A closer look at some fine Champagnes

Raise a glass: There are Champagnes and there are imitators

While I don’t think Champagne really has a season, we are getting to that time of year when corks inappropriately pop with abandon and bubbly is the toast of the town.

Champagne is in a class unto itself. Other great sparkling wines are made, but few are as complex and seductive as Champagne. Those that match it are usually just as expensive, and I’d rather have the real thing.

Terroir, that awful French word that I use from time to time, defines Champagne more than the method. Champagne’s soil varies from town to town, and as such, the three main Champagne grapes — pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier — are often planted in different areas. Most Champagne is blended, with the first two grapes being more widely used. While you can get an overall sense of Champagne’s generally chalky terroir, the wines are often more identifiable by the producer’s style.

The one place where this is not as true is in the Côtes des Blancs, an area that has several grand and premier crus that make outstanding blanc de blancs Champagne using chardonnay. Cramant and le Mesnil-sur-Oger rival one another for top-dog glory — but Avize and Oger, which are also grand crus, up are there as well. Vertus is a premier cru at the southern end of the Côtes des Blancs that is also known for its stunning, silky wines. The best-known Champagne houses from Krug to Salon make wines in the Côtes de Blancs, but often the real stars are made by lesser-known producers, at a fairer price. Here are three:

Champagne A. Robert Grand Cru Le Mesnil sur Oger Blanc de Blancs, Cuvée de Reserve, NV: Prior to World War I, most of the Robert family worked for Veuve Clicquot. By the war’s end, a significant amount of Champagne’s vineyards were obliterated and many laborers lost their jobs. The upside to this is that land was very inexpensive and, over time, various Roberts purchased property and turned much of it into vineyards. Bertrand Robert, Andre’s son, buys a lot of this fruit and makes it at his winery in Le Mesnil sur Oger, a grand cru. This Champagne has not spent any time in wood, yet it has a pungent vanilla character, laced with minerals and apples and featuring a long, yeasty finish. Especially considering all the grapes came from grand cru vineyards, this is a steal. Suggested retail: $39.99

Champagne Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, Brut Blanc de Blancs, Cuvee Gastronome, 2006: This is some seriously good juice made from 80 percent Cramant fruit, with the rest coming from other parts of the Côtes de Blancs. Gimonnet’s wines are generally elegant with nervy acidity, but this wine has a balanced richness to it. Minerally with lemon rind, brioche and cream, from the nose to the finish it displays awesomeness. Suggested retail: $49.99

Champagne CH. & A. Prieur, Grand Prieur Blanc de Blanc, NV: Champagne CH. & A. Prieur was the first Champagne house in Vertus, staking claim to vineyard land in 1825. It came under the ownership of young growers in 2005 and entered my world at a recent wine tasting. Across the board, the wines are stunning. The Grand Prieur Blanc de Blancs sits right on the border of being defined by its yeastiness but never quite goes there, retaining a good presence of apple fruit, nuts, brioche and a dynamic, almond-like finish. Suggested retail: $63

Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.

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