Bargains abound in Champagne and sparklers
With a worldwide glut of Champagne and champagne-style wines stacking up in warehouses, it's a great time to find some good stuff at bargain prices.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Maison Louis Picamelot Crémant de Bourgogne; $13
This is technically not Champagne, but it's as close as you can get. Same grapes (pinot noir and chardonnay) and same general region (northern Burgundy is virtually adjacent to Champagne). The grapes are hand-picked, and secondary fermentation and aging in bottle is done by the Champagne method. But the price is beer budget all the way. (Grape Expectations distributes)
DESPITE CONSTANT admonitions from wine writers that Champagne (and other champagne-method sparkling wines) is not just for the holidays, most folks still place high-end bubbly in the special-occasion category. In fact, Champagne is a supremely versatile wine, especially good with sushi, always a fine party-starter, relatively low in alcohol (though the bubbles make it rush to your head more quickly), high in acid (hence, palate-refreshing) and rarely prone to the sorts of bacterial flaws that can ruin still wines.
Champagne has been in the news recently for a couple of other reasons. It has been an accepted fact that the average bottle of Champagne produces 100 million bubbles. (Who counted them, I wonder?) Now those bubbles have been analyzed, using a mass spectrometer to determine their chemical components. Scientists at the University of Reims have determined that when the wine is poured, the bubbles send up a spray of tiny droplets as they collapse back into the glass, and that spray releases a wide range of concentrated (and refreshing) aromatic compounds.
In layman's terms, science has now proven that Champagne smells good!
Earlier this fall, the news in the Champagne region was about big production cuts (pre-harvest) being negotiated in order to maintain price supports. The idea was that, because sales of virtually all high-end wines (Champagne included) have stalled, the big houses, which do most of the grape purchasing, would demand production cuts in order to keep prices steady.
It seems to me that this idea was bogus from the get-go. Champagne is mostly non-vintage and takes several years (at minimum) to produce. So cutting back on this year's harvest would have zero impact on the cases of wine stacking up in warehouses, not to mention the 1.2 billion(!) bottles now aging in caves in Reims and surrounding hamlets.
So guess what? Prices are coming down. Worldwide demand has fallen by at least 10 percent — probably more — and cuts or no cuts, more wine is coming into the marketplace all the time. This is shaping up to be the best season for buying Champagne in recent memory. So, what should you buy? Here are some general guidelines:
First, break out of old habits. Don't automatically buy the same brand you've had for the past 10 years. You have hundreds of choices, many from small-scale grower/producers that can be extremely good. Let your wine seller guide you.
Second, think about buying a vintage Champagne rather than a brut. Nothing wrong with brut, but vintage often has a more focused expression of place (terroir) and time (a particular harvest).
Third, look for an indication that the grapes are grand cru. Champagne communes and vineyards are categorized according to a complex and time-tested scale. Grand cru vineyards are considered to be the best, and when a Champagne is made exclusively from grand cru grapes it will state so somewhere on the label. You may pay a little extra, but it will be worth it.
Fourth, consider buying a half bottle. If it's just you and your spouse sharing it, a half bottle gives each of you a hefty pour, and allows you to splurge without breaking the bank.
These days, it's a good idea to ask your wine seller what is on sale. Believe me, almost everything is, but in the world of fine Champagne, some producers are stubbornly holding onto prices that don't make sense. One that isn't: Duval-Leroy. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this harvest, the value-oriented Champagne house has knocked down prices across the entire portfolio. Half bottles of the brut are $18; a full bottle of the Cuvée Paris is $35.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.