Champagne: Get the good stuff

Columnist December 18, 2012

A vintner recently asked me to name my favorite wine. It’s a common question, since I write about wine, and I usually demur with some bromide about choosing a favorite child, or I go for a laugh with “Whatever you’re pouring!” But this time, overcome by an uncharacteristic honesty, I confided that if I had to choose one type of wine to drink for the rest of my life, it would be champagne.

My host seemed surprised and disappointed, and not only because he was offering me his (quite nice) viognier. Champagne to him was too frivolous a wine to choose as a one-and-only tipple.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

But I agree with the economist John Maynard Keynes, who uttered on his deathbed, “I should have drunk more champagne.”

I think I say that every year when I sample champagnes for this holiday column. I always make a New Year’s resolution to drink more of them, but that goes by the wayside almost as fast as the one about exercise and weight control.

Why do we limit champagne to the holidays and special occasions such as weddings and baseball pennants? One reason is image. Champagne producers have for decades, if not longer, marketed their wine as a luxury product, an extravagance that runs counter to a cursed Puritan work ethic. And it’s priced like a luxury object. Even the least expensive champagnes, such as the very fine Charles de Cazanove Brut, cost about $30 a bottle. That’s not an everyday drink.

There are other sparkling wines, of course. Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, cremants from other regions of France, sekt from Germany and Austria and delightfully fizzy chenin blanc from South Africa can turn any ordinary day into a special occasion for a fraction of the price of champagne. U.S. sparkling wines from Virginia, New York, New Mexico and, of course, California can be impressively deep, complex and satisfying.

But they are not champagne. Champagne is more than a method: the technique of creating bubbles through a second fermentation in the bottle rather than through carbonation in a tank. It is a wine expressive of its origin in a particular region of France. That region’s cool, often troublesome climate and its chalky soils are reflected in every bottle. Like the world’s finest wines, it is a product as much of place as of grapes. It cannot be made anywhere else.

To illustrate that point for friends, I recently opened a Pierre Paillard Brut Rosé non-vintage champagne and a Schramsberg 2007 Brut Rosé from California. They were identical in appearance, a bright salmon color with fine beads of bubbles. Both were delicious. But the Paillard, which retails for $53, showed an earthy minerality and laser focus under its steely red-fruit flavors, while the Schramsberg ($40) was expansive and fruity, softer and more mouth-filling.

The Schramsberg tasted of California, its warmth and sunshine. The Paillard was invigorating. Each sip of the Schramsberg made me smile; each taste of the Paillard left me eager for a bite to eat or another sip.

Was one better than the other? Not necessarily. But champagne lovers crave and are willing to pay for that distinctive energy and statement of origin that says, “This is champagne.”

This holiday season, whether you celebrate with champagne or bubbly from elsewhere, I hope you will join me in a resolution to keep the celebration going into the New Year.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.

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