The pleasures of true champagne
By Dave McIntyre,
Champagne has a secret: It’s great with food. The acidity, the minerality and above all those wonderful, palate-caressing bubbles make champagne an ideal partner with almost any dish except the heartiest red meats.
It seems a shame to consign it to a glass or two at midnight on New Year’s Eve, or at wedding receptions and locker-room celebrations. When food and wine writers make that discovery, they often proclaim that “champagne should be an everyday drink.”
Yeah, right. In my dreams, too.
“I should have drunk more champagne,” the economist John Maynard Keynes is said to have uttered on his death bed. Lord Byron extolled “champagne with foaming whirls as white as Cleopatra’s melted pearls.” And Lily Bollinger, of the Bollinger champagne family, said: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. . . . Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”
Unfortunately, champagne is expensive. It’s more difficult to make than still wine, so production costs are higher, and the luxury image that champagne producers have cultivated has given them a stake in maintaining high prices. Any wine for which an under-$40 price tag is considered a bargain is not destined to be an everyday tipple. Not for those of us in the 99 percent, anyway.
Which really is too bad, because champagne is just that good. I’m talking real champagne, of course: the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France, northeast of Paris. Bubblies from elsewhere are often delicious, and they make everyday celebrations possible. But they rarely, if ever, offer the depth and fascination of the real thing.
If you are at all serious about exploring wine, you should not be afraid of champagne. It is possible to savor what this archetype of sparkling wine has to offer while spending only an arm or a leg, but not both.
At the wine store, look for a “grower champagne.” You’re probably familiar with the names of the big champagne “houses,” such as Mumm, Veuve Cliquot, Moet et Chandon, Ruinart, Krug and Pommery, among others. I have nothing against their wines, which are made with purchased grapes according to a house style and are usually delicious. But quite often the greater excitement lies with the grower champagnes: wines made by the same people who grew the grapes. They tend to display characteristics of the vineyard (which can get lost in the larger blends of the houses) and even the personality of the winemaker. And they are often more reasonably priced than their big-house counterparts.
Grower champagnes are rare, however. If your retailer can’t steer you to one, here are other ways to spot them:
■Look for a family name on the label, such as Jose Michel et Fils.
■If you follow local importers and know one that specializes in family-run wineries, look for the importer’s name on the label. Reliable ones in the Washington area include Wine Traditions, Vintage 59, Robert Kacher Selections, Dionysus and Kysela Pere et Fils.
■There’s a tiny code printed on the front label of every champagne bottle. Spotting it can be difficult, but the letters “RM” signify a grower champagne. (The R stands for “recoltant,” or grower, meaning the grapes were not purchased. Most champagnes are NM, for “negociant,” or broker.)
And don’t be shy about trying unfamiliar champagnes when you dine out. Many restaurants are rather desultory with their champagne selections, but the Robert Wiedmaier group of restaurants is bubbling over about bubblies. Ramon Narvaez, beverage director for the company, has expanded the wine list at Marcel’s, Wiedmaier’s flagship restaurant in the West End, to include 100 champagnes, mostly small-selection grower labels.
Narvaez says his customers are welcoming the expanded selection. “The good times are coming back,” he says. That would be worth celebrating.