At the turn of the last century, in a shuttered room on the Left Bank, Oscar Wilde lay wasting from meningitis when he ordered the hotel’s most expensive bottle of champagne. “And now,” Wilde remarked as a friend handed him a glass, “I’m dying beyond my means.” To nurture a desire for champagne is to make peace both with its singular pleasures—a kind of ecstatic brain freeze—and the inevitable expense. The high cost turns out to be pretty much inevitable, given the horological complexity and epic durations involved in making the stuff, the unceasing demand, and the usually excellent quality on offer. More people open champagne than any other serious wine, but for all its fame and ubiquity, and despite its role as a signifier of graceful living and pecuniary exhibitionism, no wine happens to be less understood.
This is most true of the renowned and expensive vintage-dated champagnes that are commonly procured for anniversaries, births, round-numbered birthdays and other momentous dates celebrated in intimate company. Every year, drinkers forgo delicious and (relatively) affordable non-vintage bottles, shelling out instead for Cristal and Dom Pérignon, scarcer trophies like Salon, and other vintage bubblies in the misplaced belief that spending more on champagne will buy more pleasure. Of course, in times of obdurate recession and ballooning fiscal inequality, that conviction makes it tempting to dismiss these wines as little more than carbonated bling as they become associated with their most publicized modes of misuse: sprayed onto the custom-ostrich upholstery of Navigators and Escalades, popped among the flickering monitors of derivatives traders, splashed into the downy clefts of A-list strippers and C-list starlets at St. Tropez’s Les Caves du Roy.
And, of course, restaurants and champagne firms are sometimes only too happy to move inventory. When the Moscow Ritz-Carlton opened in 2007, a restaurant in the hotel, Jeroboam, announced a $700 repast called “The Tsar’s Breakfast.” This a.m. folly included beluga caviar, quail eggs, torchon of foie gras, Kobe beef, a copiously truffled omelet, and to wash it all down, an entire fifth of current-release Cristal for each patron, a cockeyed tribute to the emperor who originated the champagne. The months-long wait list for this debauch said much about the aesthetics of Moscow’s oligarchy and highlighted a dilemma champagne producers face in the marketing of these eminently serious wines—their frequent and knowing recasting as little more than a luxury trinket. As it happens, some vintage champagnes number among the world’s most transporting wines, but rather than tasting opulent at that Moscow table, the majority will unfurl their potential only after 15 and sometimes 20 years. On release, they can come across as hard and austere.
This summer, at a tasting put on by Roederer—regarded widely as one of the region’s most quality-conscious firms—the recently-released brut and blanc de blancs from 2004 already showed their characteristic savor and finesse, while the three-times-costlier Cristal from the same year remained relatively mute and brooding. The difference was intentional. “You have to blend for austerity instead of immediate pleasure,” winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon told me, “or the wine will not age.” For Cristal, Lecaillon chooses grapes from the oldest, most age-worthy vines, tested for their resistance to oxidation. Today, Cristal from past decades—particularly the ‘88, ‘90 and ‘96—can bring the mind to a halt with its kaleidoscopic flavors, serpentine as a Chandler novel, but the vintage you’re likely to find for sale is the ‘04, still a decade from showing its best. The same arithmetic applies to Dom Pérignon, a champagne made in a reductive style that’s even less forgiving of impatience.
No wine has as much to offer the die-hard geek as champagne. It takes years to begin making sense of the region’s multitude of villages, each with its unique microclimates and soils, the intricacies of contact with yeasts—resting “on the lees”—and dosage, the relationships between the growers and the large firms that buy their grapes, the potential of each growing season, the science and craft of the blend. Fortunately, compared to other age-worthy wines, champagne travels through time in a fairly tractable manner. Unlike, say, red burgundy—which can taste accessibly fruity during the first year or two, close down for another five to 10 during a “dumb period,” and then awake into an autumnal, mushroomy maturity—champagne grows increasingly layered and delicious until reaching a zenith and beginning a gradual decline.
What makes finding a ready-to-drink bottle challenging is that the year indicated on the bottle is no indication of approachability. Though it may spend a decade or more on the lees in the maker’s cellars, champagne begins to mellow and mature in earnest only after the yeasts have been disgorged. Most bottles end up on store shelves several months later, and while more producers are printing the disgorgement date on the bottles, the practice is still too rare.
Because most retailers and restaurants can scarcely afford to keep older vintages in stock, tracking them down can be exasperating, not to mention expensive, and much-more common non-vintage-dated champagnes, blended with fruitier, more accessible grapes—often Pinot Meunier—can offer more pleasure in the short run. They will almost certainly provide better value—Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck make two excellent examples. Fortunately for those looking to immerse themselves in the enigmas of vintage bubbly, certain wines tend to reveal themselves earlier than others: besides the aforementioned champagnes from Roederer, Pol Roger’s blanc de blancs tends to be dependably thrilling on release, while in more accessible years, Taittinger’s baroque Comtes de Champagne and the extreme, earthy Clos des Goisses from Philipponnat can taste just as compelling. Ocassionally, bottles remain on the market long enough to have spent at least several years “on the cork.” Right now, Charles Heidsieck’s Blanc des Millenaires and Mumm’s Cuvée R. Lalou—from ’95 and ’98, respectively—offer the complexity and depth that only a grown-up champagne can muster.
A more plentiful—and affordable—source of early-drinking bottles are the region’s independent growers, who work in a broader range of styles. The barrel-aged Cuvée Creation from Vilmart—sumptuous as a Van Dyck portrait—comes to mind; Special Club, a label given by a collective of growers to a wine from their choicest plots, is another sure bet, particularly the current releases from Goutorbe, Paul Bara and Vazart-Coquart.
None of the above is intended as a caveat, only a suggestion that when it comes to champagne, the relationship between enjoyment and price tends to be anything but linear. As it happens, no other wine provides such a dependable bridge to pleasure, is at home with so many types of food, and none is so reliably mood altering, suitable for weathering both elation and odium. I think that’s what Brigitte Bardot was getting at when she remarked that champagne “is the one thing that gives me zest when I feel tired.”
I’m reminded, too, of reading Lillian Ross’s account of meeting Ernest Hemingway during one of his rare stopovers in New York, in 1950. A recent hire at the New Yorker, Ross lunched with him at his suite at the Sherry-Netherland while Papa polished off a bottle of Tavel and one and a half more of Perrier-Jouet. Woozy by meal’s end, he eyed the remaining bubbly unhappily, deciding whether to finish it. Then he poured himself some more. “A half bottle of champagne,” said Hemingway finally, “is the enemy of man.”