Let’s explore Champagne! There are so many Champagne producers out there… in what may be a lofty goal, I’m doing my best to work my way through them all 😊!
In previous blog posts we’ve looked at what can influence the final product in the bottle: big Champagne house vs. small grower-producer, the type of grape(s) used, vintage vs. non-vintage, dry, off-dry and sweet levels and the meaning of Premier Cru and Grand Cru for Champagne.
Now it’s time to taste! It’s always good to figure out and know what style you like. For example, I love bubbly in general and would never say no if someone offered me a glass of bubbly, but I do have my preferences. When I’m getting a bottle for myself, I gravitate to what I like, as we all do. With that in mind, I’ve categorized the Champagne ranging from delicate and elegant, to rich and creamy to toasted brioche.
I’ve started out with some of the Top Sellers in the Market, Champagnes that are easy to find at retail stores, restaurants and online. Each are categorized based on their taste profile. You can use this as a guide and once you find ones you like, you can try some others that are similar which I’ve included in the next sections Stellar and Cellar (my go-to for a special occasion AND they over-deliver for their price point!) and Favorite Selections (Champagnes that have stood out to me consistently).
I hope this will be a good reference on Champagne selections and will continue to add more recommendations here over time.
Top Sellers in the Market
Here are Champagnes that are easy to find at retail stores, restaurants and online. I’ve categorized them from in order from delicate and elegant to rich and creamy and toasted brioche.
Note: these are all NV (non-vintage) which represent a Champagne house’s style. They are made to be consistent year in and year out.
Tasting Tip: If you find a NV Champagne you like, you know you can buy this NV Champagne from the same producer year-in and year-out and get the same flavor profile!
On the Lighter Side
In this category, we have Champagne that are lighter in texture, delicate with fruit and some nuttiness. I’ve arranged them in terms of body, from the lightest first then progressively more body. However, they are all on the lighter, more delicate side of the spectrum. These Champagne are great at the start of an evening.
Delicate, Elegant and Feminine
NV Perrier Jouet Grand Brut (SRP $46.99) – Their branding and labeling speaks for itself. On the label you will find a flourish of flowers which embodies this Champagne – it is feminine, delicate, elegant and fresh.
(90 pts Wine Spectator)
Delicate Fruit with a Hint of Nuttiness
NV Nicolas Feuillatte, Brut Reserve (SRP $39.99) – light in texture, with flavors of apple, chopped almonds, candied violets and a scant hint of minerality.
(91 pts Wine Spectator)
NV Moët et Chandon Imperial Brut (SRP $49.99) – candied apples, baked pears, tangerine and lemon meringue, light to medium-bodied with fine bubbles on the palate.
(90 pts Wine Spectator, 90 pts Vinous / Antonio Galloni)
Fruit, Citrus and a Hint of Toastiness and Smokiness
NV Taittinger, Brut La Française, Champagne, France (SRP $54.99) – yellow apples, black cherry, lemon custard with grapefruit on the finish as well as a hint of smokiness and just a touch of toastiness as it warms up.
(90 pts Wine Spectator)
Lively (and Then Some)
The “lively” in this category showcases brightness and liveliness, something that to me translates to a POP on the palate. This would typically be associated with acidity. The “and Then Some” for this category means there is more than just the acidity. In the two examples below they are a touch of toastiness in flavor or creaminess in texture.
Bright and Crisp with Lively Acidity
NV Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Champagne, France (SRP $53.99) – This is one of my favorite Champagnes. I’ve even seen it priced at $39.99 so keep a lookout! It’s crisp, vibrant, elegant and has just a touch of toastiness.
(92 pts Wine Enthusiast, 92 pts Wine Spectator, 91 pts Wine & Spirits, 90 pts Robert Parker)
Great Balance of Creaminess, Brightness and Liveliness
NV Billecart-Salmon Brut (SRP $49.99) – I always enjoy this Champagne. It has just the right amount of creaminess, brightness and liveliness. I had recently been in Aspen looking for food when I saw this on the happy hour menu at Jimmy’s Bodega and instantly knew this was the place for us. We paired it with their Tuna Tartare (sesame ginger vinaigrette, green onion, red tobiko, wonton crisps) and Salmon Crudo (jalapeño emulsion, lemon zest, shallots, cilantro, radishes, housemade potato chips) and it was fantastic! So good we went back one more time for another round during our stay.
(92 pts James Suckling, 91 pts Wine & Spirits, 91 pts Wine Spectator, 90 pts Wine Enthusiast)
On the Bolder Side
Champagnes in this category are definitely bolder and more masculine. Great to pair with a main course.
NV Henriot Brut Souverain, Champagne, France (SRP $49.99) – This Champagne is a bolder style and also a great crowd pleaser.
(94 pts Wine Enthusiast, 91 pts James Suckling, 90 pts Vinous, 90 pts Wine Spectator)
On the Richer Side
Here are Champagne that are richer and creamier and some that have that toasted brioche or fresh baked bread flavors aka autolytic* flavors (more on that below).
Fruit and Creaminess
NV Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label, Champagne, France (SRP $55.99) – You cannot go wrong with this. As a gift or for yourself, it’s always crowd pleaser! The flavor is concentrated, lots of fruit, great creamy texture and a touch of that fresh baked bread (see autolytic* flavors below)
(90 pts Wine Spectator)
Toasted Brioche or Fresh Baked Bread – Autolytic* flavors
*What do we mean when we say autolytic flavor? All Champagne is produced by taking a still wine and introducing a second fermentation in the bottle by adding sugar and yeast. One of by-products of this chemical reaction is CO2 which is where we get those bubbles we love. After the fermentation is complete we are left with the lees, aka the dead yeast cells. Yes, at first that doesn’t sound appetizing, however this is what imparts what we refer to as autolytic flavor. Imagine fresh baked bread right out of the oven that you pull apart and you smell the steam that escapes from the soft center. Or toasted brioche that is buttery rich with a hint of nuttiness. The longer the Champagne ages on the lees, the more pronounced the autolytic flavor.
NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut, Champagne, NM (SRP $49.99) – Rich and full-bodied, with flavors of ripe pears and fresh baked bread.
(92 pts Wine Spectator, 90 pts Wine Enthusiast, 90 pts Wine & Spirits)
If you have found some favorites from the categories above, see what other Champagnes are similar in the next two sections: Steller and Cellar Bubbly and Favorite Selections.
Stellar and Cellar Bubbly!
As the name implies, these are stellar Champagnes and ones I stock in my “cellar”! 😊 They are my favorites for a special occasion or for a special gift.
Not surprisingly, they are also wines I selected for the bottle list at the wine bistro since they are a little harder to find and they over-deliver for their price point.
Lively and Then Some
NV Pierre Gimonnet, Brut 1er Cru Cuis, Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France (SRP $49.99) – In my first year as a wine buyer I attended a trade tasting consisting solely of sparkling wine, over 95% of them were Champagne. I tasted 63 sparkling wines that day and didn’t even taste everything! Sure, the most expensive Champagnes are going to be delicious, however, I was looking for something that was delicious and at a great price point. I selected 3 Champagnes heading in to the holiday season that year, and this by far was my favorite. So much so, this is what I had on my birthday the following year! And has become a bit of a tradition to open for birthdays and other special occasions! The aroma consists of apples and a slight nuttiness, it is bright on the palate which makes its body seem light, yet it has a steely strength. It has a refreshing and long finish with both minerality and a touch of bread dough. (tasted 10/3/13, 5/3/14, 7/21/15, 1/16/16, 9/23/17)
Beautiful Red Fruit
This wasn’t a category earlier, but Rosé Champagne can exhibit beautiful red fruit characteristics such as strawberry, raspberry and cherry.
NV Henriot, Rosé Brut, Champagne, France, NM (SRP $69.99) – This is my favorite bubbly Rosé. I continuously taste this bubbly Rosé against all others and hands down, I still love this one. It has bright red fruit with the right amount of creaminess and is full of flavor. (tasted 9/28/15, 9/26/16)
Rich, Creamy and Autolytic
NV Charles Heidseick, Brut Reserve, Champagne, France, NM (SRP $58.99 – $ 69.99) – I love this Champagne! They use reserve wines when producing this Champagne which gives it an incredible richness. It has a gorgeous toasty brioche flavor. When it comes to autolytic flavor, this is it! The body is full and the finish is long. This Champagne over-delivers for its price point and I would select this time and time again. When I want to give a special occasion gift, such as a college graduation gift, this is what I select. (tasted 9/28/15, 9/26/16, 9/25/17)
Winemaker notes: “A multi-vintage worthy of a prestige cuvée. COMPLEX: a particular blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. PRECISE: a judicious selection of approximately 60 crus. UNCTUOUS: 40% of reserve wines, many of them more than 10 years old. DEEP: a maturation of more than 3 years in Gallo-Roman chalk cellars. A golden champagne, with persistent effervescence. A nose that is both complex and delicious.”
Here are Champagnes that have stood out to me consistently – some they may be a little bit harder to find and possibly more expensive, but they are great to explore.
As in Top Sellers on the Market, I’ve categorized these particular Champagne based on their style. Many Champagne houses produce more than one offering. Some examples are non-vintage and vintage, varying sweetness levels (Brut Nature, Extra Brut, etc), different vineyard sites (possibly 1er Cru or Grand Cru), different grapes (Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, etc), and Rosé Champagne offerings to name a few. As such, different offerings from a producer may appear in different categories.
On the Lighter Side
Delicate, Elegant and Feminine
NV J. Lassalle, Brut Réserve 1er Cru, Cachet d’Or “Cachet Or” 1er Cru Brut, Champagne, RM – I love the story of this family owned Champagne house established by Jules Lassalle in 1942. When he passed away in 1982, his wife Olga and their daughter Chantal took over the estate. Since 2006, Chantal’s granddaughter is the winemaker, upholding their collective tradition of “une femme, un esprit, un style” (one woman, one spirit, one style). This is their non-vintage house style offering. This Champagne is very pretty, delicate, elegant and feminine. It was also one of the three Champagnes I selected for the wine bar in our first year. We poured it by the glass and I featured it on our Champagne tasting leading up to the holidays. (tasted 9/1/13, 9/18/17)
Winemaking notes: 1/3 Pinot Noir, 1/3 Chardonnay, 1/3 Pinot Meunier, vines 50 years old average, clay and limestone soils, aged 36 months on lees, dosage 9 grams/liter.
These Champagne are crisp and bright with lively acidity. They don’t include the “and then some” aspect so they don’t have that creaminess. These may even seem austere in their crispness. But if you like acidity, these are for you!
2009 Louis Roederer, Brut Nature, NM – As you might expect from a Brut Nature, this has some lively acidity. It is bright, clean and fresh, with some minerality. I first tasted this at the Institute of Masters of Wine Annual Champagne Tasting. A colleague mentioned this would be great with oysters and at another tasting less than a month later I was able to try just that. I had this Champagne at the Wine And Spirits Top 100 tasting and it was right next to the Hog Island Oyster table. The crisp acidity and minerality were perfect with the oysters. Think of squeezing a lemon on an oyster – the acidity in this Champagne is the same idea. (tasted 9/25/17, 10/10/17)
NV G.H. Mumm, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France, NM – lemon creme done well, but definitely has that bright acidity (tasted 9/26/16)
NV Jean Milan, Grand Cru d’Oger, Blanc de Blancs, Extra Brut– Not only is this the best of the Jean Milan I tasted at an event, it is one of the best Champagne I have ever tasted. I always look for wines that are memorable and “pop”. The “pop” typically is from fresh, bright, crisp acidity – what you would expect from an Extra Brut. This Champagne also has a beautiful minerality which is something I also love. (tasted 10/17/16)
Tasting notes from importer Terry Thiese: “This is the “basic” wine of the domain, very dry, redolent (as they say) of seaspray and lemon… it’s lithe and streamlined, cool and oystery and refined; it’s like welcoming an old friend back into your life—I remember you! You look just the same! Some palates will relish its saline cucumber-y dryness.”
Lively and Then Some
NV Jean Vesselle, Brut, Blanc de Noirs, Oeil de Perdrix, Champagne, RM – Floral and elegant. I tasted this Champagne toward the end of the tasting. Even after tasting 70 Champagne, this stood out to me. It was lively, floral and elegant! (tasted 9/28/15)
Pierre Gimonnet et Fils – As you read in the Stellar and Cellar section, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils is one of my favorite Champagne producers. The Gimonnet family has been growing grapes since 1750. Pierre Gimonnet started bottling estate Champagnes in 1935. Today, his grandson Didier Gimonnet directs this estate. I had the pleasure of meeting Didier in person at a tasting in 2014 and just this past week in 2017! All of their offerings have that lively acidity that I love plus that “and Then Some!”. If you like this style, here are some other favorite selections I recommend:
2009 Pierre Gimonnet, “Cuvée Gastronome” Brut, Champagne – if you like their NV Blanc de Blancs Brut 1er Cru Cuis, you’ll love this! (tasted 9/21/15)
2009 Pierre Gimonnet, “Fleuron” Blanc de Blancs Brut, Côtes des Blancs, Champagne, RM – their classic acidity and autolytic flavors – just the right amount of each! (tasted 10/17/16)
2005 Pierre Gimonnet, “Millesime de Collection” Brut, Champagne (MAGNUM) – delicate yet fresh and lively nice bubbles (tasted 9/21/15)
2008 Pierre Gimonnet, “Oenophile” Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, Champagne – limestone and chalk. Didier thought so too! delish! (met him in person!) (tasted 10/27/14)
NV Gaston Chiquet, Blanc de Blancs d’Äy, Brut, Grand Cru, Champagne, France, Vallée de la Marne, Champagne, France – very nice with some vanilla creme (tasted 10/17/16)
2004 Gaston Chiquet, Blanc de Blancs d’Äy, Brut, Grand Cru, Champagne, France – very light and fresh, a good amount of acidity with a hint of oak and the finish is really nice (tasted 10/3/13)
NV Gaston Chicquet, Cuvée de Réserve, Vallée de la Marne, Champagne, France – This is is a nice balance of bright, a touch of creaminess and leesy. (tasted 10/17/16)
Mark Hébrart – I am a huge fan of Marc Hébrart. The entire line-up has that hallmark acidity that I love, but there’s always something more. Of the non-vintage selections, my favorite is the Sélection Brut. As for vintage selections, they are top-notch, high-quality and always an incredible mix of complex flavors that makes them unforgettable.
NV Marc Hébrart, Sélection Brut, Vallée de la Marne, Champagne – Of all the Marc Hébrart line-up I tasted that day, this one just pops! It has quite a bit of bright acidity, but I think that’s what contributes to the pop of that brioche, baked bread, dough and yeast that I love! (tasted 10/17/16). As I walked up to the line-up I was thinking that there is one non-vintage of Marc Hébrart that I consistently like. I tasted the NV Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Brut which was light, delicate good. However, when I saw the bottle for the Sélection Brut, I said, I think this is the one. The person pouring said that he could see why – it is old vines, more lees aging and Pinot Noir dominant. The Pinot Noir makes this Champagne stand out – it is bolder. (tasted 10/23/17)
2009 Marc Hébrart, Special Club Brut, Champagne – This was my favorite of all the Marc Hébrart I tasted this day. A little but of age, on a vintage Special Club no less, and it has the complex flavors you would expect. The acidity is mellow, aromas and flavors of earthy mushrooms and a spectacular long finish. It’s one of those stop, close your eyes and just enjoy it moments. I have a magnum of this myself and am saving it for a special occasion! (tasted 10/27/14)
2008 Marc Hébrart, “Rive Gauche-Rive Droite” Grand Cru Brut, Champagne – I tasted this on 2 separate occasions, about a year apart: Absolutely fabulous. Aging beautifully. Beautiful brightness and wonderful complexity. Incredibly long finish (tasted 10/27/14). Wow! Nutty, almond, complex flavors as it ages! (elegant and bright rum raisin) (tasted 9/21/15)
2010 Marc Hébrart, Special Club Brut, Champagne – Yum!! (tasted 9/28/15)
2008 Marc Hébrart, Special Club Brut, Champagne – Bright, complex and gorgeous (tasted 10/3/13)
Henriot – Henriot is one of those rare, independent Champagne houses that has been owned and managed by an unbroken line of the same family for more than 8 generations since it was founded in 1808.
NV Henriot, Blanc de Blancs, Brut, Champagne, France, NM– lots of finesse with a touch of yeastiness (tasted 9/26/16)
2006 Henriot, Brut, Champagne, France, NM – bright with savory mushroom flavors! (tasted 9/28/15, 9/26/16)
NV Pierre Callot, Brut ‘Grande Reserve’, Champagne – My favorite of all the Pierre Callot tasted. Rich, nutty and autolytic. This Grande Reserve is a blend of reserve wines. Reserve wines add to the complexity of the Champagne. They also make a Brut Blanc de Blancs, made from mostly young wines which is lighter. (tasted 9/21/15, 10/17/16)
Vilmart et Cie – Champagne House Vilmart & Cie was founded in 1890 by Désiré Vilmart. Since then, passionate sons and sons-in-law were at the helm enabling this small House to become famous. My favorite selections from them are their vintage “Coeur de Cuvée” and “Grand Cellier d’Or”.
2006 Vilmart et Cie, “Coeur de Cuvée” Brut, Champagne – wonderfully bright autolytic (tasted 9/21/15)
2007 Vilmart et Cie, “Coeur de Cuvée” Brut, Champagne – another great vintage “Coeur de Cuvée” (2015-09-21-111) (tasted 9/21/15)
2010 Vilmart et Cie, “Grand Cellier d’Or” Brut, Champagne – great autolytic flavors (tasted 9/21/15)
2006 Duval -Leroy, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Champagne NM – Close your eyes for the aromas of porcini mushroom and biscuit. It has a great balance of savory richness and crisp acidity. (tasted 9/26/16)
Beautiful Red Fruit:
NV Piper-Heidsieck, Brut Sauvage Rosé, Champagne, NM – wonderful red fruit (tasted 9/26/16)
Charles Heidsieck, Brut Rosé Reserve, Champagne, France, NM– Savory strawberry fruit with that fresh baked bread, brioche, pie crust, yeasty richness. Just as in their Brut Réserve, they also use reserve wines – in the rosé it’s 20%. (tasted 9/28/15)
Winemaker notes: “COMPLEX: an elaborate blend of the three champagne grape varieties. PRECISE: a very fine selection of red wines. DEEP: matured for over 3 years in our two-thousand-year-old chalk cellars. GENEROUS: a pulpy and lively champagne with notes of wild strawberry. A powder pink rosé, with a delicate sparkle. A complex nose of homemade strawberry jam and fresh gingerbread. A deep wine with an aromatic finish.”
On the Bolder Side:
NV René Geoffroy, Rosé de Saignée Brut, Champagne – If ever there was a Champagne to have with steak, this Rosé de Saignée would be the one! A red wine drinker’s Champagne. Bacon and game? That’s gorgeous!! Wow! (tasted 10/3/13, 9/21/15, 10/12,17)
On the Richer Side:
2005 Deutz, Amour de Deutz, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France, NM – If you like rich and autolytic, Deutz is always wonderful (tasted 9/28/15)