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Bubbles Galore in Champagne and Sparkling Wine

4 Jun

I’ve always loved bubbles. When I was young, like many other kids, I enjoyed playing with them in the bathtub, in my soda glass or in the backyard. Now that I’m older, I enjoy them in seltzer, Champagne and other sparkling wines. I even have an entertaining bubble screen saver on my computer. (I’d like to be able to say I never met a bubble I didn’t like, but the financial kind aren’t much fun.)

These days my favorite bubbles are the plentiful carbon-dioxide ones in all kinds of sparkling wines. I find their effervescence invigorating, refreshing and uplifting. They always improve my mood. But they’re not there just to cheer. Their presence plays an integral role in the wines: They affect mouth feel (tingly), look (vivacious) and taste (hopefully wonderful). They even affect the aroma, because they guide it toward the nose.

How many bubbles does it take to accomplish all this? Quite a few. Until recently, I thought there were 49 million in every bottle, as the Champagne Wines Information Bureau reported some time ago, citing the research of scientist Bill Lembeck.

Lembeck, simply put, determined how much carbon dioxide is in a standard 750-ml bottle of Champagne and divided it by the volume of an average bubble. With the help of a device called an optical comparator, he figured that out to be 4.2 millionths of a cubic inch.

But according to new research reported in the New York Times (“TAKE A NUMBER: One Million,” May 6), French physics professor Gérard Liger-Belair, author of Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, has determined that a 3.4 oz. glass of Champagne is blessed with some 1 million bubbles before it becomes flat in roughly 4 hours. (There are about 7.5 glasses this size in a 750-ml bottle, which translates to 7.5 million bubbles per bottle.)

There are, however, other estimates. Until recently Liger-Belair himself claimed that there were 15 million bubbles per glass. He later admitted that the formula he used to reach this conclusion was too simple. To arrive at his new estimate, he took additional factors into account (see below). The California Wine Institute’s website states that there are approximately 44 million bubbles in a bottle of sparkling wine/champagne. In The Wine Bible (2001), Karen MacNeil wrote that Champagne producer Bollinger has claimed there are some 56 million bubbles in a bottle of Champagne. According to Champagne expert Tom Stevenson’s Champagne &  Sparkling Wine Guide 2003, Moët & Chandon used a camera-based, computer-linked “artificial vision system” to record the release of bubbles and concluded that there are on average 250 million bubbles in a bottle of sparkling wine.

The calculation is complex, which explains the widely varying results. Many factors affect the number of bubbles–the concentration of the gas, the type of glass, the temperature of the wine and the room, the angle of the pour and the size of the bubbles among them. All must be taken into account.

So it seems this is another one of those mysteries that won’t soon be solved, unless, as my husband jokingly says, someone sits down and counts every bubble. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be content with knowing there are more than enough bubbles in these wines to make me very happy, pour myself another glass and leave it at that.

RECOMMENDED CHAMPAGNES AND SPARKLING WINES

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve Champagne NV (SRP $36*): Nicolas Feuillatte is currently the fourth best-selling Champagne brand in the U.S. Sales of it rose 12% here last year, considerably more than any of the other Top 5 brands.

This Brut Réserve comprises 20% Chardonnay (contributes elegance and finesse), 40% Pinot Noir (adds roundness and structure) and 40% Pinot Meunier (supplies fruit character). It has aromas and flavors of apple, pear, apricot and peach. It’s delicate, fresh, clean, lively, complex and well balanced–and an excellent value. It’s a good choice as an apertif and complements chicken, salmon, shellfish, sushi, cheese, fruit and dessert.

Barons de Rothschild Brut Rosé Champagne NV (SRP $150): The Barons de Rothschild have been making Bordeaux since the 1850s. Three arms of the family–from Château Lafite, Château Mouton and Château Clarke–recently teamed up to produce Champagne, which first arrived in the U.S. in 2011.

This elegant Champagne, 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir, is fresh, vivacious, complex and well balanced, with aromas and flavors of raspberry, strawberry and citrus. Exuberant mousse –the bubbles are seemingly endless, even days after the bottle was first opened. Serve as an aperitif or with sushi, sashimi, tuna tartare, berry soup or fresh strawberries.

Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé NV (SRP $22): Crémants d’Alsace are the leading sparkling wine, after Champagne, on the French domestic market. The word crémant used to signify the least fizzy Champagnes. Today it indicates some of the best French sparkling wines made by the méthode traditionnelle (formerly called the méthode champenoise) from regions other than Champagne.

Albrecht’s Rosé Crémant is 100% Pinot Noir. It has aromas and flavors of strawberry and cherry, along with crisp acidity, a creamy texture and a long finish. Serve as an aperitif or with charcuterie and mild cheeses.

Veuve Ambal Cuvée Marie Ambal Crémant de Bourgogne Brut NV (SRP $25): Burgundy’s sparkling wines, called Crémants de Bourgogne, are also made using the méthode traditionelle. This Veuve Ambal uses the main Champagne grapes–Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–in equal proportions. It features floral and fruity aromas and flavors, especially of pink grapefruit, and toasty notes. It’s well balanced and full flavored. Serve as an aperitif.

Ferrari Brut Trento NV:  (SRP $25): Giulio Ferrari was the first viticulturist to bring Chardonnay vines to Italy in the early 1900s. In the years since, Ferrari has become one of Italy’s best sparkling wine producers. Its wines are made using the metodo classico, aka méthode traditionelle.

This elegant Brut, 100% Chardonnay, has aromas and flavors of apples, apricot, lemon and wild flowers. It’s fresh, clean and balanced. Serve as an aperitif or with seafood and other light dishes.

Valdo Brut Prosecco NV (SRP $14): 100% Glera. (Glera grapes used to be called Prosecco. Now only the wines themselves are.) According to IRI Infoscan, Valdo is the No. 1 Prosecco in Italy. This Valdo Brut is fruity, fresh, floral and versatile, with aromas and flavors of peach, apricot and pear. It, like other Proseccos, is made using the Charmat method, in which the secondary bubble-producing fermentation takes place in large stainless-steel tanks, not in bottles. This technique is especially appropriate for Prosecco because it preserves the wine’s fresh, fruity character. Serve as an aperitif or with appetizers, seafood and other light dishes.

Anna de Codorníu Brut Cava (SRP $15): The Codorníu winery, founded in 1551, is one of the largest producers of Cava, Spain’s popular sparkling wine. In 1659 the heiress of Codorníu, Anna, married winemaker Miquel Raventós, bringing together two important winegrowing families. In 1872 Cava pioneer Josep Raventós produced the first bottles of Spanish sparkling wine made by the méthode traditionelle. Anna de Codorníu, a tribute to the last descendant to carry the Codorníu surname, was launched in 1984. It was the first Cava to include Chardonnay.

This Cava, 70% Chardonnay and 30% Parellada, has aromas and flavors of tropical fruit, pineapple, citrus, peach, apple and lime. It’s well balanced, crisp and refreshing. Serve as an aperitif or with shellfish, white fish, sushi and sashimi.

Korbel Brut California Champagne NV (SRP $13): Korbel calls its sparkling wines Champagne, but since they’re not made in Champagne, many would not. They are, however, made using the same process as Champagne, the méthode traditionelle. And, in any event, many of Korbel’s bubblies, year after year, offer excellent value for very good sparkling wine.

This Brut is a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard and Pinot Noir. It  has aromas and flavors of citrus, baked apple and raspberry and is crisp and refreshing. Pair it with oysters, smoked salmon, fried and salty foods, shellfish, sushi, egg dishes and roast poultry.

Korbel Brut Rosé California  Champagne NV (SRP $13): A blend of Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Gamay, Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc. Its aromas and flavors are mainly strawberry and black cherry. Flavorful, bright and aromatic. A versatile wine, it complements grilled and barbecued foods, tomato sauces, pizza, turkey, ham and creamy vegetable side dishes.

*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price). Check out wine-searcher.com to get an idea of actual prices.

Note: I received samples of these wines.

Grower Champagnes

10 Dec

By Sharon Kapnick

They don’t have familiar names like the Big Brands. But they do have lots of charm, personality and character. They are–ta-da!–grower Champagnes. Unlike the prestigious Champagnes with household names, they’re made in limited quantities using grapes from choice, small vineyards that are lavished with individual attention.

These handcrafted, artisan Champagnes aren’t meant to taste the same year after year. They’re created by small growers who prize “individually distinctive flavors,” writes importer Terry Theise. That’s partly why growers are now making wines of their own instead of just selling grapes to the Big Houses (aka the Grandes Marques) like Veuve Clicquot or Taittinger.

The growers like to capture the terroir--the unique flavors derived at specific parcels of land–that is often blended away by the Big Brands, which instead strive to maintain a consistent house style. They prefer to keep their wines original and are less bound by convention. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, for example, are the usual grapes used in Champagnes; but Moutard Père & Fils and L. Aubry Fils also use Pinot Blanc and/or the obscure grapes Fromenteau (aka Pinot Gris), Arbanne and Petit Meslier in some of their Champagnes. (These grapes were common in Champagne centuries ago; today these seven grapes are the only ones still allowed in Champagne.) Fleury Père & Fils has adopted organic and biodynamic growing methods, which it claims open “the soil and vines to cosmic influences.”

Grower Champagnes have been arriving on U.S. shores in discernible numbers since the mid-’90s. According to the Comité Champagne (CIVC), the trade association of independent Champagne producers and houses, the volume of grower Champagne shipments to the U.S. is, well, growing. In 2012 it comprised 4.2% of total volume, up from 3.8% in 2010 and 2011. They’ve caught on with sophisticated Champagne lovers in part because, as Theise writes, “it’s nicer to buy Champagne from families [rather] than from factories.”

Savvy sommeliers adore these Champagnes, which appear on many top restaurant wine lists. They bring cachet to the lists. Jacob Daugherty, sommelier at David Bouley’s cutting-edge kaiseki restaurant in New York City, said Brushstroke’s list sticks to  grower Champagnes. There’s not a Grande Marque to be found.  Paul Grieco, co-owner of the Terroir wine bars and Hearth restaurant in New York City, said, “The public’s thirst for uniquely great products allows the smaller estates to flourish. They add luster to the polished sheen the Champagne region already wears.”

All this is available at excellent prices, usually no more, and often less, than famous-label Champagnes. Daugherty said, for example, that the highly respected Vilmart grower Champagnes offer 90% of the quality of the famed Krug at one-fourth the price. Robert Rogness, co-owner of Wine Expo in Santa Monica, Calif., which carries an extensive line of grower Champagnes, also touts the good value of these wines. He said, “The best Champagnes cost much less than the most famous Champagnes because the price of fame is so high.”

To identify grower Champagnes, look for RM (récoltant-manipulant, or grower-producer) on the label. Other producers to seek out include Paul Bara, Henri Billiot , Gaston Chiquet, Egly-Ouriet, René Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Larmandier-Bernier, J. Lassalle,  Pierre Peters and Vilmart & Cie.

Beyond Beer: The Best Wines to Accompany Chinese Food

2 Oct

By Sharon Kapnick

Years ago, my friends and I would invariably drink beer with Chinese food. While beer was, and remains, a fine partner with many Chinese dishes, we were learning to love wine. We were captivated by the whole new world of exciting bouquets and flavors. We just had to discover what wines went best with Chinese food.

So we did some research and some experimenting, and learned a thing or two. Because different people have different tastes, you’ll probably have to do some experimenting of your own. But here are some guidelines that will help:

GENERAL PRINCIPLES
When matching food with wine, there are several basic rules to keep in mind:

1) Similar foods and wines pair well. A delicate dish, for example, demands a delicate, light-bodied wine, and a hearty, rib-warming meal calls for a rich, powerful, full-bodied wine.
2) Contrasting foods and wines can also be good partners, although these matches are trickier.
3) Food and wine should complement, rather than overpower, each other. As wine importer Rudi Wiest likes to say, “Whatever’s on the plate is already dead. You don’t have to kill it again.” You don’t want a wine that will overwhelm a dish; you want one that will stand up to it.
4) Fiery dishes are best with wines that are low in tannins and alcohol, which fan the flames, and with off-dry (slightly sweet) and sweet wines, which tone them down.
5) In general, the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine.
6) If beer goes well with a dish, sparkling wine usually will too.
7) Here’s a rule of thumb: The milder the dish, the drier the wine; the spicier, the fruitier; the hotter, the sweeter.

There are other factors that should be taken into account, like cooking methods. Fried foods, for example, are great with sparkling wines because the bubbles cut through the richness. And then there’s seasonality: The wine you chose to accompany roast duck served on a cold winter’s day shouldn’t be the wine you pour with roast duck on a patio. Sauces, too, play a crucial role in deciding what wine to select, which is especially important in a cuisine like Chinese. In fact, as wine importer Terry Theise advises, you should “match the wine to the sauce, not to the meat. Orange-flavored beef calls for sweet Riesling, not Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

TAO OF CHINESE MEALS
It’s also important to keep in mind two other distinctive things about Chinese food: 1) the frequent combinations of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors, which play a great part in determining which wines are appropriate, and 2) the wide array of vegetable, tofu, seafood, poultry, pork and beef dishes served at the same meal. Given all these factors, it may be tempting to raise your hands in surrender and say, “I’ll have a Tsing Tao.” But, in a way, all these considerations make the choice of wine easy: The best thing to do is to serve the most food-friendly wines.

SPARKLING WINES
And there are no more versatile wines than sparkling wines. One of their many virtues is that they can be served throughout the meal. While sparkling wine may not necessarily be the best wine for a particular dish, it’s usually at worst a good accompaniment–and often much more. Sparkling wine doesn’t have strong flavors or tannins that overwhelm food; its thousands of tiny bubbles do a stellar job of cleansing and refreshing the palate; and its acidity and fruit temper spicy heat in food. Sparkling wines are wonderful with Chinese food. (The Chinese themselves gravitate toward bubbles with meals, although bubbles of a different sort: They often mix carbonated drinks like 7-Up with wine, whiskey or brandy.) These days there are many excellent, inexpensive sparkling wines on the market.

If expense is not an issue or you are celebrating a special occasion, you might opt for Champagne. As importer Theise says, “Don’t forget Champagne! In fact, never forget Champagne.” (Actually, I personally would be likelier to forget my own name than to ever forget Champagne!) Champagnes and some sparkling wines come in several sweetness levels: Brut nature (aka Extra brut and Ultra brut): bone dry; Brut: no perceptible sweetness; Extra dry: slightly sweet; Sec: noticeable sweetness; Demi sec: very sweet; Doux: sweetest of all. (Brut is most common.)

ALSACE WINES
After sparkling wines, when eating Chinese, I turn to Alsace and its food friendly, aromatic white wines. Their fruity flavors and (generally) high acidity cool the palate and complement flavorful, spicy and sweet dishes. Their lack of oak is also a plus. “[Aromatic] white wines excel particularly with cuisines that are challenging for other wines,” especially those with some sweetness or hot spiciness, write Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy in Wine Styles. “Alsace wines in general are great choices when the meal has you wondering what wines could possibly work.”

There are several Alsace wines to consider. Riesling is its outstandingly flexible star. (Actually many think it’s the greatest and most versatile of all white wines.) It’s an excellent choice when you want one wine to serve with many different dishes-–from seafood to fowl to meat. It can be fruity, flowery, sometimes minerally, usually crisp, often elegant. Pinot Blanc, sometimes called the poor man’s Chardonnay, is a light, crisp, fresh, lively, delicate, all-purpose wine. Pinot Gris is like Chardonnay in weight and texture. It’s dry, rich, round, opulent, powerful, complex, sometimes smoky, with lots of fruit flavors. While it has the acidity of a white wine, it’s full bodied and can often take the place of a red. Pinot Gris is an excellent choice with very flavorful dishes. Gewürztraminer is extremely expressive and exotic, highly aromatic, with scents of lychees, rose petals and honeysuckle. It’s full bodied and sometimes slightly sweet. For these reasons, it’s often recommended with spicy cuisines.

GERMAN RIESLINGS
Also at the top of the list as accompaniments to Chinese food are German Rieslings. Generally low in alcohol, they have high acidity, which makes them crisp, fresh, zesty and good with food. The sugar in them is balanced by acidity. They can handle the wide range of dishes served at Chinese meals. (Some pair Rieslings with game, like venison, pheasants and wild duck. Others recommend them with braised meat or steak.)

German Rieslings are made in several ripeness levels, which are indicated on the label. The most important styles for our purposes include: Kabinett-–light, delicate, refreshing wines from ripe grapes with a touch of sweetness; Spätlese–-fuller, more flavorful wines, characterized by high acidity and light sweetness, from grapes picked at least a week after normal ripeness; and Auslese–fuller, riper wines with significant sweetness, made from ripe and overripe grape clusters.

The Kabinetts favor subtly flavored, delicate dishes with light sauces. The Spätlese cut the heat of spicy foods and are also good with dishes with some sweetness. The Ausleses demand aggressively flavored dishes, including sweet-and-sour and orange-flavored sauces that benefit from wines with more residual sugar.

OTHER RIESLINGS
New York, Washington, Oregon, parts of California, Austria, Australia and New Zealand also produce very good Rieslings. This varietal has been regaining popularity as people learn how food friendly it is.

MORE GOOD OPTIONS
There are some other fine choices. Albariño is the floral, citrusy, sometimes minerally, usually dry white wine that the Spanish drink with all fish and seafood; you might try it with the same. Sauvignon Blanc has herbal elements that pair well with ginger and distinctive herbs like cilantro, aka Chinese parsley. It also complements fried appetizers and seafood well. Tangy, racy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs come to mind first. Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s dry, high-acid white wine, can also be herbal, slightly vegetal, spicy or fruity, with mineral undertones. It’s appropriate with vegetable or shellfish dishes. Off-dry (slightly sweet) Chenin Blancs match well with moderately spicy Chinese food. Pinot Bianco is the Italian version of Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Grigio is the lighter Italian version of Pinot Gris. White Burgundies are elegant and complement elegant dishes. And then there’s Viognier, which the Wall Street Journal describes well: “At its best, Viognier can have the cleanliness of Riesling, the juiciness of Sauvignon Blanc and the orange-blossom charm of Muscat. It tends to taste of peaches, apricots and mango, and sometimes has a bit of weight.”

Rosé is another food friendly wine that takes to Chinese food. Jeff Morgan, author of Rosé and co-owner of SoloRosa, a rosé-only winery, writes, “Rosé is blessed with a fruit-driven, bright-edged core that blends well with the fiery, ripe fruit found in chiles. Refreshingly chilled, dry, pintk wine also cools down the palate.” He recommends it with many dishes, but especially with Szechuan cuisine. If you are a red-wine lover, I recommend Pinot Noir with Chinese duck and meat dishes. Some enjoy Beaujolais, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Côtes-du-Rhône, Shiraz or Syrah, inexpensive red Bordeaux and Barbera.

I suggest you experiment and seek the guidance available at a good wine shop. Chances are, you’ll find many pairings that appeal to you. And if not, remember, there’s always Tsing Tao.

WINES PAIRED WITH REGIONS
Cantonese (some sweetness, not very spicy, sweet-and-sour, fermented black beans, soy sauce, salty): sparkling, Pinot Blanc (seafood), Riesling (seafood), Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer (roasted meats and poultry), rosé

Szechuan (spicy, hot-and-sour sauces, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic): sparkling wine, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Moscato d’Asti, rosé, Beaujolais

Hunan (similar to Szechuan): sparkling, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais

Shanghai (slightly sweet): Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer
SOME FOOD AND WINE COMBINATIONS TO TRY
spring rolls and egg rolls: sparkling wine, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, rosé
salt-and-pepper shrimp, salt-and-pepper squid: sparkling wine
barbecued spare ribs: sparkling wine, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño, rosé
noodles with sesame sauce: Gewürztraminer
soup dumplings: sparkling wine
dim sum: sparkling wine, Riesling
deep-fried dishes: sparkling wine
Singapore-style noodles: Sauvignon blanc, rosé
shellfish dishes: sparkling wine, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Albariño
hot pepper prawns: sparkling wine, Viognier
lobster Cantonese: white Burgundy
lobster with ginger and scallion sauce: white Burgundy
chicken with cashew nuts: Gewürztraminer
stir-fry chicken and vegetables: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer
kung pao chicken: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño
General Tso’s chicken: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, rosé
vegetable lo mein: Sauvignon Blanc
minced squab with hoisin: Zinfandel
sesame chicken (Pinot Grigio, Riesling),
moo shu chicken: sparkling wine, Pinot Noir
chicken chow mein: sparkling wine
Peking duck: Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir
tea-smoked duck: Pinot Noir
roast duck: Pinot Noir
sweet and sour pork: Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, rosé
moo shu pork: Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, rosé
twice-cooked pork: sparkling wine, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Albariño, Pinot Noir
Chinese beef dish at tasting: Pinot Gris
orange-flavor beef: Riesling

PRODUCERS TO RELY ON
Sparkling wines: Lucien Albrecht, Bouvet-Ladubay, Domaine Chandon, Codorníu, Cristalino, Chateau Frank, Freixenet, Gramona, Gruet, Korbel, Albert Mann, Marquis de la Tour, Larry Mawby, Mionetto, Château Moncontour, Monmousseau, François Montand, Raventós I Blanc, René Muré, Saint-Hilaire, Segura Viudas, Valdo, Veuve Ambal, Veuve du Vernay, Willm, Yarden, Zardetto

Champagne: Aubry, Henri Billiot, Bollinger, Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet, Egly-Ouriet, Nicolas Feuillatte, René Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet, Gosset, Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, Henriot, Jacquesson, Krug, Jean Lallement, Larmandier-Bernier, J. Lassalle, Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, Moët & Chandon, Dom Perignon, Pierre Peters, Philipponnat, Louis Roederer,  Pol Roger, Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Vilmart & Cie

Alsace wines: Lucien Albrecht, Paul Blanck, Léon Boesch, Albert Boxler, Marcel Deiss, Helfrich, Hugel, Josmeyer, Marc Kreydenweiss, Kuentz-Bas, Albert Mann, René Muré, Ostertag, Stoeffler, Schofitt, Trimbach, Weinbach, Zind-Humbrecht

German Rieslings: Georg Breuer, J.J. Christoffel, Darting, Dönnhoff, J.u.H.A. Strub, Kerpen, Dr. Loosen, Meulenhof, Monchhof (Robert Eymael), Egon Müller, J.J. Prüm, Schaefer, Selbach-Oster, Two Princes, St.-Urbans-Hof, Von Schubert, Robert Weil, Zilliken

Other Rieslings: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Eroica, Chehalem, Covey Run, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Grosset, Heron Hill, Hogue, Lamoreaux Landing, Pacific Rim, Pikes, Poet’s Leap, Sheldrake Point, Swedish Hill, Villa Maria, Hermann J. Weimer

ʼTis the Season for Champagne

11 Dec

By Sharon Kapnick

Champagne is wonderful any time of year. It’s elegant, luxurious, sophisticated, festive, effervescent, exhilarating and delicious. It complements most foods beautifully. To me, it’s the ideal wine.

During the holiday season, Champagne is practically de rigueur. That’s when sales soar. In 2011 more than 19.4 million bottles found their way to the U.S., making the U.S. Champagne’s second-largest export market. Some 40% of them were sold in the last three months of the year.

It seems the only problem with Champagne is deciding which to buy–there are so many wonderful producers to choose from. Here are several I recommend. Some are favorites of royalty, others especially reasonably priced, yet others unique–made from rarely used grape varieties. Here you’ll find something for everyone.

 
CHAMPAGNE FIT FOR ROYALTY

Pol Roger Brut Réserve “White Foil” NV (SRP* $50) has been gaining new fans after it was served during the royal wedding festivities of Prince William and Kate Middleton last year. They chose well. Pol Roger, still owned by a family company, is one of seven Champagne houses featured in The World’s Greatest Wine Estates by influential critic Robert M. Parker Jr. It was a favorite of Princess Diana’s. This particular Brut NV (non-vintage) Champagne is a blend of equal parts Pinot Noir (for body and depth), Pinot Meunier (for freshness and exuberant fruit)  and Chardonnay (for elegance and finesse).

The Brits love their Champagne. The largest Champagne export market is Britain, which imported almost 34.5 million bottles in 2011. It’s always been the main export market for Pol Roger, which has long had a relationship with the British aristocracy.

Pol Roger first held a Royal Warrant in 1911. It’s well known as being the favorite Champagne of Sir Winston Churchill. The relationship between Pol Roger and Churchill dates back to 1928 and lasted until his death in 1965. So enamored of it was he that during World War II, he saw to it that cases of Pol Roger accompanied him to foreign war zones. He used to say, “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” He made a slogan of Napoleon’s his own, famously saying about his beloved Champagne, “In defeat I need it, in victory I deserve it.”

After his passing, black borders were added to all “White Foil” bottles sold in the U.K. In 1984, Pol Roger launched the Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill (SRP $280 for the 1999) to honor him. The grapes hale from old vines located exclusively in grand cru (i.e., the best) vineyards. Made only in the finest vintages, in the rich, mature, full-bodied style that Churchill favored, the precise blend is a family secret. They do, however, let on that it is mostly Pinot Noir with some Chardonnay.

Lanson, recently reintroduced to the U.S., is one of the top-selling Champagnes in the U.K. and a best-seller worldwide. Its rosé is the top-seller in the U.K. in its category.

Founded in 1760, Lanson is one of the oldest Champagne houses and currently the region’s second-largest producer. Popular among European nobility, by the late 1800s, Lanson was supplying Champagne by royal appointment to the courts of the U.K., Sweden and Spain. Lanson remains a purveyor of Champagne to the British royal family. It was served in June at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.

Lanson is more fruit driven than most Champagnes because, unlike most Champagnes, it doesn’t undergo malolactic fermentation (a process that changes tart-tasting malic acid to softer-tasting lactic acid). It’s the only major Champagne house that avoids this fermentation because it believes that malolactic destroys fresh fruit flavors and that skipping it creates elegant Champagnes with a purity of fruit; crisp, clean, fresh flavors; and the ability to age well.

This style has its fans. In the Dec. 31, 2012-Jan. 15, 2013 issue of the Wine Spectator, nine Lanson Champagnes scored 90 or above, including Lanson Black Label Brut NV (SRP $45) and Lanson Rosé  Brut NV (SRP $60).

 

POPULAR, WELL-PRICED CHAMPAGNE

One of the youngest Champagne houses quickly became one of the most popular. Nicolas Feuillate not only is the best-selling Champagne in France, it’s also one of the best-selling brands in the world, holding the No. 3 position worldwide.

In 1971, French-American businessman Nicolas Feuillatte founded the eponomously named company with the Centre Vinicole de la Champagne, the largest cooperative union in Champagne. (Today the union is called the Centre Vinicole-Champagne Nicolas Feuillate.) The brand currently works with 82 cooperatives and more than 5,000 growers, almost a third of all growers in the region. Grapes are sourced from the whole Champagne area, giving the winemaker David Hénault an extraordinary number of choices to call upon when blending his wines.

Nicolas Feuillatte aims for broad appeal. It strives for “delicate harmony and joyful elegance.” NF likes to say its light, fresh style is simple because of its complexity. As NF sees it, complex means rich in aromas, which must be perfectly integrated. Then balance, elegance and simplicity follow.

Brut Blue Label NV (SRP $36) is fresh and fruity, a good basic choice that offers excellent value. More than 150 crus can be used in this blend. The delicate, fruity, easy-to-drink Brut Rosé NV (SRP $48) is also a great buy. As is the Brut 2004 (SRP $46). If you’re feeling more extravagant, you might seek out the top cuvée Palmes d’Or (SRP $135 for the 1999)–named after the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival–which has more structure, more body and therefore better complements food.

 

ANCIENT CHAMPAGNE VARIETALS

Most Champagnes rely on three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. But four ancient varietals—Fromenteau, Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc—are also permitted though rarely used.

L. Aubry Fils, one of the grower Champagne producers in superstar importer Terry Theise’s portfolio (see my Time story on grower Champagnes at www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,998804,00.html  for more about these individualistic designer Champagnes), blends some of these ancient grapes in several of its wines. “La Nombre d’Or Campanae Veteres Vites” Brut (which means “The old vines of the countryside”) (SRP $63 for the 2005) uses all seven varieties to re-create what Aubry calls the Champagne of Yesteryear. “La Nombre d’Or Sable Blanc des Blancs” Brut  (SRP $82 for the 2007) uses the white Chardonnay, Petit Meslier, Arbanne and Pinot Blanc. Both Champagnes are unique.

There’s controversy over the value of these grapes. Some think that since the varieties were planted at one point, they add value because they must have been planted for a good reason. Others think that since they were uprooted at some point, they were uprooted for a good reason.  Aubry gives you the opportunity to try them and decide for yourself.

*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price). Check out wine-searcher.com to get an idea of actual prices.

Note: I tried these Champagnes at wine tastings for the media and/or was sent samples of them.