As a commodity, in the sense of a commercial object for sale, Champagne is dominated by a few gigantic brands. You might already know this, since almost every wine list you've ever seen features the same names, led by Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. In commercial terms, these two brands are to Champagne what Budweiser and Miller are to beer. It is a real challenge to find a restaurant that doesn't stock them, and many do so to the exclusion of all other brands. Some restaurants offer a few others, but you'll generally find the usual suspects: Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, Taittinger -- maybe Pol Roger or Roederer if you're lucky. However, Champagne is not only a commodity. It is also one of the world's greatest and most fascinating wine-growing regions. Champagne is blessed with hundreds of wonderful little houses making distinctive, delicious wines.
The Champagne region is home to more than 400 producers, but few Americans have ever tasted more than a handful of different wines. The explanation for this is simple. Sales of Champagne here in the United States are dominated by big brands more thoroughly than any other super-premium wine category, and many Americans enjoy Champagne only once or twice each year. True Champagne isn't cheap, and thus many shoppers want to buy a familiar brand, both for their own comfort and perhaps also to assure that their friends know they're being served the Good Stuff.
You probably know where I'm going with this, but before I try to get you to expand your Champagne horizon with a great bottle from a smaller house, we should note a couple of points about the big houses. First, how big is big? Moet & Chandon reportedly produces 24 million bottles each year. The cooperative that makes Nicolas Feuillatte can crank out 16 million bottles per year, and Veuve Clicquot produces another 10 million.
Second, does my advocacy of small Champagne houses imply that I'd like to see the Goliaths of the region toppled? Certainly not. The big Champagne houses make good products with a consistency that is astonishing, given the numbers involved. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Goliaths overshadow the Davids, and I hope that this year you'll pull one of the following beauties out of the shadows and into your party on Friday night. Each of the wines below is made by a house producing fewer than a million bottles each year, and though they are listed in order of preference, each was an outstanding performer in my recent tastings.
Importers are indicated in parentheses, along with prices that you might be able to undercut thanks to seasonal sales. If you are stalking one or two bottles in particular, you'd be well advised to call retailers before hitting the road.
Philipponnat Clos de Goisses 1991 ($105, Ex Cellars): A magnificent wine from one of the most remarkable vineyard sites in all of Champagne, this is exceedingly complex and perfectly balanced.
Philipponnat Grand Blanc Brut 1996 ($63, Ex Cellars): Philipponat specializes in Pinot Noir and is located in the heart of a Pinot-growing area. Yet this marvelous wine is crafted entirely from Chardonnay, indicating the great skill of the house and also the amazing quality of the 1996 vintage. It is ripe and rich, but also fresh and balanced, with driving acidity and a long finish.
Roger Pouillon Grand Cru Extra Brut Chardonnay 1996 ($55, Country Vintner): Elegant with lots of class, this is light and delicate, yet surprisingly flavorful for such a light-bodied wine.
A. Soutiran Grand Cru Brut ($40, Vintage '59 Imports): A really superb nonvintage Brut, this shows wonderful balance between deep flavors, subtle mineral notes and fresh acidity. Even the texture is delightful, with lots of tiny bubbles lending a soft, fluffy feel to the effervescence.
Gosset Brut Excellence ($38, Palm Bay): Gosset has always been one of my favorite houses, making big but balanced wines with outstanding depth of flavor. That description applies not only to the top wines but also to this nonvintage Brut, which is powerful but very well proportioned.
Lilbert-Fils Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs ($45, Vintage '59 Imports): The Chardonnay-based wines from Lilbert are invariably lean, fresh, bright, and dry, with great refreshment value and exemplary purity of flavor.
Roger Pouillon Premier Cru Brut Rosé ($40, Country Vintner): This appealing wine shows lovely pale strawberry color, complex aromas and pure flavors, finishing with soft effervescence and nice nuances of toast and minerals.
A. Soutiran Blanc de Blancs Brut ($50, Vintage '59 Imports): Remarkably ample for a Blanc de Blancs, this shows real richness and textural breadth, with lots of rich, creamy fruit. Atypical for a Chardonnay-based wine, but undeniably delicious.
Delamotte Brut ($40, Wilson-Daniels): This bottling suffers from ho-hum packaging, but that shortcoming seems inconsequential in light of the wine's lovely flavors and excellent balance. Complete and convincing.