Typically I don't even mention a wine here unless the blessed grape juice has passed my lips, but I'm making an exception in the run-up to New Year's Eve. While I've written about a lot of different wines here, covering many obscure grapes and lesser-known regions, one glaring omission has been proper Champagne. Oh, I pop Prosecco and Cava and Washington sparklers like cans of soda, but I almost never drink real Champagne. Why? Part of it is a cost issue, part of it is that most of my personal friends prefer the more everyday sparkling wines I serve, and the other part comes from the fact that all the wine samples I receive are still, not bubbly.
This shouldn't be taken to imply that I don't like Champagne--on the contrary, I'm quite fond of it. I've had Dom Perignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Taittinger, all of the big producers. But this year I wanted to ring in 2010 with something different, and so I turned to a pair of friends who happen to be both wine bloggers and wine retailers: Michael Hughes of Joe's Wines & Liquor in Midtown Memphis, and Samantha Dugan of The Wine Country in Signal Hill/Long Beach, California. Both of them have tasted much more Champagne than I have, so I issued them a challenge: collaborate, pick out an interesting selection for me around $50, and I'd buy a bottle here in town while plugging both stores*.
It didn't work out quite like I expected, but Sam and Michael performed admirably. Turns out that the selections and prices were much different between the two sides of the US, and without an individual bottle to recommend, it was time to switch to a certain category of Champagne.
There's an interesting trend of récoltants-manipulants or harvester-producers: farmers who have historically supplied grapes to the big houses, but have begun making their own small-batch Champagne. In the US, these wines are known as grower Champagnes, or sometimes the more casual "farmer fizz". While I've read quite a bit about this movement and admire it in the broader trend towards small production food and wine, I haven't ever had one myself.
Consensus was reached on the NV Gaston Chiquet Tradition, which I purchased at Joe's on Saturday. $53, 12.5% abv, made from 35% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier, 20% Pinot Noir. (A plurality of Pinot Meunier? Be still my beating heart!) According to the importer website, it's a blend of the 2004, 2002, 2001, 1998 vintages. I'm really excited about trying this wine, but I have to just stare at it for the next ten days.
Is this my official recommendation for your New Year's celebration? Well, it's what I'll be drinking, but I think I bought Michael's last bottle and Sam doesn't carry it. But if you're looking for my formal advice, I'd say try a grower Champagne. It's going to be something different, something individual, something with personality. I like Veuve Clicquot, but you can find that yellow label anywhere in the world at any time of year. When you buy a grower Champagne, you're one of a select few people who will be enjoying that specific wine as the clock ticks down to midnight. You can brag to your friends, impress that girl you've been dating, and most importantly, you'll be drinking a solidly produced wine rather than just an excuse for breaking out the sparkling wine flutes.
Many thanks to Michael and Sam for their assistance, and I'm sure this will be a New Year's Eve to remember!
*This isn't advertising, and I didn't receive any financial compensation for this project. Basically two good writers happen to be passionate about Champagne and are in the retail business. A knowledgeable wine salesperson who has the bottles on hand in your city is worth more than all of the Top 100 lists ever written. If you stop by Joe's or The Wine Country in search of a great Champagne for New Year's, tell 'em I sent you.