Feeling Bubbly?

It’s a great time to buy great Champagne, cheap.

Pity isn’t necessarily the first emotion conjured by news that major Champagne houses are choking on unsold inventory. It was only a few years ago that many of these producers were implementing extortionate price hikes; thus, word that sales have slumped amid the hangover from the global financial crisis is more apt to elicit schadenfreude than sympathy. The Champagne industry is getting a well-deserved kick. In this case, however, comeuppance is a drink best consumed chilled and effervescent. Prices have been slashed for many Champagnes, and it is a buyer’s market for the first time in a long time. Good deals can be had for nonvintage bubblies, but if you are feeling cautiously optimistic about the year ahead and are in the mood for a sensible splurge, there are also some excellent vintage Champagnes that can be purchased for tariffs that seem almost fair.

Champagne’s upended fortunes should come as no surprise. Champagne has traditionally been synonymous with luxury and celebration, but in the pre-Lehman, pre-Madoff boom years, companies like LVMH (owner of four prestigious Champagne houses—Krug, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, and Ruinart) played up this image relentlessly and priced their wines to reinforce the notion of exclusivity. (Here in the United States, the weak dollar helped make Champagne an even costlier indulgence.) But in the face of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, ostentation and revelry have given way to thrift and circumspection, and Champagne sales have tanked. According to the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, a trade association, exports to the United States and the United Kingdom, Champagne’s two biggest foreign markets, fell by 38 percent and 30 percent, respectively, through the first nine months of this year. There are reportedly more than 1 billion unsold bottles now clogging up warehouses and cellars in France’s Champagne region.

Not every Champagne maker was guilty of gouging; a number of grower Champagnes stayed reasonably priced even when the market was at its frothiest, as did some of the less status-conscious big houses. (Click here for a grower Champagne primer from the great importer—and farmer fizz champion—Terry Theise.) Regardless of how producers positioned themselves during the go-go years, the reality is that demand has declined sharply, and prices are falling as a result. Some of the biggest discounts are for iconic Champagnes. For instance, the 2002 Louis Roederer Cristal can be picked up for less than $175 a bottle, which is the cheapest I’ve seen Cristal in a while (I’m not buyin’, just sayin’…), and half-bottles of Krug’s Grande Cuvée are on some restaurant wine lists now for $60-$75. But there are also value plays further down the price scale. Nonvintage Champagnes from houses such as Roederer and Philipponnat can be found for as little as $30 a bottle. There are juicy deals, too, for vintage wines; the sensational 1996 Henriot Brut Millésimé can be purchased for around $70, and the 2000 Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésimé, discussed below, is available for as low as $50. Champagne’s pain is our gain, and there are enticing opportunities to be had if you care to look.

That’s not the only good news for consumers; there is also a surfeit of outstanding Champagne available. Despite its current economic woes, the Champagne region is probably the most exciting viticultural area in the world at the moment. Thanks to a small army of gifted artisanal winemakers, retail shelves are awash these days with excellent bubbly. And these producers aren’t just crafting fine wines of their own; they seem to be raising the standards for everyone. Admittedly, I am a Champagne junkie—if it pops, I am predisposed to think well of it—but I was struck by the overall quality of the wines that I tasted for this article; there was not a dud in the bunch. Moreover, the Champagne region has had a clutch of commendable vintages over the last 15 years or so, which means there is plenty of good stuff to choose from.

So what is a sensible splurge for a vintage Champagne? Less than $100 struck me as a reasonable definition, and some of the wines that I tried for this article are well below that ceiling. (If you’d prefer to keep it even cheaper, my recommendations from last year, for bargain bubblies , should still come in handy.) A good example is the 2004 Diebolt-Vallois Brut Blanc de Blancs, a lithe, mineral-driven, delicious all-chardonnay Champagne (hence the blanc de blancs) from a producer that enjoys considerable cachet among aficionados. At $60 a bottle, I wouldn’t call it a steal, but it is priced very fairly for the quality Champagne. Salon is another insider’s favorite, albeit a far more expensive one; it is produced in small quantities and only in very good years. (If you work for Goldman Sachs and happen to be reading this, the cosmically brilliant ‘96 Salon can still be found for under $300.) But Salon has an excellent and comparatively affordable sister Champagne called Delamotte. Like Salon (and the Diebolt-Vallois), the 1999 Delamotte Brut Blanc de Blancs ($80) is 100 percent chardonnay and is a thoroughly charming wine: It offers a seamless, elegant blend of citrus, yeast, and nut flavors topped out by very refreshing acidity. I was impressed, too, by the 2002 Philipponnat Grand Blanc ($80), a Champagne also composed only of chardonnay; lime, honey, ginger, roasted nut, and floral aromas soar out of the glass, leading to a zesty, harmonious wine that showcases the superb quality of the ‘02 vintage.

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils is one of the preeminent grower Champagne houses, and the 2005 Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Gastronome ($55), which is also all-chardonnay, shows why this producer enjoys such renown. Combining bright citrus and apple flavors with fantastic minerality and acidity and an almost sinewy texture, it is a wine bursting with complexity and verve. I also liked the 2004 Jean Milan Brut Symphorine ($70), a blanc de blancs from another estimable grower. It is a more plush Champagne than the Gimonnet but offers excellent fruit (pear with a twist of lime) and also evinces a strong mineral aspect, which takes the form of an enthralling seashell aroma. (No, you will not hear the ocean if you put the glass to your ear.) Cédric Bouchard, a young grower in the Côte des Bars part of Champagne, has been generating a lot of buzz, both for his unorthodox practices and for the results they are yielding. All of his Champagnes are single-vineyard and crafted from a single grape variety. (Champagne is customarily a blend of vineyards and grapes.) And Bouchard’s wines are all single-vintage, even those that are sold as nonvintage. Bouchard’s Inflorescence Brut Blanc de Noirs ($56) is made entirely of pinot noir (hence the blanc de noirs), and the current release consists of fruit that was harvested in 2007. The year can’t appear on the bottle because the wine was not aged for the minimum 36-month-period required to qualify as a vintage-dated Champagne, but to hell with legalities—it is effectively a vintage Champagne and worth including here. The Inflorescence has a seductive bouquet of pear, toffee, flowers, and ginger, which gives way to a full-bodied, rather opulent Champagne that has superb depth of flavor and an intense finish that will linger as long as you let it.

Several of the less status-conscious big houses are also producing compelling Champagnes these days. The 1999 Gosset Brut Grand Millésime ($80), a blend of 56 percent chardonnay and 44 percent pinot noir, is a hefty but elegant Champagne redolent of peaches, toffee, cinnamon, and toast. The wine’s sumptuousness is leavened by its mouth-watering acidity and a pronounced mineral note. Gosset is a name worth keeping in mind this holiday season, as is Henriot, another of the smaller big houses. I’ve been really impressed by Henriot’s recent offerings, and the 1998 Henriot BrutMillésimé ($80) is no exception. Serving up a whiff of tangerine, salted nuts, and chalk, it is a supple, marvelously poised Champagne with an almost caressing quality about it. Charles Heidsieck is also on a winning streak of late. The aforementioned 2000 Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésimé ($70) opens with an exuberantly fruity nose (peach, citrus), which turns out to be something of a head fake; on the palate, the wine is all about refinement and harmoniousness. A long finish rounds out a very satisfying Champagne. The 2000 Piper-Heidsieck Brut ($65), comprised primarily of pinot noir, is a strapping, very winey Champagne that fills every crevice of the mouth—it might even fill cavities. I liked the Piper a lot, but it’s the kind of voluptuous Champagne that will show best in the company of food (and serving bubbly with your holiday meal will not only be a gastronomically enlightened move, as Champagne happens to make terrific food wine; it will be a savvy way of economizing on booze costs).

I also liked some other Champagnes. In no particular order, they were:

2002 Taittinger Brut Millésimé ($70)
2002 Deutz Brut ($80)
2003 Louis Roederer Brut ($70)
2002 Gatinois Brut ($65)
2003 Pierre Peters Brut Millesime ($77)
2000 Saint-Chamant Brut Cuvée de Chardonnay ($80)
2002 Agrapart & Fils Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs Minéral ($60)

Here’s hoping the Champenois a modest recovery in 2010—just enough to ease their economic distress, but not enough to entice them to get greedy again.

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