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A Wine for All Reasons

By Michael Franz
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page F07

Wine writers and wine consumers are chronically at loggerheads over certain issues.

For your part, you want us to quit recommending expensive wines that are difficult to find, believing we should ferret out a steady stream of wines that taste like Chateau Margaux but are priced like Two Buck Chuck.

For our part, we want you to drink less beer, get over your aversion to rosé, start appreciating Riesling and devote a whole lot of your discretionary income to experimenting with obscure wines such as Albariño and Carmenere.

But above all, we want you to drink more Champagne. I grant that telling you this might not seem like helpful advice. You are almost certainly open to doing so anyway, at least in theory. But the fact is that although American consumers like Champagne in theory, they are indifferent to it in practice.

Statistically speaking, it is quite likely that if you buy a bottle of Champagne in the next two weeks, it will be the only one you bought in 2004. Chances are good that you think of Champagne only in connection with celebrations, don't order it in restaurants and never drink it on a Tuesday unless New Year's Eve happens to fall on that day. Most probably, you don't really even think of Champagne as wine.

By contrast, many of us with the good fortune to taste wine for a living think that Champagne may indeed be the greatest of all wines. Excellent Champagne can provide innumerable aromatic nuances and remarkable depth of flavor while remaining restrained in intensity and delicate in body. No other wine is as invigorating, few whites are as age-worthy, and no wine can match it for textural complexity.

Moreover, those lucky enough to taste Champagne on less-than-special occasions find it phenomenally versatile throughout the year. Consumers tend to think of Champagne as being all of one piece, but it is actually a highly variegated category of products, with great diversity in bottles from different subregions, producers and styles.

Professional ethics oblige me to badger you to buy a good bottle of real Champagne this season and to broaden your experience when doing so. That is, I hope you'll consider stepping up from sparkling wine to true Champagne, which comes only from the Champagne region in northern France, and which is by far the world's greatest bubbly. It is also the most expensive bubbly, but you really should find out how good the good stuff can be -- even if this requires that you drink cheap beer for a portion of January to bring your budget back into line.

Also, I hope you'll consider experimenting with a new type of Champagne this year, serving it in a way suited to its particular character. Toward that end, my recommendations are broken down by Champagne types, with each connected to a different use in entertaining.

My badgering will continue here next week, when I'll be back with additional recommendations of Champagnes from smaller houses. If you're throwing a party, see my note next week on a wonderful, newly available, highly affordable sparkler (to add to those I recommended in this space on Dec. 1).

Wines appear here in order of preference within categories, with approximate prices indicated in parentheses:

BLANC DE BLANCS AS AN APERITIF

Champagnes labeled Blanc de Blancs are made entirely from the white Chardonnay grape (hence the name, which is literally "white from whites"). They are generally the lightest of Champagnes in body and usually the most delicate in flavor, especially when young. They also tend to be the brightest and most freshly acidic. All these characteristics combine to make these wines the ultimate ones for sipping before a meal (rivaled only by German Rieslings and fino sherries from Spain).

My favorite current releases include Louis Roederer 1997 ($60), which is refreshing and bright but also marvelously flavorful and perfectly balanced. Mumm de Cramant ($65) is a Crémant (25 percent less atmospheric pressure in the bottle, and thus gently effervescent in the glass) from Cramant (a Grand Cru village). Crémant de Cramant is now almost extinct as a product category aside from this wonderful wine from Mumm, which may be the world's single greatest aperitif.


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