WINE & SPIRITS
SLEEPER BRANDS GET A WAKE-UP CALL
While the top Champagne houses—the Veuve Clicquots, Dom Perignons, Taittingers and Louis Roederer Cristals—are always in vogue, true connoisseurs know the best values lie in small sleeper brands. Though these insider sparklers have long cultivated a low-key following in Europe, many have only recently begun making their way into the market stateside.
Witness brand-new-to-this-country Champagne Ayala, first produced in the mid-19th century by namesake aristocrat Edmond de Ayala. The house of Bollinger, which several years ago purchased the brand (along with its premier and grand cru vineyards), has begun a new push to raise its profile around the world.
Ayala, which sounds exotically Middle Eastern, has already distinguished itself by releasing a zero-dosage blend Brut Majeur—unlike most of its competitors, adding no sugar at all. The resulting bubbly has fewer calories (a boon for the diet conscious) and, more to the point, a crisp, dry nutty finish with grapefruit notes. Ayala's Rosé Majeur pink Champagne (which is low dosage, not zero), meanwhile, has a charming copper-cherry tone, wonderful delicate raspberry flavors and plenty of finesse.
Champagne Henriot, another rookie on our shores with just three years in this country, is celebrating its 200th birthday this year. I rediscovered this boisterous bubbly at Chefs & Champagne, the Hamptons charity blowout hosted every summer by the James Beard Foundation. Henriot's claim to fame is the high percentage of pedigreed chardonnay in its blend—grapes from the region's most famous vineyards—Mesnil sur Oger, Chouilly, Avize, Vertus, Epernay—and the many years it spends aging 60 feet underground in dramatic chalk cellars. The '98 Brut Millesime is enchanting with mango and baked apple on the nose and a rich creamy texture. The Blanc Souverain, made with 100 percent chardonnay, was a perfect match for the lobster rolls served at Chefs & Champagne.
Sipping my way through the event, I also discovered Champagne Lanson, a brand I knew virtually nothing about. Though completely under the radar among American drinkers, it is hugely popular on the other side of the pond. The second biggest selling bubbly in Britain, the late Queen Mother (who lived to 100) is said to have drunk Lanson's Noble Cuvée every single day. The Champagne has a deep connection to Europe's noble circles: it was only the second bubbly to receive the Royal Warrant in Britain (from Queen Victoria), and it remains today the official Champagne of the Royal House of Monaco (Princess Grace was a fan). Lanson, first produced in 1760, is one of the less expensive Champagnes on the market. Still, its $55 Rose Label recently scored just below vintage Cristal's Rosé $550 bottle in a blind-tasting competition. Its unique style comes from the ample pinot noir in the blend and from the lack of malolactic fermentation. The result is a wine with a marked fresh fruity acidity and less creaminess than many other styles of Champagne.
Though Nicolas Feuillatte, a third brand showcased at the James Beard extravaganza, is not quite as under the radar as the others, it has for quite a few years been the Champagne insider's choose. I've long enjoyed the fresh and lively NV Brut with its floral, pear and almond notes. A few months back I discovered the much more premium Palmes d'Or at a party launching the '97 vintage. In a sexy black bottle embossed with a pattern resembling inverted Tahitian black pearls, the Champagne is a sublime blend of 40 percent chardonnay and 60 percent pinot noir grand cru grapes. This elegant vintage bubbly begs to be paired with a generous serving of caviar. I am definitely saving a bottle of the even more scintillating vintage 2000 Palmes d'Or Rosé, made from pinot noir grapes from prestige villages like Bouzy and Les Riceys, for my next seduction soirée.
But the ultimate in sleeper seduction would have to be the Brut Rosé from Ruinart, the oldest house in Champagne—dating back to 1729—that was recently re-launched in the U.S. With its voluptuous bottle resembling a woman's curves, and its blend of premier cru grapes from the Cote de Blancs and Montagne de Reims vineyards, this raspberry-and-strawberry fragranced Champagne is so sexy it ought to be contraband.