2020 New Year’s Eve sendoff (also at home) can feel like a shot in the dark. My suggestion for ease of enjoyment? Start with a smart bottle from one of the great Champagne houses.
For centuries, power and money in the Champagne region have flowed through the big Champagne houses (sometimes called Grande Marques), many of which are household names: Veuve, Dom, Roederer’s rap-famous “Cristal” bottling, and so on. French luxury multinational LVMH typifies a modern take on this, formed in the ’80s upon the merger of iconic French fashion label Louis Vuitton with Champagne house Moet & Chandon, which in the 1970s acquired the cognac producer Hennessey.
But the wines produced by these houses have been snubbed over the last decade by a certain kind of drinker, typically younger, relatively new to wine, and predisposed to drinking natural wines first and foremost. I’ve been guilty of this very thing, having gravitated far more toward so-called “grower Champagnes,” humbler bottlings (in production scale, not necessarily price) in which the wines are produced by the estate that grows the grapes. By contrast, the bigger Champagne houses might source the fruit for the wines from dozens, or even hundreds of individual growers across the Champagne region, blending them together under the careful guidance of a chef de cave, a term that denotes the head winemaker and cellarmaster in charge of the whole operation.
Indie and natty they aren’t, but for pure drinking pleasure I’m convinced many house Champagnes are due for a reappraisal by anyone who likes a good glass of something nice — after all, marketing isn’t the only reason these wines are enjoyed by millions. For a drinker easing themselves into the decision-making process, it’s helpful to start by focusing on a handful of firms and their entry-level offerings, typically described as “non-vintage” (NV), meaning that they’re made from grapes across multiple years of harvest (sometimes also denoted as “reserve,” depending on the house). These house Champagnes represent a broad range of prices, each one readily available in the U.S. market.
Suffice it to say that Champagne is not for everyone this year; such is the weight of the world we inhabit. At the same time, I think there is an understandable and very human impulse behind the desire to find comfort and celebration in the relative safety of a sturdy bottle. If you’ve got the means and bandwidth to think about enjoying a bottle of Champagne this holiday season, there’s ample cause to say cheers. Here’s to a little light in the darkness.
The Champagne You’ll Definitely Run Into Is Actually Pretty Good
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label
It’s not possible to really engage with the world of Champagne houses without confronting the phenomenon of Yellow Label Veuve. Thanks to its near-total market saturation, Veuve overtook Moet in 2013 as the most widely consumed Champagne in North America. LVMH sells 1.5 million cases of Veuve each year across the brand’s various bottlings, and a cool 400,000 of these are sold to the United States, a considerable majority of which is Yellow Label. It is a global product, like Coca-Cola or Guinness beer.
There’s a good reason for that. This wine is made to a precise formula, unvarying from year to year and bottled with the inclusion of Veuve’s vast collection of reserve wines, blended into Yellow Label to ensure consistency. Yellow Label gets 10 grams of dosage, and is composed of grapes from more than 60 parcels across Champagne.
For the price, there may be more interesting wines on the market, but if your heart is set on Veuve, or it’s one of the few Champagnes available where you live, I certainly understand (especially if you’ve been pulled in by one of Veuve’s flashy seasonal boxes). There is no other wine that tastes quite like it. And about that price: Yellow Label Veuve can run close to $60 or as low as $39, depending on where and when you make your purchase. I recommend checking different shops (including grocery and big-box retail) in your area for pricing. It’s the same stuff in the bottle, no matter where you buy it.
The Best Cheap Champagne
André Clouet Brut Grand Reserve
“Budget” Champagnes are often kind of disappointing, but for the price (as low as $33 at some retailers), the entry-level wines of André Clouet punch above their bracket. Clouet’s Brut Grand Reserve is 100 percent pinot noir sourced from vineyards surrounding the famed Champagne villages of Bouzy and Ambonnay. It receives just six grams of dosage, which refers to the sugar added into Champagne at bottling to balance acidity and promote longevity.
In the glass, you’ll taste a drying, green plum malic acidity and unmistakable Champagne crispness. There’s red fruit here, as well as strawberry and Anjou pear, which makes sense — you are drinking Champagne made entirely from red grapes, after all. A portion of the wines in this blend spend time in Sauternes barrels, a style of sweet white wine from Bordeaux, which imparts pleasant thoughts of honey and pie crust. If Christmas gatherings were a thing this year, it would make a fine party favor.
The Most Versatile $40 Bottle of Champagne
Gosset Brut Excellence
Many Champagne houses have cred that goes back 100 or even 200 years, and then there is Gosset, in business since 1584. Gosset is located in the village of Ay, and was family owned for more than 400 years until being sold in the early ’90s to Renaud Cointreau, whose portfolio of French products includes cognacs, liqueurs, and ratafia.
This is a really fine Champagne for the price, offering an approachable, aperitif-style drinking experience — think Campari and jasmine tea — balanced with crisp freshness and a whiff of chimney smoke. Traditionally Gosset was known for not allowing any malolactic fermentation in the winemaking process, but this began to change around a decade ago, specifically for the Excellence bottling, the house’s entry-level cuvee. This promotes a softer, rounder experience, and results in a more accessible and easy-drinking wine. Around 30,000 cases are made each year, typically consisting of three parts pinot noir to two parts chardonnay, with a dash of meunier thrown in for weight, although this ratio changes between releases.
There is not a tremendous amount of hype or buzz around Gosset. Though owned by a conglomerate, Gosset’s marketing footprint and bottle design are decidedly measured — understated, even. Think of that no-nonsense approach as a virtue, especially when backed up by a product of such high quality. More than perhaps any other wine in Champagne, Gosset is highly versatile and cruises effortlessly across whatever activities you have planned for the holiday season, particularly if they include television, Thai food, and a second glass.
House Champagne for People Who Don’t Think They Like House Champagne
Pol Roger Reserve
I adore the house Pol Roger, a wine long synonymous with England thanks to a history of exporting wines in a brut style, with minimum dosage, favored by U.K. drinkers. The house is still family owned, now in its fifth generation of production, and proudly sports its association with Sir Winston Churchill, who was an eager ambassador for the brand and even named one of his racehorses after it.
I think the entry level Pol Roger, known as “Reserve,” is one of the most elegant and refined NV Champagnes you can buy at any price. Pol Roger, like Roederer, straddles the line between grower and house, with more than half of the wines it makes coming from the firm’s own 93 hectares of vineyards. Every bottle is riddled by hand (“riddling” is the process of carefully turning a bottle of Champagne to collect sediment in the neck), and the wine is made of equal parts pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay, undergoing malocatic fermentation and fermented entirely in stainless steel — there are no barrels at Pol Roger. A quarter of the bottling is made from reserve wines, held back from proceeding vintages, and each bottle ages a full four years on the lees before release.
Understatement and finesse are the watchwords here, owing to Pol Roger’s unusually long respite in the house cellar before public release. Both ripe and fresh, this wine balances deep red fruits with ginger zip and buttered toast. If I could only drink one house Champagne for the rest of my life, this would be it. Pair with binge-watching the latest season of The Crown, or, if that’s already exhausted, The Great British Baking Show.
The Best House Champagne to Gift to Wine Geeks
You might almost forget this was coming from a Champagne house; Jacquesson gives off big grower Champagne vibes, and feels more like the work of focused individuals — the Chiquet brothers, who have overseen the house since the 1980s — than some vast megacorp. Among wine writers, somms, and bottle shop owners, Jacquesson has a certain kind of wine geek cachet, for both the annual numbered releases and the house’s limited-edition single-vineyard bottlings (lieu-dit), which are far more expensive.
For the year 2000 vintage, Jacquesson retired its NV “Perfection Brut” bottling in favor of an ever-changing numbered cuvee based on individual vintage years. The first release was 728; we are now up to 742, a wine built from the 2014 vintage made up of roughly 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay, receiving a scant 1.5 grams per liter of dosage.
At $70, give or take, the wine had better be awesome, and Jacquesson 742 definitely is. There’s a ton of richness in this wine, a kind of marzipan praline thing that reminds me of a Manhattan candied-street-nut vendor, but offset by a big splash of herbal tea: chamomile, dried carrot, and especially mint tea, like how they serve it at cafes in Europe, full up to the brim of the mug with hot water.
If you’re giving Champagne as a gift this year, 742 would make an especially fine one. This wine can happily be drunk immediately, but it can also hang out for the next special occasion, or be forgotten by the recipient over the next several years — it’s built to age and will only grow more complex and complete with time.
The Splurge That’s Well Worth It
There is an undeniable mystique around Krug, one of the best-known wine labels on the planet, Champagne or otherwise. Though the house does offer a range of single-vineyard and single-year vintage wines, it is the non-vintage Grande Cuvee for which it is rightly famous. Make no mistake: This is not an entry-level wine, with prices starting at around $160, or $78 for the half-bottle. Each modern Krug comes marked with a Krug ID on the back of the label, which allows you to quickly look up what you’re drinking and learn more about its composition. I recently tried a bottle from the 168th edition of Krug Grand Reserve, “a blend of over 120 individual wines from more than 10 different years,” per Krug ID. This particular release is a blend of dominant pinot noir (53 percent), alongside chardonnay (35 percent) and pinot meunier (13 percent).
In the glass, this wine is deeply structured and muscular, like drinking really good white Burgundy or classy California chardonnay. Wine lovers will go on and on about Krug’s finesse, balance, depth, piquant measured sweetness, and long finish. More casual drinkers might be just as happy with a bottle half the price. For what it’s worth, I think Krug is better than Dom, better than Cristal even (the top-shelf Roederer bottling), and second only to the unscalable heights of Salon for the finest house Champagne in the world. There is no other wine that’s like it. I’m a Krug truther, especially if you’re buying.
Jordan Michelman is a 2020 James Beard Award winner for journalism, and a 2020 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards shortlist in the Emerging Wine Writer category.