For many years, legend held that Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon—for which Moët & Chandon’s prestige cuvée, made only in especially good vintages, is named—invented the méthode champenoise. He was credited, in layman’s terms, for having inventing Champagne, or, more specifically, for having discovering that the introduction of sugar (known as dosage) into bottled still wine activates yeast cells a second time, setting off a second fermentation. The resulting carbon dioxide from this second fermentation can be captured; et voila! Bubbles are made.
Not to burst these finely beaded bubbles, but the Esteemed Monk in Question did not, in fact, invent—or, as it was suspected—stumble upon this second fermentation process. Actually, people were making and drinking bubbly long before the Dom came along, although he did contribute to the Champagne dialogue. Blanc de Noir, or white Champagnes made entirely of black grapes (in the case of Champagne proper, these wines are made from Pinots Noir and Meunier and are examples of wines where the juice that is later distilled into alcohol has had no contact with the grape skins) is the product of Dom Pérignon’s expertise and invention. We have him to thank for these bright, classic, and age-worthy Champagnes. We can thank him, too, for being one of the earliest proponents of organic winemaking.
But enough about the Dom. What sets Champagne apart from the rest of the sparklers of the world, anyway? Why pay, say, $40 for a bottle of grower Champagne when you could pay $15 for a bottle of Cava? In Champagne, it comes down not only to the grapes grown—three are allowed in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay—but also to the quality of the land. The soil in Champagne is chalk-based and the best wines are imparted with a minerality from this chalky, beautiful terroir. The toasty, yeasty, bready notes, fine beading, complexity, and graciousness of palate offered up by a very good bottle of Champagne blows any sparkling competitor away.
You’re not paying for a name, then; you’re paying for a name that denotes a specific place where a specific process takes place. Champagne means quality and quality control. It also means minerality, a string of pearling bubbles, grapes that have been tended meticulously, still wines blended to a house style, vintages declared only in exceptional years. Champagne means regulations—tons of them, according to strict French winemaking laws. For your money, you’re getting a return on your investment, an agricultural product that has been pruned and preened and perfected by nature and by man. Champagne is expensive because it is labor-intensive and because it is rare in its specificity. And we should have to pay for such rare luxuries, if only so that we can learn to appreciate them more.
Consider these bottles, too, worthy investments. A bottle you buy now can spend the next 20 years in cellar and will improve, turning honeyed in color and opening into an unexpected experience. And a bottle of Champagne can be more than a pleasurable apéritif. Not to dismiss Cava (high five, Spain!), but Champagne’s rich style, matched with its bright finish makes it perfect for an entire meal, from your salad course to your main right on through cheese and dessert. Few wines of the world can boast such versatility.
Anyway, if there were any question as to why one ought to spend the money on a bottle of the real stuff, Francis Bacon said it best. “Champagne,” he said, “for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends.” Sorry, Cava. This time, you’re out of luck.
Jeaunaux-Robin “Sélection” Extra Brut – NV
A very classic Champagne with a well-fruited profile of green apples and orchard pears, adding pretty suppleness to bone-dry acidity. Mostly Pinot Meunier, with some Pinot Noir and a touch of Chardonnay, this is a taut Champagne worthy of cool, refreshing appetizers, like poached lobster with chervil, or tarragon on endive.
Pol Roger, Brut – NV
This is top-notch Champagne, mostly Chardonnay, in a clean and fresh style with fine mousse. It is one of the best at this price.
R.H. Coutier, Brut Rosé – NV
The Coutier family has been growing grapes in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay since the 1680s. This rosé is made with a tad more Chardonnay than Pinot Noir; the Pinot was still, hence the darker color. The Chardonnay brings a nice “lift” and floral quality to this Champagne that is aged on the cork rather than with a crown cap. This is an ancient practice that is still used by some growers in the region.
L. Aubry Fils Brut – NV
In this wine Aubry makes a great case Champgne’s historic varieties, which include little-known Petit Meslier, Arbanne and Fromenteau. These grapes make up just 5% of the classic blend of Pinot Meunier and Noir with Chardonnay. This elegant wine is copper-laden and snappy with mineraled classic depth, with light floral honey aromas, and dark notes of crackers, toasted bread and pepper. Just a delight to drink and perfect for appetizers, sashimi and ceviche.