Few alcoholic beverages are as intensely branded as Champagne. Great houses such as Roederer, Möet and Veuve Clicquot don’t just provide consumers with fizzy wine: they bestow an identity and a luxury lifestyle. Given the breadth and scope of those brands, it’s easy to see how smaller producers can be overshadowed.
Edmond de Ayala emigrated to France from Colombia in 1850. Ten years later, he won the lottery: He married the niece of the Viscount de Mareuil, owner of Château d’Ay, who gave him the château and surrounding vineyards as his niece’s dowry. Although Champagne Ayala was one of the original 26 Grandes Marques, it has always flown under the radar, functioning as the equivalent of a grower Champagne long before the term was in vogue. The house managed to remain family-owned until its recent purchase by Bollinger, who have embarked on an ambitious restoration of the brand.
Ayala is primarily known for freshness, elegance and craftsmanship. The Brut Majeur ($45) is a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. It has a brilliant straw color and a fetching nose of citrus, vanilla, limestone and minerals. The wine enters the mouth forcefully, displaying flavors of lemon zest and hints of tropical fruit; the flavors amplify considerably in the mid palate and carry over to the finish, which is exceptionally long. This is an aperitif that would immediately capture the attention of your guests and would also be a bright accompaniment to fish and poultry dishes.
Rosé Majeur ($50), crafted from 50% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier, displays a pale salmon color and a sumptuous nose of red fruits. It delivers all the fruit promised on the nose—flavors of wild strawberry, red raspberry, cherries and red currants—but also exhibits a rich texture and firm mineral backbone. The fruit flavors turn a bit syrupy in the mid palate and linger on the long finish. Food matchups her range all the way from game to red meat.
The grapes for the 100% Chardonnay 2013 Blanc de Blancs Brut ($80) are sourced from three Grand Cru and two Premier Cru villages on the Côte des Blancs. Six years of cellar aging have produced a nose with deep, rich aromas of toasted almonds, poached pear and vanilla. Despite its mellow introduction, the wine is fresh and lively in the mouth, exhibiting vibrant citrus flavors which are accented by good acidity. The finish is long, tart and mouthwatering.
While it may seem silly to talk about price in relation to Champagne, the reality is that these bottles provide more pleasure than many of the mass-market brands at an equivalent cost. The major Champagne houses never admit how large their production really is, but we can assume that it takes a lot of wine to supply every liquor store, convenience store, big-box emporium and online outlet on the planet. Champagne Ayala exists at the other end of that continuum. These wines have character, and at some point you may want to stop and consider what you are actually buying.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.