The champagne country of northern France is known for the beauty of its rolling hills and for lush vineyards that produce the most famous wine. In Champagne last summer, I was struck by the economy of the place: vineyards utilizing every available bit of slope, neat green fields and villages of an almost Germanic order. The wine of Champagne reflects this concern with perfection and the use of what are God-given climate and soils. Sparkling wines are made in all wine-producing countries; some of the big champagne houses are in fact making fine sparkling wine in California, from vineyards they have developed there, but the exquisite character and length of true champagne remains unique.
So is the price. Because demand far outstrips supply, the prices have remained high, assuring prosperity to the cathedral city of Reims, Epernay and surrounding towns. There vineyardists produve the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes that are vinified and mixed in the final cuvee, or blend. With few exceptions the big champagne houses buy their grapes from individual growers, and an old and closely controlled relationship binds them together.
The privately owned house of Louis Roederer, however, owns 80 percent of its vineyards; it produces some of the best champagne available. The Roederer blend is roughly two-thirds point noir to one-third chardonnay, which makes a rich, complex champagne that is long on the palate. The top of the Roederer line is Cristal, long the rival of Moet and Chandon's prestigious Dom Perignon (both cost about $50 a bottle retail). In my opinion, Cristal has more depth of flavor. Unfortunately it comes in a clear glass bottle, without the punt in the bottom, and resembles cheaper versions of the real thing. The bottle was designed for the Czar Alexander II, who chose Roederer as his personal champagne and wanted the bottle to be crystal, but its provenance is lost on the unitiated. Roederer's least expensive champagne, the nonvintage (N.V.) is a mix of various vintages (therefore undated) blended to achieve a uniform style, a common practice. The Brut (dry) is about $22.
Another top producer of champagne owning most of its own vineyards is Bollinger, in the town of Ay. Bollinger also uses a high percentage of point noir and allows its more expensive wines to remain in contact with the natural sediment for years, which imparts an unusual complexity. These vintage champagnes are labeled R.D. (recemment degorge, meaning the sediment is disgorged immediately before shipping). The best I have tasted is the R.D. '75, which has a tiny, persistent bead (bubble) and more aging potential. It has recently come on the market here for about $40. Bollinger's least expensive champagne is the Special Cuvee, fresh and flavorful, for only about $16.
Bollinger produces rose by adding a small amount of still-red wine, the more common practice in champagne. (Roederer's rose is made by allowing the skins of the pinot noir to remain in the juice long enough to impart a blush.)
Other producers of good quality champagne with a wide range of prices include Pol Roger, Taittinger and Moet. The Champenois have a habit of serving their wine with every course of the meal -- nice work if you can get it. Blanc de blanc (all chardonnay) is my favorite aperitif. Such lighter champagnes go well with seafood mousse; the roses or Extra Dry (fruity but dry) suit veal and fowl. Sec (semisweet) matches most desserts with a similar lightness and finesse.