Latest update: November 14th, 2011
For hundreds of years, the wine most often associated with the superior way of life has been Champagne. Attributed a soul, temperament and wit, many Frenchmen are convinced that Champagne can do them no harm, no matter how much they consume. Madame de Pompadour declared that, “it is the only wine that makes a woman more beautiful after drinking.” This delightful beverage is so much a cultural phenomenon in France that a person who dislikes Champagne is pitied or regarded as sick, disabled or depraved.
In 1688, when the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon was placed in charge of the wine cellars of the Abbey of Hautvillers near Epernay, his odd ideas about making wine had his colleagues wondering whether he was a clairvoyant, a saint, or something of a madman. If one accepts the popular mythology, this untutored chemist had the brilliant idea of adding small amounts of yeast and sugar to bottles of wine. This led to a secondary fermentation that in turn released gas under pressure into the wine. Dom Perignon had discovered a way to make wine sparkle, and since then sparkling Champagne has become the source for an entire mythology. It goes without saying that only wines that come from the Champagne region of France are entitled to be called “Champagne.” All other wines, even those made by what has come to be known as the methode Champenoise, are properly referred to as “sparkling wines.”
Making Champagne is a lengthy process. Fermented grape juices, the produce of many different vineyards, are blended and then bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast to induce a second fermentation. This produces carbon dioxide that, since it is sealed in, dissolves in the wine and creates the fizz. Since the yeast forms an ugly deposit, the bottles are stored with their heads down and are turned occasionally, thereby forcing this deposit to flow downwards toward the corks. This process is known as riddling. Toward the end of the process, which takes anywhere from six months to two years, the necks of the bottles are placed in an icy-cold brine solution. This freezes the sediment, which can then be expelled.
Because the fermentation process has eaten up all of the sugar, the wine is now completely dry and verging on sourness, and therefore it is next given a dose of a bit more sugar. Finally it is corked with special corks that seal it hermetically. The neck of the bottle is then encircled with wire mesh so that the pressure from the gas in the bottle does not blow the cork out. The tops of the bottles are wrapped in gold or silver foil, and the wine is finally ready to start working its magic.
There are four major levels of sweetness for Champagne and sparkling wines – brut, which is very dry; sec, which is dry; demi-sec, which is really quite sweet; and the sweet riche, which is essentially a dessert wine. The letters “n.v.” indicate a wine that is a blend of wines from more than one vintage year. Those who keep kashrut will be glad to know that in addition to their regular releases, several of the very best Champagne houses also produce kosher editions. That the wines are kosher will be noted on either the front or rear label of the bottle. Prices in the reviews that follow are an average from three stores in the greater metropolitan New York area:
Heidsieck Monopole, Brut Champagne, Blue Top, Kosher Edition, n.v.: Categorized as brut but with hints of sweetness. Light- to medium-bodied, with apple, strawberry and yeasty notes. Pleasant but not exceptional, and with bubbles that seem unfocused and not quite intense enough. $50. Score: 86.
Jean-Marie Etienne, Brut Champagne, Cumieres, Kosher Edition, n.v.: An appealing little Champagne made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes. Medium-bodied, with a short mousse but sharp and focused bubbles, and aromas and flavors of berries, citrus and a hint of toasty white bread. Pleasant but without complexities. $30. Score: 84.
Louis de Sacy, Brut Champagne, Grand Cru, Kosher Edition, n.v.: A traditional Champagne, a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier (60 percent, 35 percent and 5 percent, respectively). With a good mousse and sharp, long-lasting bubbles, the wine shows deep golden with an orange tint, opening with a rather generous whiff of yeasts. But that settles down quickly to reveal appealing aromas and flavors of red berries, peaches and citrus peel, those complemented by notes of sourdough bread and minerals. $65. Score: 90.
Nicolas Feuillatte, Brut Champagne, Kosher Edition, n.v.: Crisply dry, with generous minerals on the background, and citrus and citrus-flower aromas and flavors. Long, complex and delicious, with well-focused bubbles and a long-lasting mousse. $50. Score: 91.
Laurent Perrier, Brut Champagne, Kosher Edition, n.v.: Rose-petal-pink with orange tints. Medium-bodied, with a long mousse and sharp, well-focused bubbles that go on and on, and showing toasty white bread, strawberry, citrus and citrus peel, those backed up by generous hints of spring flowers and minerals. $70. Score: 90.
Laurent Perrier, Brut Rose Champagne, Kosher Edition, n.v.: Depending on how the light hits, pink toward orange or salmon pink in color, a medium-bodied Champagne, made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes. Light notes of yeast and oak highlight a fascinating array of cherry, red berry, apple and orange-peel notes. Fine, sharp bubbles, a long mousse and a hint of yeasty white bread that rises on the finish. $110. Score: 91.
Pommery, Brut Royale, Champagne, Kosher Edition, n.v.: Light gold in color, medium- to full-bodied, showing tantalizing hints of toasted bread and hazelnuts, those highlighting distinct notes of berries and black cherries. Fine acidity, a long mousse, sharp bubbles, and a lovely mineral-rich finish. $60. Score: 90.
Pommery, Brut Champagne, Kosher Edition, n.v.: A traditional blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (55 percent and 45 percent, respectively). Medium-bodied, with light hints of yeast running through, and a long-lasting mousse. On the nose and palate citrus, apple and floral aromas, those with a light overlay of spiciness. Firm, crisp and long. $65. Score: 90.
Pommery, Brut Ros?, Champagne, Kosher Edition, n.v.: Pink toward salmon colored, medium- to full-bodied, with a long mousse and sharp, well-focused bubbles. On the nose and palate a delightful array of cherry, wild berry, currant and cherry fruits, those well complemented by notes of cloves, cinnamon and espresso coffee. A wine that floats on the palate – and then lingers very nicely indeed. $75. Score: 92.
Four Sparkling Wines From Israel
Yarden, Blanc de Blancs, 2005: It’s delicious, it’s delightful, it’s “delovely.” With a long mousse, sharp, well-focused and long-lasting bubbles, as brut dry as one could hope for, opens to notes of yeasty white bread, goes on to show tropical and citrus fruits all on a lightly floral background. Long, generous and elegant. Drink now – 2018. $30. Score: 91.
Yarden, Blanc de Blancs, 2001: The best Blanc de Blancs to date from the winery. Made from Chardonnay grapes by the traditional methode Champenoise, this medium-bodied sparkling wine shows just the right balance between yeasty sourdough bread, peaches, citrus and minerals. With a generous mousse and sharp, well-focused bubbles that go on and on, this crisp and sophisticated wine goes on to a long, mouth-filling finish. Drink now-2012. $30. Score: 92.
Gamla, Brut, 2007: Light gold in color, drier, and more tempting than the earlier n.v. release of this wine, with a gently yeasty hint on the nose and palate, and opening to show fine citrus and apple fruits. A good mousse, long-lingering and sharp bubbles, and a note of toasted brioche on the finish. Drink now – 2014. $30. Score: 89.
Carmel, Brut, Private Collection, n.v.: Made by the Charmat method (with the second fermentation accomplished in pressurized stainless steel tanks), a blend of French Colombard, Chardonnay and Viognier grapes (50 percent, 40 percent and 10 percent, respectively), with a portion of the Chardonnay oak-aged. Shows simple but appealing aromas and flavors of apples, pears and citrus. A short mousse and sharp but not well-focused bubbles here make one think more of Spanish Cava than of French Champagne. $15. Score: 86.
Daniel Rogov is a prominent kosher wine critic and the author of two annual books, “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines” and “Rogov’s Guide to Kosher Wines.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Daniel Rogov
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