Every year, the major Champagne houses spend untold millions on branding. They do it because it works: by ceaselessly linking their product to images of celebration, sophistication, and the good life, they ensure that the average consumer will reach for their label in a moment of uncertainty. Since the big houses are notoriously secretive about production numbers, we have no idea how much is made each year, but we can guess: To have your product stocked on the shelves of every wine shop, supermarket and convenience store on the planet, you’re probably cranking out millions of cases.
When it comes to the luxury cuvées, the branding is even stronger and the urge to reach for the bottle is nearly irresistible. Yet there are lesser-known brands producing wines that are just as good, if not better, provided you know where to look:
Perhaps the least known of all the great Champagnes, Philipponnat Clos des Goisses (2012, $295) was the first single-vineyard wine to be crafted in the region. A blend of 61% Pinot Noir and 39% Chardonnay, it is harvested from a steep hillside with an incline of 45 degrees (colloquially, Clos des Goisses means “the hill of hard labor”). Aged for eight years in bottle before release, it is a powerful Champagne that can accompany wild game, truffles, caviar and cheese.
A 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Palmes d’Or is Nicolas Feuillatte’s luxury cuvée (2008, $165), packaged in a distinctive and unique bottle design. Composed of grapes from eight Grand Cru vineyards, the wine explodes with flavors of brioche, freshly sliced apples, citrus zest and densely packed red fruits. Feel free to cellar it, as it will gain in complexity with time.
Somewhere along the line, Charles Heidsieck became one of the forgotten Champagnes, despite a level of quality that exceeds most of the major houses. In the early 1980s, the cellar master decided to reserve the very best Chardonnay for a cuvée called Blanc des Millénaires. Only a handful of vintages have been produced: 1983, 1985, 1990, 1994, 2004, 2006 ($225) and the recently released 2016 ($210). It is a remarkable Champagne—rich, creamy, and sensual, providing the essence of Grand Cru Chardonnay.
Billecart-Salmon launched Cuvée Nicolas François in 1964 to commemorate the founder of the house, and 18 vintages have been released since then. 2007 ($175) is an exercise in hedonism, a deep and rich Champagne that makes a singular statement on the palate. Tart citrus flavors are framed by mouth-watering acidity, and the mid palate reveals glorious notes of wild strawberries and red raspberries. Known for wines that are fresh rather than powerful, Billecart-Salmon has flown under the radar and remained a guarded secret for most Champagne lovers.
Speaking of closely guarded secrets, Egly-Ouriet is probably the most sought-after grower Champagne in the region, although Francis Egly feels his true competition lies in Burgundy. He departs from the region’s conventional wisdom by harvesting exceptionally ripe grapes from old vines, and ages the wines for up to 10 years before release. His 2012 Grand Cru Brut ($300) is a good example of “Burgundy with bubbles”: sumptuous, intense, complex and meticulously crafted.
If you haven’t yet made your New Year’s resolutions, here’s one to consider: Drink more Champagne.
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 first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?