Oh, come on, of course there’s an occasion this week that demands a bottle of Champagne! The rumored indictment was not handed down, or at least the judge went easy on you; the auditors didn’t notice that the decimal point was four places to the right; the bills were unmarked — and no one died! Or maybe it’s just the right day and the right time, and the right person is present with whom sharing a bottle of Champagne makes absolute sense. We enjoyed immensely the Duval-Leroy Brut, which I bought as the major ingredient in the French 75 cocktail, but after that purpose you can bet that we didn’t let the rest of the bottle go to waste.

The house of Duval-Leroy has been owned by the same family since 1859. The winery is in the village of Vertus, a Premier Cru village — according to Champagne’s official and somewhat abstruse rating system — located deep in the south of the chardonnay-dominated Cote des Blancs where pinot noir vineyards come back into play. For what might be called a “basic” product, the Duval-Leroy Brut, non-vintage, displays wonderful character and depth to bolster its immediate appeal. Tom Stevenson, in his World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised edition, 2003), says that the blend is 75 percent chardonnay and 25 percent pinot noir. The color is pale blond-gold tremendously enlivened by a taut upward surge of frothing, glinting bubbles. The first aromas occur in the form of acacia, apple, cinnamon toast and chalky/limestone-like minerality; within a few moments notes of fresh biscuits, honeysuckle and ginger emerge. While exhibiting terrific substance and presence, the Duval-Leroy Brut is elegant and suave, yet surprisingly spicy for all its finesse; flavors of roasted lemon and baked pear are permeated by quince and ginger, a touch of toasted almond, a hint of candied grapefruit. The limestone element grows as moments elapse, and, of course, the effervescence and chiming acidity keep it invigorating and engaging. Works wonders with lightly salted popcorn (not buttered!) and a handful of cashews. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $28 to $40; I paid $35 in Memphis.

Readers, several weeks ago, on a whim, I embarked on a research project about the classic cocktail called the French 75, named for the World War I-era artillery piece. I have been trying French 75s in bars and restaurants all over town; my research culminates in a series of articles for my Restaurant Insider column that runs in the Saturday Memphis News. The first part occurs this Saturday, July 23. In the meanwhile, because I have swallowed mainly “house versions” of the French 75, including a bizarre rendition that not only contained far more gin than sparkling wine but — sacre bleu! — a healthy pour of grenadine, I decided to make some at home for LL and me. I followed the recipe in my favorite bartender’s guide, the snappily written, perceptive and persnickety Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (Viking, 1998), by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead.

4 ounces Champagne
1/4 ounce gin
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce lemon juice

Shake gin, Cointreau and lemon juice with cracked ice; strain into a chilled flute. Top with chilled Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist. (Harrington and Moorhead permit a variation with cognac instead of gin, which makes a very different cocktail, you bet.)

The quality of the sparkling wine makes a difference. Most of the French 75s I have sampled lately in local bars have been made with inexpensive California or anonymous French sparkling wine. At one place, a young bartender used Mumm Cordon Rouge by mistake; it certainly made a superior cocktail (though she used too much lemon juice). I employed the Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut — I paid $35 locally — and that was even better. Tanqueray Gin, naturally, not a gin that’s too assertive. I thought I had an old bottle of Cointreau gathering dust in the back of the liquor cabinet, but that was not the case, so I had to buy one of those too, about $27 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle. This was beginning to be not a cheap cocktail, but if you’re going to do something it has to be done right. And of course after we had our excellent cocktails — and they were excellent, the best — we drank most of the rest of the Champagne. And Cointreau lasts practically forever. Gin, not so long in our house.

If you’re going to emulate my efforts, remember that 1/4 ounce equals 1 and 1/2 teaspoons. And, no, you don’t have to pour real Champagne, but do make certain that it’s a good-quality sparkling wine. Use a good peeler to render a very thin strip of lemon peel for the garnish.

A great French 75 is actually easy to make, and it’s a perfect cocktail for summer, light, delicate, effervescent and a little piece of cocktail history.

I bought a bottle of Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut late last year, and we drank it with the New Year’s Day breakfast of fried eggs, country ham, red-eye gravy, grits and biscuits. I posted a review as the 8th Day of my annual “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series and included it back in January in my “Best Wines of 2010″ post. A few weeks ago, casting about for a Champagne to sip while LL was opening her birthday present, I decided to purchase another bottle from the same store; this bottle is from the same batch that was disgorged in November 2007 after spending 40 months in the bottle on the lees, that is, the spent yeast cells that can contribute depth and character to white wines; it’s common for high-class chardonnays to rest on the lees (sur lie) in barrels for the same reason.

Calculating in reverse, we can conclude that the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut was bottled around July 2004 and that the principle grapes came from vintage 2003, so the product in question is about eight years old. It’s unusual for a non-vintage Champagne to spend 40 months on the lees and also for a Champagne to be made completely from red pinot meunier grapes, which typically form the lesser percentage in a Champagne that uses greater amounts of chardonnay and pinot noir. Pinot meunier is important in Champagne because it buds late and ripens early, qualities that are useful in the region’s demanding wintery climate.

Here’s what I wrote about Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut on Jan 1, 2010:

The color is pale gold-blond with silver highlights; the infinitesimally tiny bubbles surge upward in a dynamic fountain. What is most fascinating about this champagne is the way in which every aspect of it must be abrogated to the concept of steel. It smells like apples, poached pears, thyme and steel. Oh, and it smells like brioche, hazelnuts and steel. And, oh yes, it offers flavors of spiced pear, ginger, lemon curd and steel. It displays the elegance of steel and the power of steel and altogether seems to be an entity for which the adjective “steely” was conceived. Yet there’s warmth here too, a subtle attractiveness; before it goes all high-toned and austere, this champagne kicks up its heels a bit. Excellent. And fascinating. About $70.

Now, 18 months later, this Champagne has lost a great deal of its steely, scintillating minerality and has tamped down its lovely elevated, balletic nature, but it has gained depth and power; previously, it was cool and elegant, though certainly full-bodied and intense, but now it’s warmer, spicier, bursting with mature notes of buttered cinnamon toast, toasted almonds and toffee, roasted lemon, an almost tropical strain of ginger and quince, and a heaping helping of cloves. Fortunately, it retains acid grip and limestone for structural tenacity and an extended finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. I would say that with proper storage the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut should drink well through 2014. Excellent and still fascinating. About $70 for me locally, though you see it around the country as low as $55.

North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Ca.

… and you don’t have a really long time — like, about six hours — to decide (and buy) what you’re going to offer to your sweetheart — of whatever persuasion, genre, gender, age, nationality — in terms of vinous pleasure at whatever kind of festivity you have planned tonight, whether full-fledged romantic dinner, discreet tête à tête or a discussion about the nature of love vis-a-vis Plato and Augustine in a bosky dell, so let’s cut to the freakin’ chase, brothers and sisters, and remember two words: Brut Rosé, as in Champagne and other forms of sparkling wine. I’m just trying to help.

Image from

Three from the actual Champagne region of France:

The pale copper-salmon Bollinger Brut Rosé — Bollinger is purveyor to the British Royal Family, so the label is getting a lot of play this spring — is as high-toned and elegant as brut rose gets; this is very dry, all steel and stones, but with hints of strawberry shortcake and biscuits, dried red currants, an idea more than a notion of cinnamon toast with a touch of orange marmalade, but still supremely poised and sophisticated. It’s a blend of 62 percent pinot noir grapes, 24 chardonnay and 14 pinot meunier. Very impressive for the beloved; he or she will love you for this. Excellent. About $100.
Terlato Wines International. A sample for review.

Not to make this all educationy, but notice the slight difference in the blend for the Taittinger Prestige Rosé (in comparison to the Bollinger Brut Rosé above): 55 percent pinot noir, 30 chardonnay and 15 pinot meunier. Many other factors are involved, natch, but the Taittinger Prestige Rosé comes out a little rounder, a little more creamy/crisp in effect; fresh bread, macerated raspberries, dried strawberries with a touch of something wild like mulberries (dark and musky), and tantalizing elements of orange zest, cloves and almonds. Quite substantial yet effortless and ineffable. Excellent, again, irresistible, a playful kiss that mid-way turns serious. Prices around the U.S.A. range from about $55 to $75.
Kobrand Corp. A sample for review.

Third in this triumvirate is the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé, and the blend here is 60 percent pinot noir, 30 pinot meunier and 10 chardonnay, an interesting reversal of the latter two grapes. The color and bead are entrancing, like a foam of pale golden fireworks seething in a faint tangerine/topaz sheathe that at the bottom is almost transparent. Yes, and add to that enchantment dried strawberries and cranberries (with the latter’s hint of wild tartness), toasted almonds and brioche, an elevating aura of crisp and crystalline acidity, effervescence and transparent-seeming limestone. Really attractive and rated Very Good+. Prices around our nation vary from about $35 to $49, so this is the bargain of the group.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Not a sample.
Three alternatives, because as fine as Champagne can be, all the world’s sparkling wine is not produced in that august region nor does it have to be so expensive; you pays yer money and you takes yer choice:

The pale peach/copper colored Mumm Napa Brut Rosé, Napa Valley, used to be the winery’s Blanc de Noirs, but Brut Rose, after all, sounds a little more romantic and enticing. Made from 85 percent pinot noir grapes and 15 percent chardonnay, this is boldly spicy, intense, with well-wrought heft and dimension; strawberry/raspberry with dried red currants, orange zest, spiced tea; dry, crisp, stony, smoky. Mesmerizing stream of tiny bubbles; dynamic effervescence and tone, gratifying concentration and weight; close to elegant. Excellent. About $24, though often discounted as low as $19.
Not a sample.

After its torrent of tiny glistening bubbles in a pale copper/onion skin hue, the Scharffenberger Brut Rosé, Mendocino County (54 percent pinot noir, 46 chardonnay), is refined and polished, exquisitely proportioned in its emphasis on spareness and suppleness; layers of limestone and flint envelop notes of dried raspberries and red currants, orange zest and orange Pekoe tea buoyed by lively acidity; a few minutes in the glass unfold more ripeness and fleshiness, as if the fruit were more spiced and macerated than dried. Really charming. Very Good+. Suggested retail price is about $25, though I (gratefully) paid $19.
Not a sample, obviously.

I tasted — i.e., drank all I could get my hands on — of the Alma Negra Malbec Rosé 2009 back in October when I was in its home region of Mendoza, Argentina, and I was pleased to find that it’s available in the U.S. of A., though only 2,000 cases were produced, so you may have to make a few phone calls in its behalf. This is absolutely delightful, though quite subtle, a weaving of dried strawberries with peach, orange rind, hints of toasted almonds and a bit of almond blossom; dry and thoroughly laced with limestone yet soft in texture, almost cloud-like, so suave and drinkable. Plus, it has this great, mysterious packaging! Very Good+. About $20, though you can find it as low as $17.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.

Following a godlike whim, I sprang for a bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 for New Year’s Eve, and while you may call be a creature touched by the wing of madness, I’m not sorry, nor is LL. We reveled in the damned stuff!

Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne is one of the region’s legendary luxury products, along with such hallowed tête de cuvée or grand marque Champagnes as Moët et Chandon’s Dom Perignon; Louis Roederer Cristal; Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill; Krug Clos de Mesnil; Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame; Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne; Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle “La Cuvée”; Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises; and, perhaps in a class by itself, Salon. These rare and costly bottles of bubbly are the stuff of dreams and well-tended expense accounts, beloved by hip-hop artists and soccer idols, tsars and potentates.

What makes a truly great Champagne great are the same factors that make any wine truly great: the most impressive character, tone and presence derived from exceptional vineyards and wedded to impeccable craftsmanship. Sounds easy!

Taittinger traces its origin to 1743 and founder Jacques Fourneaux. Almost 200 years later, that is in 1932, the house was acquired by Pierre Taittinger, who was also able, because of the hard times, to buy a number of important vineyards, as well as the 13th Century chateau of the Comtes de Champagne. Taittinger first produced its flagship Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, named for Thibaut IV whose device appears on the label and neck, from the vintage of 1952. It is made completely from chardonnay grapes, primarily from Grand Cru vineyards, though not all owned by the company. The Champagnes of Taittinger are more notable for finesse and elegance than for power and substance, yet while Comtes de Champagne evokes that principle it expands on those qualities into awesome realms of intensity, purity and dimension.

Tom Stevenson, in World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), says, ” … it is a crime to drink this wine before its tenth birthday; 15 to 20 years is the optimum window to show both freshness and complexity, and the best vintages keep improving for at least 30 years.” Vintage 1998 was excellent in Champagne, though perhaps not spectacular like 1996. At least by popping the cork after 12 years we weren’t committing infanticide.

Our bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 — which we accompanied with 1.06 ounces of Royal Osetra caviar from Petrossian in New York on lightly toasted slices of baguette — opened almost shyly. At 12 years old, the color was still pale gold but radiant, while the surge of tiny, foaming bubbles was shamelessly prolific and entrancing. The bouquet, however, took a few moments to gently unfurl its seductive aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and acacia flower, all ensconced in an immense manifestation of cinnamon toast and freshly baked biscuits slathered with honey; in three words — To Die For. All right, I used the word “honey,” though my implication is not sweetness but richness, and richness that’s fairly tightly focused, rather than broad and general, since this is a Champagne composed of myriad tissues of delicacies woven into a fabric that wonderfully balances — oops, I automatically switched tenses for a sense of immediacy! — the ephemeral and evanescent and elegant with a dynamic structure of staggering acidity and monumental (but ever so lacy) limestone. So in body and flavor that feeling and form of balance toes the line from beginning to end: bracing as a sea-breeze over a salt marsh yet succulent as hazelnut cream and warm brioche; earthy as a crushed walnut yet dainty as a petal of orange blossom. My point is the whatever profundities Comtes de Champagne 1998 embodies, it remains the epitome of grace and refinement and high style. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional.

As to price, I paid $179, but around the country Comtes de Champagne 1998 can be found as low as $150 and as towering as $300. Seen in those terms, I sort of got a bargain.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., New York.

What could be more straightforward than that? Not that all lists aren’t arbitrary in some degree, but after going through all the posts from 2010 on this blog several times and doing some cogitating and sighing and reluctant winnowing, here they are, The 50 Best Wines of 2010, as experienced by me and written about last year. Wines that I tasted in 2010 but haven’t written about yet will not show up on this list, nor will older vintages that I was lucky enough to taste, which I do damned little enough anyway. The order is wines I rated Exceptional, alphabetically, followed by wines I rated Excellent, alphabetically. Where I think such factors might be helpful, I list percentages of grapes and, for limited edition wines, the case production, if I know it. Prices begin at about $25 and go up to $200, with most, however, in the $30s, $40s and $50s.
<>Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley. Richard Arrowood’s new label. 996 cases. Exceptional. About $80.

<>Catena Alta Adrianna Chardonnay 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $35. (Winebow, New York)

<>Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru 2007, Chablis, France. 130 six-bottle cases imported. Exceptional. About $72. (Dreydus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $150, though prices around the country range up to $225. (Winebow, New York)

<>Vincent Girardin Corton Renardes Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes 2007, Burgundy, France. Exceptional. About $70. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.)

<>Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. Exceptional. About $38. (USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 75 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

<>Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 974 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

<>Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $32.

<>Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 275 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

<>Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.

<>Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 490 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
<>Alma Negra Misterio 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. The red grapes in this blend are never revealed, but count on malbec, cabernet franc and bonarda. Excellent. About $30-$33. (Winbow, New York)

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

<>Francois Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Reserve Brut Cépage Chardonnay (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $60. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65. (Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.)

<>Brovia Sorí del Drago Barbera d’Asti 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $20-$28. (Neal Rosenthal, New York)

<>Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches (blanc) 2007, Burgundy, France. 600 cases imported. Excellent. $100-$110. (Dreyfus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Easton Old Vines Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, Amador County. “Old Vines” meaning back to 1865. Excellent. About $28.

<>Egly-Ouriet Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” (nonvintage). Champagne, France. Made, unusually, from all pinot meunier grapes. Excellent. About $70. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,993 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Bodegas Fariña Gran Dama de Toro 2004, Toro, Spain. Tempranillo with six percent garnacha. Excellent. About $45. (Specialty Cellars, Santa Fe Springs, Cal.)

<>Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse 2008, Burgundy, France. Excellent. About $30. (Kobrand, New York)

<>Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Veuve Fourny Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot noir with a dollop of chardonnay. Excellent. About $55. (Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 407 cases. Excellent. About $46.

<>Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2006, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $45-$55. (Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.)

<>Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Haton et Fils “Cuvée Rene Haton” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $62. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Heller Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 154 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Domaine Huet Brut Vouvray Petillant 2002, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $30-$35. (Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York)

<>Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County. 81 percent pinot noir/19 percent chardonnay. 950 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. With 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $52.

<>Kruger-Rumf Munsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008, Nahe, Germany. Excellent. About $22-$25. (Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.)

<>Margerum Rosé 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 100 cases. Excellent. About $21.

<>Mendel Semillon 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, Excellent. About $25. (Vine Connection, Sausalito, Cal.)

<>Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umpqua Valley, Oregon. 75 cases. Excellent. About $28.

<>Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2005, Napa Valley. With 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. 393 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $90.

<>Joseph Phelps Insignia 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. about $200.

<>Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1992, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. Renaissance holds wines longer than any other winery; this dessert wine was released in 2008. Production was 364 cases of half-bottles. Excellent. About $35.

<>Renaissance Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. 63 cases. Excellent. About $45.

<>Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $22.

<>St. Urban-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Piesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Excellent. About $55. (HB Wine Merchants, New York)

<>Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $42.

<>Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $25.

<>Tardieu-Laurent Les Becs Fins 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, France. 50 percent syrah/50 percent grenache. 1,008 cases imported. Excellent. About $22. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.)

<>Chateau Tour de Farges Vin Doux Natural 2006, Muscat de Lunel, France. Excellent. About $24. (Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal.)

<>V. Sattui Black-Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 400 cases. Available at the winery or mail order. Excellent. About $40.

<>Yangarra Estate Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, Australia. 500 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29. (Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.)
Coming Next: 25 Fantastic Wine Bargains.

It’s a bit disconcerting to see marketing nicknames on the labels of a real Champagne made in the, you know, actual region of Champagne. Not that making and selling Champagne isn’t a business; of course marketing is called for, as in any other business. And of course there’s not a thing wrong with indicating the different types of Champagne you make with different colored capsules; that makes sense. To call the product by that color on the label, however, seems a trifle crass. I’m referring to the Heidsieck & Co. Monopole “Blue Top” Brut. One wonders if the marketing people behind this scheme hope that “Blue Top” will become a by-word, as in a guy sidles up to the bar and sings out, “Barkeep, pour me a slender flute of Blue Top!” And the bartender sings back, “Need a pop? Try Blue Top!” (My model is: “What’s the word? Thunderbird!”) Heidsieck Monopole also has a “Silver Top” (Brut Reserve), “Rose Top” (Brut Rosé), “Green Top” (Demi Sec), “Red Top” (Sec) and “Gold Top” (Vintage Brut).

Heidsieck & Co Monopole, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck all trace their origins to Florens-Louis Heidsieck, who established the company in 1785. I won’t delve into the multi-tangled history of the three houses and how they became separated by reasons of birth and marriage and other familial and non-familial relationships. It’s sufficient to say that Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck are owned by Remy-Cointreau, while Heidsieck & Co. Monopole is owned by Vranken Pommery.

So, to the bottle in question.

I was skeptical, but gradually Heidsieck Monopole “Blue Top” Brut won me over. Pinot noir is the backbone of this house; the composition here is 70 percent pinot noir, 20 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot meunier. We’re not talking about utter refinement or elegance in this Champagne; rather, it makes its point by assertive substance and presence. The color is pale gold; seemingly billions of teeny-tiny bubbles course upward in a twisting fountain. The effect of “Blue Top” is very toasty and yeasty, and the bouquet offers notes of pears and roasted lemon, almond peel and almond blossom and a winsome note of honeysuckle and hazelnuts. Minerality comes right up behind, and in the mouth this crisp, dry Champagne practically balloons with crystalline acidity, rampant limestone and chalk and immense reserves of spice, as in spiced citrus flavors, spice cake and a final touch of grapefruit baked with brown sugar and cloves. No, this is not some shivery, silvery, ultra-blond sophisticate, but the sense of dynamism and earthiness that “Blue Top” conveys is definitely fun. Excellent. About $40 in my town but down-priced from $25 to $35 in cities all over our great nation.

Imported by Vranken Pommery America, New York. Tried once at a retailer’s tasting and once from a sample for review (not from the importer).

Tonight is the Big Eve, the occasion upon which one year abruptly terminates and another quickly takes its place; the night for which all forms of sparkling wine were invented. Believe me, you’ll need that glass of bubbly at midnight when you’re standing in a packed room singing “Auld Lang Syne” with a bunch of people you only see once a decade.

Let me offer you, My Readers, four examples of different sorts of sparkling wines, available at different prices and appropriate for different events. They hail from Spain, Italy, Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and Champagne, as in France. With the exception of the Fourny Brut Rosé, these were samples for review.
Did you invite a mob over tonight? Say the Chilean miners and their wives as well as the combined contestants of Survivor: Surface of the Sun, American Idolatry and The Biggest Loser in History? No need to drop a bundle on your bubbly. Hie thyself tothe nearest wine and liquor store and snap up several cases of the Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, a CAVA sparkling wine from Spain that’s as amazing for its quality as it is for its price, or vice versa. This is a typical CAVA blend of 50 percent macabeo grapes, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo, hands downs my favorite grape name. The color is pale straw-blond. Bubbles are prolific, though the ones that cling to the inside of the glass are slightly larger than the teensy ones that froth up through the middle. It’s a stones and bones sparkler, trifling with sweetness at the entry but immediately segueing into vibrant, crisp dryness buoyed by scintillating limestone. Roasted lemon and lemon balm, hints of tangerine and orange zest, a faint pass at a floral element: all of these qualities add up to lovely charm and delicacy. Very Good. About $10 or $11, but often discounted around the country to $8 or $9.

Imported by Freixenet USA, Sonoma, Cal.
Nino Franco Rustico is consistently one of my favorite prosecco sparkling wines. The grape is called prosecco and so is the product, which is made in the Veneto region in Northeast Italy. Rather than being made in the champagne method of seccond fermentation in the bottle, prosecco is made in the Charmat process in which the second fermentation, which produces the bubbles, occurs in large tanks. The pale straw-gold Nino Franco Rustico is a lightly yet persistently sparkling wine that’s delicate and elegant, but a little earthy, bursting with almond blossom and citrus notes, and lemon-pear flavors resting on a vigorous bed of limestone. Charming, yet with gratifying character. Very Good+. About $17 to $20.

Imported by VinDivino, Chicago.
Let’s say first that the J Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley, is not just effervescent but exhilarating; at the same time, it embodies a sense of engaging elegance and suavity. This is a blend of 56 percent pinot noir and 44 percent chardonnay. The color is pale strawberry-blond; the bouquet exudes subtle scents of smoky peach, strawberry and dried red currants permeated by fresh biscuits, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and the skins of roasted almonds (think of a slim nuance of sweet, bitter and nutty), all backed by clean fresh limestone-like minerality. This is ripe and fleshy in the mouth, an almost thrilling amalgam of tangerine, spiced peach and lime peel supervised rather smartly by crisp acidity and that ever-present limestone element. The finish is long, balanced and lively. We were drinking the J Brut Rosé while snacking on a Spanish cocktail mix that included almonds, dried chickpeas, dried favas and dried corn, with lots of salt and spice. Yeah, that was good. Excellent. About $35.
Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Vve Fourny et Fils Vertus Brut — to give its full name — is my new favorite Champagne. I had a sip at a tasting, and when I left I went promptly to a store and bought a bottle. Fourny is a small, family-owned house, founded in 1856, in the village of Vertus; its products are made only from Premier Cru vineyards. The color is very pale sunset peach with a shimmering core of lightly tarnished silver; the bubbles surge upward in a constant tempest of glinting froth. Except for a dollop of chardonnay, this is all pinot noir. The typical elements of a brut rosé Champagne are present — strawberry, dried red currants, orange zest — but packed with roasted lemon, cloves, lilac, crystallized ginger and spiced quince jam, this attractive array subdued, however, to a higher purpose of purity, intensity and elegance. You know how it is with some wines, of whatever type –still, sparkling; red, white — they just flat-out look and smell and feel great, exuding impeccable tone, integrity and confidence, as well as pleasure and delight; that’s the case with this. Excellent. I paid about $55; prices on the Internet range from about $45 to $60.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.
Whoa, My Readers, I just realized that this is the last post of 2010. Please have a safe, happy and festive New Year’s Eve and don’t forget to fire up the pot for your blackeyed peas, hog jowl and turnip greens tomorrow.

Technically, and actually legally, the bubbly stuff that’s made in the Champagne region of north-central France is Champagne, and everything else is sparkling wine. The French government frowns upon other countries trespassing upon this sacred name, and the United States of America has signed a trade agreement with France that forbids the use of the name Champagne on bottles of sparkling wine made in this country. A few exceptions were made — lord knows why — for some wineries like Korbel that were grandfathered in.

Definitely the real thing is the Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, a non-vintage blend of 60 percent pinot noir — pinot noir is the heart of the house of Bollinger — 25 percent chardonnay and 15 percent pinot meunier, a red grape seldom seen outside the Champagne region. Bollinger was founded in 1829; in 2008, Jerome Philipon became managing director, the first time since 1889 that the house was not run by a member of the family. Bollinger, one of the few independent houses in Champagne, also owns the Champagne house of Ayala, Maison Chanson in Burgundy, Langlois-Chateau in the Loire Valley and Delamain in Cognac. The estate is unusual in Champagne in that it ferments and ages its wine in oak barrels.

Bollinger became the supplier of Champagne to the Royal Family of Great Britain in 1884, so you know what will be poured in copious amounts at the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29, 2011.

Bollinger Special Cuvée displays a radiant medium gold color and a dynamic whirlwind of tiny bubbles. It’s boldly toasty, with notes of acacia, roasted lemon and toffee apple over hints of roasted hazelnuts, quince jam and ginger. This is all about presence and substance, intensity and concentration, about character that verges on dignity. Bollinger Special Cuvée is quite dry, but round and generous and vivacious, richly endowed with spicy, slightly woody overtones and grand reserves of limestone-like minerality. The broad finish lasts and lasts. A great experience. 12 percent alcohol. 8,000 cases imported. Excellent. About $65.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill. A sample for review.

I’m always on the look-out for champagnes from small producers as alternatives to the familiar labels from the highly marketed houses. Sometimes, because of their high production and total ubiquity, these champagnes seem more anonymous than if they emerged from obscure family-owned vineyards.

Well worth a search are the impeccably-made champagnes from the small house of François Billion Pére et Fils, located in the village of Le Mesnil sur Oger (pop. 1,258), officially designated a Grand Cru vineyard area for chardonnay; this region of Champagne is called Côte de Blancs because of its chalky white soil. Le Mesnil sur Oger is home to a number of small and medium-size producers, including Pierre Peters, Guy Charlemagne, Bardy-Chauffert and the luxury house of Salon.

The François Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Réserve Brut, Cépage Chardonnay, is, in a word, magnificent, with all that term implies of presence, tone and allure. Spending three years in the bottle before release, this sizable champagne — the color of palest gold, flecked with an infinity of surging bubbles — offers powerful notes of fresh-baked bread, cinnamon toast and smoke wreathed with roasted pears, acacia and honeysuckle. It’s a substantial champagne yet light on its feet, a seemingly effortless amalgam of energy and elegance, like a blond cauldron of boundless acidity married to the delicacy of pinpoint citrus flavors. A few minutes in the glass bring out nuances of toasted hazelnuts, a hint of crystallized ginger and candied grapefruit and then, far more than a nuance, a tide of chalk and shale that adds depth and weight to the long finish. Excellent. About $60.

The ruddy copper-salmon colored François Billion Spécial Rosé Brut is a blend of 70 percent Grand Cru chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir. The bouquet — fitting word! — teems with strawberries and raspberries and dried red currants with backnotes of fresh-baked biscuits, cloves and rose petals. This champagne is very dry and crisp, quite toasty, in fact almost briery in its (paradoxically) expanding spareness and rigor; it’s a wine with great ligatures and bones, the essence of liquid limestone and lithe, plangent acidity. A hint of smoke develops and a touch of orange rind, but mainly the red fruit stays true from beginning to end. Excellent. About $66.
William Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va. Samples for review. Map of Champagne from

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