Looking for some Champagne to buy for the holiday season? Do you need help to navigate the different brands on offer? Do you prefer a lighter, leaner style or one that is richer and more full-bodied? Wherever your tastes fall, read on for our recommendations:
Last week I explained the different types of Champagne producers and the many different styles they produce. This week, I am focusing specifically on the brut non-vintage cuvée. Brut non-vintage is the manifestation of a Champagne producer's philosophy—his house style, so to speak. The brut non-vintage cuvée is about consistency year-in-year-out and is the bread and butter of the business.
Light, Medium and Full Bodied
One of the easiest ways to divvy up the plethora of non-vintage Champagne brands is by body. Some are light and elegant with great finesse; some are rounder, more voluminous and medium-bodied; others are more powerful and full-bodied.
I have selected a cross section of Champagne brands to illustrate this progression in magnitude. I don't necessarily favor one over the other; it really depends on the mood I am in, the occasion, and what I am eating. These are all Champagnes that I find consistently to be of very high quality and offer good value for money.
I have kept my selection under $60, and while I would love to have included a few more brands, I favored brands that are more widely distributed throughout the United States.
Lighter Bodied Champagnes
Bruno Paillard, Ayala and Taittinger are three Champagnes that I would consider fairly light-bodied—by no means inconsequential, but they have a delicacy, freshness and elegance that makes them superb aperitif wines. They also pair well with lighter fish dishes.
- Bruno Paillard, Brut Première Cuvée NV - $53: A smaller less well-known independent Champagne House, but it is one worth getting to know. Wonderfully taut and structured wines. This Champagne has a low dosage, so it might be a bit austere for some palates (not for me!). Just let it open up in your glass. It is 22 % Pinot Meunier, 33 % Chardonnay and 45 % Pinot Noir with about 20% reserve wines
- Ayala Brut Majeur NV, $39: Probably one of the best value 'top' Champagnes available, and the only one with a Latin name! Appreciated for its dry, low-dosage style, Ayala is the sister Champagne of Bollinger, having been bought by Champagne Bollinger in 2005. Ayala Brut majeur is a blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier 20% with circa 20% reserve wines.
- Taittinger Brut La Française, Brut NV, $40: From a very well-known house, Brut La Française is a blend of 40% Chardonnay with 60% a combination of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier sourced from over 35 different villages. Aged for four years on the lees. An elegant wine with great finesse.
Medium Bodied Champagnes
Pierre Moncuit, Louis Roederer and Moët & Chandon are three very different Champagnes, but three that I would consider more medium-bodied than our first three, each showing a fuller mouth feel with a little more palate weight. These Champagnes are excellent at the table.
- Pierre Moncuit, Brut NV, Blanc de Blancs, $44: Even though this is 100% Chardonnay, it is quite round and mouth filling. Pierre Moncuit is a small grower who makes his own Champagne from his tiny Grand Cru vineyards. It has a low dosage of about 8g/l. Not as widely distributed as the big names/houses, but one to seek out.
- Louis Roederer Brut NV, $45: Well, what can I say? Champagne Louis Roederer has long, long been a favorite of mine. I discovered it decades ago as a student in France, and it never disappoints. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it is aged for about 3 years on the lees and has a dosage of 9g/l.
- Moët & Chandon, Brut NV, $40: The largest Champagne brand, selling millions and millions of bottles. While I did emphasize consistency for Brut NV, Moët and Chandon's Brut NV Cuvée has undergone a bit of a needed makeover. Stricter selection, more Chardonnay in the blend and the dosage reduced from 12/l to 9g/l has put this wine firmly back on my radar. So if you had given up on it, too, give it another try!
Bollinger (of course) and Charles Heidsieck sit here, but I would also include Michel Loriot's Blanc de Noirs as well as my favorite new Champagne find of 2012, Marie Noëlle LeDru. These Champagnes have much more weight on the palate with a fuller and richer mouth feel.
- Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV, $55: Mr. Bond's Champagne of choice, of course! Once you taste Bollinger Special Cuvée NV Brut, you will always remember the taste. Bollinger has always been one of the few houses to ferment its base wines in large, old oak casks - though more are doing it now. It is rich, nutty and complex, a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay & 15% Pinot Meunier.
- Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, $45: With its elegant new bottle and label, this was a recent 'Wine of the Week' for me, and another one of my long time favorite Champagnes. It represents amazing value for the money. Charles Heidsieck is unique in its use of 40% reserve wines going back 15 years, which add richness and fullness to the blend. This is a classic blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.
- Michel Loriot, Blanc de Noirs, Brut Reserve, $38: Another small grower-producer, but one that is quite well distributed. 100% Pinot Meunier, it is not as powerful as a pure Pinot Noir, but certainly expressive and mouth filling. Blanc de Noirs are usually much more expensive than $40, so if you spot this one, buy it!
- Marie Noëlle Le Dru, Extra Brut NV, $59: Ah yes, I've pushed the price band to its limit, but for good cause. I have also moved from Brut to Extra-Brut, and again with good cause. This is a rich, powerful and complex Champagne. It is a blend of 85% Pinot and 15% Chardonnay from Marie Noëlle's tiny few acres in Ambonnay, one of the top Pinot Noir villages of Champagne. No dosage added, it is very dry with about 3-4g/l residual sugar.
Enjoy some tasty Champagne over the holidays. Pair with food. You will be surprised how flexible and wonderful Champagne is at the table and all the way through a meal. Move from lighter bodied to fuller bodied as the weight of the food increases.
Happy Holidays and Happy Sipping!
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.
(Image: Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock)