Put out an invitation to a Champagne tasting and special dinner, and people won't hesitate to attend. So there we were on Saturday night, about a dozen of us, gathered for an informal holiday party. The tree was up, the boys had set up the train under its boughs, and the guests arrived looking swell and bearing delicious gifts — special cheeses, smoked salmon and, yes, even a little caviar. It was an evening made for Champagne.
Note the capital C. Champagne refers to the region in northern France where the grapes are grown and the wines are made. If you buy a bottle of bubbly from elsewhere in France or from Italy, Spain, California, New York, or beyond, it's not Champagne. It's sparkling wine. Period.
There are very good sparkling wines, of course, but nothing quite matches the taste and consistency of fine Champagne.
The wine is typically made from a combination of chardonnay, pinot noir and small amounts of pinot meunier, while others made from 100 percent chardonnay are called blanc de blancs. After tasting a dozen or so Champagnes from those I had collected over the last year, a few emerged as real standouts.
For an excellent non-vintage Champagne (the vast majority of Champagnes are blends of wine from several years), I especially liked the Pierre Peters "Cuvee de Reserve" Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs. Never heard of Pierre Peters? This all-chardonnay wine is a so-called grower Champagne, which means that Peters both grows and bottles the wine, whereas the bigger, better-known Champagne houses typically buy at least part of their grapes from among hundreds of small Champagne growers like Peters.
It's also a grand cru — the term refers to the region's top vineyards — and has an individuality I found lacking in many wines from the more familiar producers. My tasting notes described a "clean" wine, "aggressively bubbly" with notes of pear, peach, fresh bread and a hint of vanilla. I liked its "pretty fruit" and found it "mouth-filling, uplifting and smooth." It has a mineral presence and good acidity without being tart. At about $35 or so, it's also a very good value. It's imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.
If you can't find the Pierre Peters wine (I bought it at Chambers Street Wines in New York and found it listed by many other retailers on wine-searcher.com), it's worth asking your wine merchant if he carries other grower Champagnes.
By contrast, Pommery is one of Champagne's venerable old producers. Founded in 1836, it now makes about seven million bottles of Champagne a year. Size notwithstanding, I was impressed by Pommery's 1995 Grand Cru Champagne Brut, which also represents a significant value with a suggested price of $55. All the Champagnes I mention here, by the way are classified as Brut, which is the driest Champagne preferred by most people.
The '95 Pommery is a vintage Champagne — that is, all the grapes came from that year. This wine, while relatively light and refreshing, is a bit riper and richer from aging than the non-vintage Champagnes I tasted. It's marked by notes of citrus and light toast. Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison, N.Y.
The evening's most exciting Champagne was another vintage example — Pol Roger's 1998 Brut Rosé, with a suggested price of $79. This pale pink wine, made from 40 percent chardonnay and 60 percent pinot noir (the color comes from contact with the skins of the red pinot noir), is a model of elegance with its fine bubbles. With pretty notes of ripe cherry, it was fruitier than the regular Champagnes, and that's why it was a crowd-pleaser at our party. There's also a nice yeasty component. My notes described a Champagne with "beautiful balance." In fact, I said, "This wine has it all." It's imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at