California-centric wine consumers are frequently baffled by European wine law, and understandably so: those rules are government-imposed, and they can be draconian. In the modern era, France was the first country to institute a legal framework for wine production. The mandates include what grapes you can grow, where you can grow them, and how much wine you can produce.
The limits on grape yields can lead to bonanzas for wine drinkers, if you know where to look. Burgundy producers, for example, are only allowed to make a certain amount of Puligny-Montrachet for each parcel of land. In an abundant harvest, those extra grapes have to go somewhere. They can be sold, but frequently they are declassified into the estate’s generic Bourgogne Blanc. If you have inside information, you can drink the equivalent of a $50-75 wine for about $20. Obviously, this is only possible if the property owns the vineyards in question.
The situation is more complex in Champagne, where the major houses produce a high-priced luxury cuvée (Dom Pérignon for Moët et Chandon, Cristal for Louis Roederer, etc.). Those wines are only released in specific vintage years. The last vintage of Cristal was 2008, currently selling for $240; 2012 is rumored to be on the way.
What happens to those grapes that might have become Cristal, which are grown in the 75% of estate vineyards owned by Roederer? According to an industry source, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Roederer’s Chef du Cave, elected to include some of that Grand Cru fruit in the current release of their non-vintage Brut Premier ($50). This was an interesting choice on his part, since that fruit would have fetched a high price on the open market, but it represents a value proposition for consumers. It’s also a quality commitment on the part of the house, an affirmation of the belief that their entry-level wine should be as much of a benchmark as the one at the top.
The current version of Louis Roederer Brut Premier is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier. It has a rich, yeasty nose with aromas of citrus, vanilla and brioche. The wine is forceful and assertive on entry, filling the mouth with mineral-tinged flavors of lemon, apple and pear. Hints of red fruits appear on the long finish. This is a meaty yet elegant Champagne, with an expansive structure and more than enough flavor to stand up to a main course of fish, poultry or veal. And best of all, it’s not $240.
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. Friend of the Devil, his first novel, was released in 2016; his second novel, The American Crusade, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is now available on Amazon.