The Wine Media Guild’s annual Champagne luncheon signals to me the true start of the holiday season. It always falls on the first Wednesday of December, and it always spotlights between 15 and 20 excellent true Champagnes; this year, all Blanc de blancs. Curated again this year by colleague and friend Ed McCarthy – author of Champagne for Dummies, among several other books – this event for me is the surest sign that whatever winter and the world may do to us, consolation and pleasure are still within reach.
As Ed reminded us, Blanc de blancs are the most popular kind of France’s festive bubblies in the United States, even though not all Champagne houses make one. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t: Not every house has enough Chardonnay to supply its basic cuvée and make a Blanc de blancs. Chardonnay is the backbone of all Champagnes (except Blanc de noirs, of course) and there just isn’t enough of it within the Champagne zone.
That stretch of chalky ridges and hills probably constitutes the northernmost outpost of Chardonnay, and Ed believes that, as a northern extension of the Côte de Beaune and Chablis, it produces some of the finest and sturdiest Chardonnay in the world – but not a lot of it. The best lots, from Grand Cru sites like Mesnil, are especially scarce and very expensive, so a good Blanc de blancs is costly from the get-go. Rising demand for Blanc de blancs Champagnes will not make them any cheaper in the future, because there just isn’t much, if any, land available for new plantings within the Champagne appellation. So enjoy what we’ve got while we’ve got it – which is never bad advice, about anything.
Here, in the order in which they were presented, is the slate of wines Ed and the Media Guild gathered for this occasion, along with their suggested retail prices and selected comments – mostly Ed’s, but a few of mine – about each.
Barons de Rothschild (magnum) NV ($207 for magnum, $99 for 750ml) An ideal apéritif Champagne, Ed says: My palate agrees.
Collet NV ($55) New to the New York market: a small house, a cooperative, and not very familiar to Ed or any of the attendees. The wine is made from the top 10%, all Grands Crus, of the co-op’s hectares.
Mumm de Cramant NV ($64) Once upon a time, Mumm de Cramant was one of my favorite Champagnes, but I was disappointed in this bottle, which I thought distinctly short on charm. Ed liked it better than I did.
Henriot NV ($55) This house is one of my current favorites, and I like almost everything it makes. Today’s Blanc de blancs was no exception. Ed didn’t think it was showing well, but the bottle I tasted was absolutely fine.
Ruinart NV ($72) Always fine, Ed says, even though this isn’t Dom Ruinart, the house’s top-of-the-line Blanc de blancs. I thought it was lovely.
Gosset Grand Blanc NV ($77) A great Champagne house that people in the US don’t know enough about, Ed rightly says. For me, Gosset is right up with Henriot among my favorite Champagnes. I thought this Blanc de blancs was excellent.
Ayala 2008 ($85) Another house much more esteemed in France than known in the US: our loss. This was the first vintage Champagne of the lineup. Ed says the three great Champagne vintages of the past 20 years are 1996, 2002, and 2008, and this is one of the best Ayalas he’s had in quite a while.
Philippe Gonet Bellemnita Grand Cru 2005 ($300) A Blanc de blanc specialist located in Mesnil. This rare bottle, from a single site of old vines, was big and powerful but a little inelegant.
Dehours 2005 ($55) A Marne Valley grower and passionate Champagne maker: This wine is from a 1.3 hectare site – that’s about three acres – so there isn’t a lot of it.
Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 ($85) Another great Champagne house that does everything well, even in California. Brut Nature is relatively new to its line. Big and forceful, it’s a huge wine for a Blanc de blancs.
A.R. Lenoble 2008 ($64) A small producer in a grand cru village and a great vintage. Ed thinks it a great value.
Bruno Paillard 2006 ($90) Not in New York right now, but coming. Ed thinks it an outstanding wine from a fine house. Its proprietor considers 2006 a Chardonnay year par excellence.
André Jacquart Mesnil Brut Nature NV ($70) An NV Champagne placed among the vintage Champagnes because of its heft. I found it indeed big and fine, classic Blanc de blancs.
Pol Roger 2008 ($110 to $125) A famous and consistently fine Champagne house, showing a great vintage – “a stellar Champagne,” Ed says.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, ($199) Taittinger largely launched Blanc de blancs in modern times, and this bottle showed the house’s expertise. Consistently classic.
Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs 2002 ($300 to $350) There was some controversy about this wine, because one or two of the bottles were seriously off. Ed thought it excellent (he got one of the good bottles), though he thinks the 2002s are far from their peak. But oh, that price!
Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires 1995 ($190 to $199) A great, long-lived wine, long-finishing and elegant. Some people thought this the best wine of the day.
And there you have it: a delightful slate of Blanc de blancs Champagnes, ranging in heft from apéritif style to substantial dinner wines. For me, a perfect kick-off for the holidays. For you, I hope, a dossier of useful information. Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année !