December is the month Champagne producers love best, because as much as 40% of their annual retail sales takes place during the holiday time. An overwhelming amount of the Champagne sold will be by eight large brands: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Nicolas Feuillatte, G.H. Mumm, Laurent-Perrier, Lanson, and Piper-Heidsieck.
These eight Champagne brands are all solid, and have their strong points. But I’m compelled to point out that many wine drinkers have not yet discovered the merits of some of the excellent, smaller Champagne producers. I’m not referring here to the connoisseurs’ darlings--such as Krug, Bollinger, Louis Roederer Cristal, Salon, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, and Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill. These elite Champagnes all have a small but dedicated following.
Instead, I’m focusing on an outstanding group of nine small, not well-known négociant houses. (There are also scores of excellent, very small grower-producers, but space limitations prevent me from covering them here--plus most are not generally available throughout the country.) Playing no favorites, I list my nine houses alphabetically, and point out some of these producers’ best Champagnes.
Champagne Ayala--In 2005, the prestigious house of Bollinger purchased Ayala, one of the best things that ever happened to this fine, old House--the only producer with Latin (Colombian) roots. In truth, Ayala, located in the village of Aÿ, right down the road from Bollinger, had been foundering under the absentee ownership of a Bordeaux producer. Ayala has been a great complement to Bollinger, because its light, elegant Champagne style is in direct contrast of Bollinger’s, full-bodied, toasty, Pinot Noir-dominated style. Ayala champions brut zero Champagnes (no added dosage of sugar), also known as brut nature. I especially love four of Ayala’s Champagnes, three of which are brut zero: Brut Nature Zero Dosage NV; Cuvée Rosé Nature NV; Blanc de Blancs (look for the 2002); and its new prestige cuvée, 2002 La Perle d’Ayala Nature. If I had to pick just one Ayala favorite, I’d choose the smashingly delicious Cuvée Rosé Nature NV, my Wine Review Online 2008 Wine of the Year.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon--This, small, exquisite house, located in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, just east of Aÿ, has built its reputation on its delightful, subtle NV Rosé, but that’s not even among its best Champagnes, in my opinion. Billecart-Salmon has not been easy to buy at retail, because it has concentrated its sales in restaurants. But now with its new U.S. importer, T.Edward Wines, I hope to find it more readily available. Billecart- Salmon, which has always stressed finesse rather than power, has just released two exciting new Champagnes, its Extra Brut NV and 2004 Extra Brut, both with no added dosage. My two special Billecart-Salmon favorites remain its Brut Blanc de Blancs NV, made from five Grand Cru vineyards on the Côte des Blancs, and its sublime Vintage Blanc de Blancs--always one of the best Champagnes of this type available. 1999 is the current Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs, my favorite in a recent tasting of all of its wines--a difficult decision because this house makes only great Champagnes.
Champagne Delamotte--Tiny Salon, Champagne’s first-established Blanc de Blancs, is an exquisite, long-lived, sought-after bubbly. Its vineyards are located on the Côte des Blanc’s prime Grand Cru village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Salon’s most recent vintage, 1997, retails for $250. But you can buy the 1997 or 1999 Blanc de Blancs of Salon’s sister house, Delamotte (both owned by Laurent-Perrier)--for $70. Delamotte is located right next to Salon; their vineyards are contiguous. Both are small-production, high quality Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Yes, Salon is more concentrated, and its longevity is legendary. But at less than one-third the price of Salon, Delamotte’s Blanc de Blancs is a fantastic value. And Delamotte also makes one of Champagne’s best NV Rosés; the current release (about $80), is subtle and delicate, with lovely strawberry aromas and flavors.
Champagne Deutz--Located in the village of Aÿ, Deutz was family-owned until another family-owned house, Champagne Louis Roederer, purchased it in 1993. Deutz always made very good, underrated Champagne, but it is now even better with the outstanding, financially sound Louis Roederer firm in its corner. I’m a fan of the fresh, lively Deutz NV Brut Classic, but the Deutz that I truly love is its Vintage Blanc de Blancs; it has a zippy, delicious, lemony flavor that really goes well with shellfish. The 2004 is the current Deutz Blanc de Blancs, but you can still find the 2002--both fine vintages. Definitely one of my favorite Blanc de Blancs. Deutz also produces two superb, age-worthy prestige cuvées, Cuvée William Deutz and the astounding Cuvée William Deutz Rosé--the 1985 was one of the finest rosé Champagnes that I’ve ever tasted, and made me a fan for life. Anyone who loves Champagne should try these two prestige cuvees--1998 is the current vintage of the white, and a small amount of the 1999 Rosé is available. The 1988 Cuvée William Deutz was my Thanksgiving Champagne; it was still young and vibrant, with an amazingly long finish.
Champagne Gosset--This is another excellent, small house in Aÿ (now moving its headquarters to Epernay) which is part of the Cointreau family that owns Frapin and Château de Fontpinot Cognacs. Gosset makes full-bodied, very dry, complex Champagnes that age well. With the exception of its standard NV, Brut Excellence, all Gosset Champagnes are made from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. My favorite Gosset Champagnes are the full-bodied NV Grande Réserve Brut, one of the finest non-vintage Champagnes being sold; and the Célébris trio of Gosset prestige cuvées. Unlike Gosset’s other Champagnes, Célébris is made in a lighter, elegant style, perfectly delightful as an apéritif. All Gosset Célébris Champagnes are “extra brut,” with extremely low dosage. The 1998 Célébris is currently available, along with the 2003 Célébris Rosé. The third member of the trio, the Célébris Blanc de Blancs, is a non-vintage Champagne.
Champagne Charles Heidsieck--How such a stunning Champagne house like Charles Heidsieck remains under the radar in the U.S. is a mystery to me. Its NV Brut Réserve, to my taste, is simply the finest under $40 Champagne being made today. It’s made in the dry, rich, biscuity, complex house style of Charles Heidsieck. Forty percent of the blend comes from older reserve wines of up to eight different vintages, remarkable in itself, but truly amazing when you consider the Brut Réserve’s low price. If there’s a better value in Champagne today, I don’t know it. All of Charles Heidsieck’s Champagnes are extraordinary, including its vintage brut (2000 is the current vintage), and its 1999 Vintage Rosé (at a recent Wine Media Guild tasting of twenty Champagne rosés in New York, Charles Heidsieck’s 1999 drew the most raves from the members). Charles Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée, the 1995 Blanc des Millénaires, a powerhouse blanc de blancs, won the Critics’ Challenge award, “Best of Show,” of all wines entered, two years in a row. Champagne Charles Heidsieck’s headquarters is in Rheims.
Champagne Henriot--Eleven years ago, when I wrote Champagne For Dummies, I didn’t even feature the family-owned Henriot, located in Rheims, as one of the “Top 25 Champagne Houses.” Up to that point, Henriot had a quiet presence in the U.S., and was barely known outside of France. But in 1999, Joseph Henriot, busy running several wineries and other businesses, asked his 29-year old son, Stanislas, to manage Champagne Henriot. Among many other improvements, Stanislas Henriot increased annual exports of his Champagne from 20 to 50% of Henriot’s total production, and established a subsidiary import company in this country, Henriot USA. Now that the USA is receiving Henriot regularly, I have come to realize what a superb Champagne it is. Henriot’s subtle, elegant style emphasizes fresh citrus flavors. It’s an “insider’s Champagne,” still not well-known, but loved by sommeliers. The wealthy Henriot family owns 75% of the vineyards it uses, with over 40% of them in the Côte des Blancs--perhaps the world’s greatest location for Chardonnay. Henriot’s strength in Chardonnay dominates all of its Champagnes. For me, the best of Henriot’s very good lineup of Champagnes are its very good NV Blanc Souverain (100 percent blanc de blancs)--my 2009 Wine Review Online Winery of the Year; its 1996 and 1998 Vintage Bruts; and its extraordinary prestige cuvée, Cuvée des Enchanteleurs (55 percent Chardonnay; 45 percent Pinot Noir). The 1995 Enchanteleurs is complexly flavored and still young; the 1996 Enchanteleurs, just released this year in the U.S., is even better--an exceptional Champagne that will age well for 20 or more years.
Champagne Bruno Paillard--This is a small, privately-owned house which Bruno Paillard founded as recently as 1984 in Rheims. The dynamic Mr. Paillard is now recognized as one of Champagne’s leaders. Bruno Paillard produces light-bodied, very dry, elegant Champagnes that display great finesse. All of his delicate, subtly flavored Champagnes are made with very low dosage. My three Paillard favorites are the NV Réserve Privée Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, an extraordinary non-vintage Champagne made entirely with Grand Cru vineyard grapes from the Côte des Blancs; the currently available 1996 Brut Millésimé Blanc de Blancs (Paillard’s standard Vintage Bruts are blanc de blancs); and the NV Rosé Première Cuvée, a delicate, salmon-colored Champagne with tart strawberry flavors, made with 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay. Three superb Champagnes. Bravo, Bruno Paillard!
Champagne Philipponnat--This small house is owned by the BCC group of Champagnes--which includes Champagne Lanson--headed by Bruno Paillard. Philipponnat is one of the true gems among Champagne houses--not the least of which is the fact that it produces one of the region’s greatest Champagnes, the single-vineyard Clos des Goisses. It’s in Mareil-sur-Aÿ, also the home of the winery. Philipponnat produces medium to-full-bodied, elegant, Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes. The Clos des Goisses vineyard, ideally located on a south-facing bank of the Marne River, is composed of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, which is the typical blend of the prestige cuvée made from the vineyard. It is an extraordinary wine for several reasons: its terroir is so fine that Clos des Goisses doesn’t seem to have off-years, shining in vintages such as 1992, generally poor throughout Champagne; its age-worthiness is among the best in the region, ranking with the likes of Krug and Salon; like all great prestige cuvees, Clos des Goisses needs time (15 to 20 years) to mature and display its complex flavors. The current 1999 Clos des Goisses will be superb; the winery made only 20,000 bottles (out of a possible 55,000) choosing the very best grapes. My other Philipponnat favorite is its Vintage Blanc de Blancs, called Grand Blanc--the exception to this house’s Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes. Made from Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes, including some Chardonnay from the Clos des Goisses vineyard, it has lots of class and finesse. The current Grand Blanc is 1999, to be followed shortly by 2002.
Stimulated by writing about all of these great Champagnes, I chose a 1988 Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs from my cellar to drink last night. Besides, my wife and I were celebrating our imminent move into our new digs in Manhattan. The cork was very tight; I finally removed it after a struggle. Amazingly, the Champagne was still quite young; very dry and austere. I’ll save the remaining 1988 for another three to five years….