Champagne’s Finest Hour

Champagne’s Finest Hour

Virtually every adult I’ve talked with over the holidays is staying home this New Year’s Eve–or at least within walking distance. Not good news for restaurants and grand hotel soirées, but the neighbourhood New Year’s Eve, centred on a small, intimate and elegant meal, does have several advantages. One is drinking fine Champagne without huge mark-ups, before, during or after the meal, and certainly during the finest hour when the countdown begins. Here are 10 favourite French Champagnes still on the shelf (most at Vintages) as of December 24, arranged in descending price order. The best buy, if grabbing a bottle or two on the fly, is the Lanson Black Label Brut at $39.95–$5.00 off the regular price until December 31. See review at the end of the list.

Krug Grande Cuvee Brut ***** ($244.95, Vintages)Champagne’s most famous house. Seamless, with plenty of personality and finesse. Yellow-gold colour indicates longer wood ageing that Krug receives. Gentle, fine aromas of yellow fruit, peanut brittle, butter and toast are very well integrated, and always revealing something new. Medium-full bodied, rich and fine on the palate. Outstanding length.

Moet & Chandon 1999 Rose Champagne **** ($89.95, Vintages) Fascinating to experience mature pink champagne, a genre that by all appearances shouldn’t be age-worthy. Pale salmon-amber colour. Some sweet raspberry-strawberry fruit miraculously holds on the nose, amid other toasty, earthy, twiggy notes, and a touch of garlicky lees. It’s mid-weight, firm, dry and grippy on the palate; with some elegance and very good length. Best with mild dishes; baked salmon comes to mind.

Pol Roger 1998 Extra Cuvee de Reserve ****1/2 ($74.95, Vintages)The nose is soft, with mature earthy, biscuit, marzipan and butter cream cookie notes. It’s mid-weight with great acid grip and integration; very lively, crisp and dynamic with flavours going to outstanding length. A mouthwatering, hauntingly long bubbly. For sipping or more delicate dishes.

Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut ****1/2 ($63.95, Vintages) A classic aged style with a rich, billowing nose of dried apple and cherry, butterscotch, brioche and slivered almonds. Also a touch of earthy oxidation from up to 10% older reserve wine in the blend, plus three years ageing in bottle. It’s medium-full bodied for Champagne, sweetish yet lively, with excellent focus and length. A style to consider at the table with rich white fish in cream sauces, maybe even poultry with mushrooms.

Roederer Brut Premier ****1/2 ($59.95, Vintages)An old standard that’s still among the best non-vintage bruts on the market. A fairly traditional, bold, dry style with intense toasted almond, hazelnut, lemon and dried fruit bouquet. It’s medium-full bodied (for bubbly) firm, focused, balanced and dry, with excellent length. For sipping or with stronger recipes.

Duval-Leroy Cuvée Design Paris **** ($59.95, Vintages)Too much emphasis on kitschy packaging often signals less focus on the wine quality. This is an exception–a racy, interesting Champagne with bright colour, intense aromas of buttered toast, dried fruit and something intriguing, mindful of fried onions. It’s mid-weight, tight and fresh with excellent length and dry finish. Rather festive.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ****1.2 ($54.95, Vintages)One of the most powerful in this list. Big yet well balanced Champagne with deep yellow-gold, mature colour. Aromatic fireworks with rich honey-corn syrup, toasted nuts, brioche. Full bodied, a touch sweet and bold yet avoiding soupiness. The length is excellent. With richer recipes and hors d’oeuvres. Quantities are somewhat limited in Toronto-area Vintages stores.

Ayala Brut Majeur **** ($46.95, Vintages)Shows fine freshness and cohesion, starting with well integrated floral, apple, honey and very light toasty scents. It’s light to medium-bodied with lively acidity and effervescence and a dry finish. No great depth but fine for the money. A sipping style that will also match seafood canapés.

Nicolas Feuillate Brut Reserve Particular *** ($41.05, LCBO)The lowest regularly priced Champagne at the LCBO is fine for large groups where few are paying attention to what’s in the glass. But it is simple, a bit soft and blurred in terms of flavours. The nose is the weakest link, with basic green grape fruitiness and some fishy minerality. It’s mid-weight, balanced, slightly sweet yet fresh, with good length.

Lanson Black Label ****1/2 ($39.95, Vintages) Even before its $5.00 discount (until Dec. 31) this was great value in serious, aged Champagne currently on the shelf. It’s quite toasty, mineral, lime and nutty with some dried fruit on the nose. Mid-weight with firm, crisp acidity and lively effervescence. Nicely taut. Will quench with shellfish or at the table.