WINE Brut Force

The world’s most prized champagne comes to Dallas, at $35 a bottle.

A landmark event in the wine world took place in Dallas recently when 26 wine merchants and tasters were privy to a sneak preview of the world’s most highly regarded champagne, Salon Le Mesnil. Until now, this pinnacle of the vintner’s art had never been formally tasted in America and was rarely even sampled outside France. But through the efforts of a Fort Worth wine enthusiast, Dr. Martin Overton, and a dedicated British importer, Colin Fenton, Texas was chosen to be the point of introduction, with New York the only other market to get the wine.

This milestone might seem unimportant to those who regard champagne as no more than an expensive mystery. Although champagne is the most romanticized of all wines, it is probably the least understood and appreciated.

So, one might ask, what is this thing called champagne? Strictly speaking, champagne is sparkling wine from the French province of the same name, a unique spot on the earth, where the combination of soil and climate helps produce a wine that can only be imitated elsewhere.

The process of making champagne is tedious and complicated, but the mechanics are basically the same today as when originated during the 18th century. At that time, most of the still (as opposed to sparkling) wine from Champagne was considered too tart for pleasant drinking, so ways were sought to improve it. Almost accidentally it was found that when the new wine fermented a second time in the bottle, nature would create for it a new personality – one of sparkle and cheer, with bubbles streaming seemingly from nowhere in the glass. This alchemy inspired the legendary blind monk Dom Perignon to exclaim, “I am drinking stars.”

Further refinements were developed, including dégorgement, a process in which sediment is taken from the bottle and sugar added just before the second fermentation. To contain the pressure of the gas, thicker bottles were designed and corks wired to the bottles.

By the early 1800s, the Champagne Method was established. Prevailing fashion called for a rather sweet wine, until the house of Veuve Clicquot introduced what is still known today as extra-dry champagne. The driest and most sophisticated, labeled “brut,” evolved from this point; “extra-dry” continues to confuse the hapless buyer who thinks he is getting the crisper product. It is safe to say that the best wine is made from the ripest grapes, which require the least sugar during dégorgement. (Some firms claim that no sugar is added to their premium bottlings, but the true formulas are jealously guarded.)

Most champagnes are a blend of black and white grapes from the legally defined Champagne region. The grapes are bought and processed by individual firms, each with a distinct method of harmonizing the various ingredients. The houses of Bollinger, Pol Roger, and Veuve Clicquot favor a robust, full-bodied wine that indicates a high percentage of black grapes (the grapes are removed before their skins impart a dark color). Conversely, elegance and finesse are trademarks of Taittinger, Piper-Heidsieck, and Mumm, the noble white chardonnay grape being dominant in the blend.

During the holidays, many of us will be splurging on the “luxury champagnes” that many firms market as final triumphs of winemaking. Dom Pérignon (a name synonymous with extravagance), Roederer’s Cristal, and Taittinger’s Blanc de Blanc – these and their elite brethren are classic wines. But they have become frightfully expensive, and many followers lament that they are not as great as they once were or should be. (Dom Pérignon, incidentally, has been virtually unavailable lately. The wine’s producer, Moet & Chandon, apparently miscalculated present-day demand five years ago and cut back production, causing a shortage that may last several years.)

The most recent entry into the luxury field is Salon Le Mesnil, heretofore little more than a name dropped by wine elitists wishing to impress. What Baccarat is to fine crystal, Salon is to champagne. Late in the 19th century, founder Aimé Salon set out to create the definitive champagne, fashioned from the finest fruit by the most exacting methods.

The steps he took were daring. Generally, champagne is made from two or three separate “pressings” of grapes, each producing a more dilute juice. Salon chose to market wine only from the essential first pressing, the “tete de cuvée.” Further, only grapes rated 100 percent on the strict Champagne classification system would be used. Salon was reputedly the first to produce all its wine from one village (Le Mesnil, renowned for chardonnay grapes) and the first to use exclusively white grapes, making it the premier blanc de blanc.

Only one grade of wine is made at Salon, a vintage brut. There is no innocuous extra-dry, non-vintage brut, or over-priced prestige bottling. Salon has declared no more than 14 of the past 50 years to be vintage, with production limited to 5000 cases a year – paltry compared with as many as six million for other prestige labels, which vintage whenever possible to meet demands for quantity. The 1928 Salon – considered by many the finest champagne of the century – received the highest price ever for a single bottle of champagne, nearly $500, at this year’s Christie’s Wine Auction in London.

At the recent tasting in Dallas, only one wine was poured – Salon Le Mesnil 1971. All agreed that the vital elements of great champagne were there: Marquis-cut clarity with perfect balance and crispness, a labyrinth of rich flavors, topped off by a steady ascent of the smallest bubbles ever to enhance a tulip.

The Salon 1971 will be neither cheap nor plentiful. If you are curious and can afford the $35 price tag, have one of the better local merchants reserve some for you, since only 100 cases will arrive in November. Appreciate it for what it is – the ultimate in champagne chic.

The Salon tasting generated an interest in re-examining other luxury champagnes currently available in Dallas. A comparative taste-off was arranged, attended by local merchants and restaurateurs. The results were enlightening but inconclusive: In almost every case, each champagne was rated either first or last by different members of the group.

Following are the champagnes that were tasted and their prices at major outlets in the city. They were chosen on the basis of reputation and availability. Vintages may vary from store to store, but anything older than 1969 should be avoided.

Dom Ruinart “Blanc de Blanc”: Centennial, $23.95; La Cave, $18.49; Mr. V’s, $21.95.

Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle”: A&A Vineyard, $26.99; La Cave, $25.95.

Louis Roederer “Cristal”: Marty’s, $31.50; A&A Vineyard, $33.79; Sigel’s, $33.95.

Moet & Chandon “Dom Pérignon”: Red Coleman, $44.95; La Cave, $34.95.

Philipponnat “Clos des Goisses”: Marty’s, $24.

Tail linger “Comtes de Champagne, Blanc de Blanc”: Sigel’s, $37.50; Warehouse, $32.49.

Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame”: Marty’s, $24.95.

Many wonder if luxury champagnes justify their $20-to-$40 price tags. Probably not, but is a Mercedes 450SL really worth $30,000? As with all things prestigious and fine, one must pay.for the pedigree.

Excellent champagnes are available in the $10-to-$14 category, however – for example, the non-vintage bruts of Laurent-Perrier, Veuve Clicquot, and Louis Roederer. California sparkling wine (usually misnamed “champagne”) offers good value but differs so from the French that honest comparisons are impossible. The perennial standout, Schramsberg, is always delicious, though not easy to find. More obtainable is Do-maine Chandon, an exciting venture into Napa Valley winemaking by the French conglomerate of Moet & Hennessy. On the market only two years, the wine is admirable and well-priced at around $9.


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