What I think of as The Official Champagne Season always starts for me with the Wine Media Guild’s December luncheon, the first Wednesday of the month. Always held at Felidia Restaurant, and always organized brilliantly by Ed McCarthy, the author of the thorough and authoritative Champagne for Dummies, this WMG gathering always presents an in-depth look at a single aspect of Champagne. This year’s theme was rosé.
Rosé Champagne, as Ed pointed out, was once an unfashionable item in the United States, treated with respect only by wine professionals. Not any more: rosé has become just about the hottest category of Champagne, with sales rising and more and more producers sending us examples of the kind. They are now available at every level of Champagne production, from basic non-vintage bottlings, through vintage and up to special cuvées.
The popularity of rosé seems to be more than just a fad: Behind it lies the very good reason that rosé Champagne is very adaptable to all sorts of food, and consequently is one of the easiest of the Champagne types to drink all through a meal, even with red meat courses. At Felidia we pretty much stuck with fish – the pièce de résistance was a 26-pound salmon, roasted on a bed of salt – but no one doubted that at least a half dozen of the fuller-bodied wines we tasted could have stood up to a nice juicy steak.
Here are the 15 Champagnes we tasted, with Ed’s comments, a few of my own, and the suggested retail price range for each. (NB: The wines were arranged pretty much in order of their heft, from the lightest to the fullest-bodied.)
NV Bruno Paillard Brut Rosé Premier Cuvée ($70-$75) “Subtle and delicate,” Ed said, “the driest Champagne we tasted – less than two or three grams of residual sugar. My kind of Champagne: I love it.” I did too: this was one of my favorites of the day – a nice way to start.
NV Ayala Brut Rosé ($48-$54) Ed: “A sister brand of Bollinger, who purchased a major share in it ten years ago, but exactly opposite Bollinger in style – light, delicate, low in dosage – and probably the best buy in our whole tasting.” Another of my favorites – I like the light, elegant style – but then I’m a fan of Ayala’s Champagnes generally.
NV Henriot Brut Rosé ($58-$62) “Another firm with a long history, but not well-known in the United States because they were off the US market for a long time. Henriot is quality: Their tête de cuvée Les Enchanteleurs is probably the best buy among that class of Champagnes – an outstanding wine.” I loved this wine too, another in that light, elegant style, like the first two.
NV Mumm Brut Rosé ($70-$75) Ed liked this one much more than I did: “surprisingly very good. This wine really stood out.”
NV Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Brut Rosé ($70-$80) “For many years, the biggest selling rosé Champagne in the world: Laurent-Perrier specializes in rosé. One of the few that is 100% Pinot noir, with skin contact to obtain the color.”
NV Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé ($60-$65) “A much improved wine: Used to be 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot meunier. Now they’ve dropped the Pinot meunier and put 30% Chardonnay in its place – very definitely a good move!”
NV Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé ($62-$75) “An old name, a traditional maker, very much like Krug in their procedures – they age their Champagnes in old barrels, they’re very strong on Chardonnay. I was very impressed with this wine today.”
NV Gosset Brut Rosé ($70-$80) “An old favorite, an old name, showing beautifully today. Again, a house that emphasizes Chardonnay – 58% in this rosé – which is nevertheless a powerful Champagne.” Gosset is one of my favorite producers too: I find it absolutely reliable at every level, and its special cuvées are usually extraordinary.
2007 Louis Roederer Brut Rosé ($65-$70) Another of my favorite houses, and Ed’s too: “A Louis Roederer Champagne is always going to be a good Champagne,” he says. “They specialize in Pinot noir, with skin contact. I love it, and not a bad price at all for a vintage Champagne.”
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Réserve ($62-$70) Ed: “A great, undervalued Champagne that always comes through. An outstanding Champagne at a very good price.”
2004 Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Rosé ($180-$200) “A prestige cuvee, 100% Pinot noir. Even though it’s eight years old, this is a wine that really needs time to develop. I would hold onto this for a couple of years yet.”
2004 Perrier-Jouët Cuvée Belle Epoque Rosé ($300) “Chardonnay-dominated. Always has Chardonnay grand cru grapes in its blend. The epitome of elegance.”
2002 Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé ($80) “The largest producer of all. 2002 is a great vintage for Champagne, and this is a big, austere example. It needs time.”
2004 Pol Roger Brut Rosé ($110) “This too needs time. It’s Pinot noir-dominated, has very low dosage, and is really not yet ready to drink.” While I agree it will get better with time, I thought it was already pretty fine. Pol Roger also numbers among the producers I always trust.
NV Bollinger Brut Rosé ($85) “Always a big Champagne, always a great Champagne. 64% Pinot noir, low dosage, firm, austere, and just lovely.” I can only agree: I can’t remember ever having a mediocre – much less a bad – bottle of Bolly.
This was an impressive lineup of wines. Ed thought it one of the best the WMG had had, and once again I agree. He is also in the process of organizing the wines for the New York Wine Press’s annual Champagne Gala, scheduled for the week before Christmas at The Brasserie. He says that this year’s focus will be vintage Champagnes, to which I look forward and about which I plan to report here. Stay tuned: I’m keeping an informal count of the number of Champagnes Ed says he loves, and it’s already clear that he’s the Don Juan of sparkling wines.