Also fantastic are Philipponnat "Grand Blanc" 1996 ($63) and Lilbert-Fils Grand Cru ($45). Nicolas Feuillatte Premier Cru ($40) is recommended.
BRUT WITH FINGER FOOD
Almost all Champagnes designated simply as "Brut" (whether vintage or non-vintage) are a blend of Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the latter two being black grapes that lend a bit more stuffing and power than is generally found in Blanc de Blancs. This makes them perfect partners for "finger-food" appetizers of all sorts. Oysters and caviar are renowned classics, but Bruts work beautifully with all sorts of lightly salted munchies, smoked fish and many cheeses -- especially thin shavings of Parmesan.
The best Bruts from my recent tastings are the deeply flavored Bollinger "Special Cuvee" ($50) and the superbly complex Charles Heidsieck Reserve ($36), which is a steal even at full price. Also excellent are Deutz "Classic" ($32), Pol Roger "Reserve" ($36) and Taittinger "Française" ($37). Perrier-Jouët "Fleur de Champagne" 1996 ($125) is really more a "Cuveé de Prestige" than just a Brut, but it is so spectacular that I cannot neglect to mention it.
ROSÉ AT THE TABLE
Champagnes of all types can work well with heartier food when cleverly matched, but Rosés offer the most persuasive introduction. Most are made by adding 8 to 20 percent still red wines from Champagne villages, which results in wines of greater weight and flavor impact. Try them with first courses of poached salmon, sushi, duck or goose pâté, poultry or light meat such as veal or pork loin and almost any kind of soup.
Top current releases are Philipponnat "Réserve Rosée" ($42) and the expensive but otherworldly Perrier-Jouët "Fleur de Champagne" 1997 ($163), followed by the consistently strong Moët & Chandon "Brut Impérial" ($36) and Perrier-Jouët "Blason Rosé" ($50).
EXTRA DRY AND DEMI-SEC AFTER DINNER
I frequently forgo desserts in the interest of fitness, and pass on after-dinner spirits in the interest of sobriety. But I love a glass of Champagne at the end of a meal. Lightly sweet Champagnes designated "Extra Dry" are perfect for solo sipping, as they remain light and refreshing, but have just enough sweetness to suggest dessert and inform your pleasure sensors that they've not been cheated. Many restaurants carry Moët & Chandon "White Star" ($32), which is hugely successful, and, based on the current release, thoroughly deserving. Also recommended are Piper-Heidsieck ($27) and Perrier-Jouët ($46).
Demi-Sec is an overtly sweet type of Champagne, yet far less sweet than most dessert wines. It is great for after-dinner sipping, but is also wonderful with a simple bowl of fresh fruit. Piper-Heidsieck "Cuvée Sublime" ($30) is the best of the current bunch, followed by Moët & Chandon "Nectar Impérial" ($40) and Mumm "Joyesse" ($38).
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.