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Champagne Sure Shots

(December 12, 1999) If you’ve waited this long to select your millennium bubbly -- forget the dire predictions, friends. There’s plenty of good stuff around.

     Yeah it’s a tough job, but your selfless servant has been doing mucho tasting. Following are my favorites for the Valentine’s Day and any Sunday evening you need to smile...

When Price is No Object

     My pick of the current litter, bar none, is ***+1990 Dom Perignon. I’ll admit that Dom is often overhyped and this bottle ain’t no bargain at $120 and up. But the 1990 just may be the best DP I’ve ever tasted. So creamy, you almost hate to swallow it; dense beyond expectation for a Champagne, but wonderfully light. Grand Cru Burgundy with bubbles. I broke down and bought some for New Year’s Eve chez nous.

     ***1990 Pommery Cuvee Louise also has the lush, rich texture that I love in great Champagne. It’s 40% Pinot Noir and seems to draw much of its character from this. A whisper of raspberries on the finish makes it especially seductive. Priced about like the Dom, alas.

     If you prefer a crisper, more apple-tinged style of Champagne, Pol Roger is always a good bet, and the **+1988 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill is the best bottle I’ve tasted this year from this producer. It’s about $95. Gives you a more aggressive attack than the Pommery or Dom, but sacrifices some richness too. (I also tasted their special millennium stuff, the **1990 Pol Roger Brut Cuvee 2000. Nearly half as expensive as the Winston Churchill and nearly as good. But not quite.)

Still Among the Best, But Costs Less

     Best secret going in Champagne? This...

     The Only Two Words in Champagne You Really Need to Know are EGLY-OURIET. It’s tough picking out a favorite among all the stunning stuff from this small producer, but I especially pant for ***Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noir Brut Vielles Vignes. This is tete-de-cuvée quality Champagne at about the third the price. It’s got the richness of Dom Perignon, the raspberry-strawberry notes of the Pommery Louise and a special character all it’s own, all for about $45. No, it’s not vintage dated, but the date of disgorgement is listed on the back, which is something that even Dom won’t do. The only catch is that it can be very hard to find. Hey, I got mine.

     Just about as good and even harder to find is ***1990 Egly-Ouriet Cuvée Millesime. It has a very different character than the BdN above. Very complex with a lot of mature, truffle-like notes, it rather reminds me of Krug. Last I saw it, the price was about $50. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it anywhere in months.

     Another mid-priced bubbly that I’m especially fond of it **+Tarlant Cuvée Louis. Has more focus to its flavors than Egly-Ouriet, and may satisfy Champagne purists more. This wine has so much stuffing, it may even need some time in the cellar before it’s at peak. About $52 a bottle.

     Finally, I was very impressed with the brand-new release of **+1996 Charles Heidseick. Strawberry-scented, lower in acid than some other Champagnes, this is a pleasure-seeker’s Champagne par excellence. About $45 a bottle if you shop hard.

     And pardon me if I sound like a broken record, but **Egly-Ouriet Brut Rosé gets my vote for the World’s Best Rosé Champagne for under $75. It’s about $42. You can really taste the Pinot Noir in this one, and it works. Fantastic aperitif. You won’t need hors d’oeuvres.

Terrific for $30 and Under

     In this category, my favorite and my bride’s is not a Champagne, but a California sparkler. **+1993 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage is the top bottling from the Anderson Valley branch of this famous Champagne producer. It seems to me fruitier and more voluptuous than Roederer’s comparably priced French stuff, but retains the grace and balance Champagne-lovers crave. Still about $30 a bottle. NOTE: They also make a nearly-as-good non-vintage cuvée which I used to buy more often, but prices on that one have crept from $12 to $20 in the last five years. So be a sport. Go for L’Ermitage.

And for Under $20...

     Gloria Ferrer makes a couple of vintage-dated beauties from Carneros in California. Their *+1990 Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvée ($20) is a few dollars pricier than the *+1991 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee ($17) but I rank them as equals. So buy the latter. Crisp style with an impressive depth of fruit for the price.

     In the $13 range, Piper Sonoma Brut Blanc de Noirs is still pretty much unbeatable.

     And for $10, check out Domaine Chandon’s new bubbly from (believe it or not) Argentina. It’s the real stuff.

    Enjoy your celebrations. (Clink!) And if there’s a worthy sparkler you think I’ve omitted, email me and share the secret.

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