Every year at this time I hear it, and I bristle. It drives me absolutely crazy and for years I fought it down to the last fiber of my being (or at least to the last bubble of the bottle). It seems like just about everyone in the wine industry (and beyond) considers these next couple of weeks to be “Champagne Season.”
- a feeling of intense irritation or annoyance.“she rolled her eyes in exasperation“
While I do not doubt that more than 50% of champagne consumption in the U.S. occurs in the last two months of the calendar year, I think that is, well, stupid. As I have mentioned countless times in this space, I consider champagne (again, for the non-initiated, “le champagne” [masculine and usually lower-case ‘c’] refers to the beverage, while “la Champagne” [feminine and always an upper case ‘C’] refers to the region) to be the most versatile of all wines. As such, it should be consumed at virtually any (and every) meal and all year long.
And I espouse that dictum to the fullest.
Regardless, I have come to accept that at least 50% of the population in the U.S. is forever doomed to make poor decisions, so why should this be any different?
This year, I decided to conduct a little experiment, of sorts (yes, as a researcher, I know this is technically not a “true” experiment, but I am choosing to ignore that fact). I thought I would track down the ten top-selling champagnes in the world and taste them blind to determine which among them was actually the “best” (at least according to yours truly).
So I did that, essentially. Why “essentially”? Well, it is a bit difficult to determine which wines from Champagne are, in fact, the top sellers worldwide. I Googled, Yahooed, even Binged. Results were, at best, mixed. I eventually called the Champagne Bureau in New York (yes, there is such a thing, and they are fantastic) and while they were very helpful, they also had some difficulty finding the worldwide information I wanted.
Within what seemed like minutes, however, the Champagne Bureau sent me a July 2020 Shanken/Impact Databank report with the list of the top 20 champagnes by cases sold in the U.S. (which, in retrospect, is probably a better list for my audience).
The first two wines on the list accounted for nearly a million (933k) cases (9 liters or 12 standard 750ml bottles) combined in 2019 and represent close to two-thirds of all the champagne sold in the U.S. that year (and that gets a “yowza”).
NV Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut, France: Retail $50. 50-55% Pinot Noir, 28-33% Chardonnay, 15-20% Pinot Meunier. Over the last couple of years, I have easily had more of this champagne than any other, and it is not really close. This time, though, I tasted it blind in a flight of the 10 top-selling champagnes and it certainly stood out (in a good way), thus the higher rating. Fruity, yeasty, good sparkle, lengthy finish. The Veuve gets a bad rap most likely because of its presence on the best-selling list and that is dumb. Excellent. 92 Points.
NV Moët & Chandon Champagne Brut Impérial, France: Retail $45. 30-40% Pinot Noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier, 20-30% Chardonnay. Up until a handful of years ago, I would have bristled at drinking the top-selling champagne in the world. In fact, I essentially stopped drinking it altogether, even when it was the only sparkling wine available. That all changed in the Spring of 2019 when I had lunch with Benoît Gouez, the cellarmaster (i.e., winemaker) at Moët et Chandon. He has made significant changes in quality at the venerable house and the wines today are, well, fantastic. This wine is slightly golden in the glass with oodles of baked bread yeastiness and subtle citrus notes. The palate is tart, balanced, and loaded with a delicate sparkle. The finish is accentuated by that citrus fruit and lingers for quite some time. Lovely. Not the Moët of my youth, that’s for sure. Excellent. 90 Points.
Piper-Heidsieck was no slouch when it came to cases sold last year (80k), but it paled in comparison to the big boys with less than a tenth of their overall sales (well, Veuve Clicquot was a woman, but she has been dead for a while, so I am going to stop digging this probably sexist language hole now).
NV Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut, France: Retail $45. 50-55% Pinot Noir, 20-25% Pinot Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay with 10-20% Reserve wines. I have had several iterations of this wine and it has always been one of my favorite non-vintage Bruts. So, when I conducted a blind tasting of the ten top-selling champagnes, I figured this would be up near the top, and it was. Rich, yeasty (more so than fruity), and nutty, this really is right in my wheelhouse as it is a fuller-bodied champagne (due to the Pinot Noir), and that is certainly my “jawn.” Healthy, fine sparkle, with a lengthy, nutty finish. Delicious. Excellent. 92 Points.
Nicolas Feuillatte is the largest cooperative in Champagne, but not the best (at least in my opinion, see below). Still, they sold 64 million cases in 2020. Even though this is the #4 brand in sales, I could not find the Grande Réserve (the top seller) in Houston, which is the fourth largest city in the U.S. Coincidence?
NV Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne Réserve Exclusive Brut, France: Retail $40. 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay. Tasted blind. Yellow, almost gold in the glass with a dirty, flinty aspect on the nose with a bit of red berry fruit, some yeastiness, some celery (?) and, well, not the most inviting nose of the flight. That dirty, flinty aspect persists on the palate which is slightly off-putting. Sure, there is some fruit, but this is not in the same class as the others in this flight. Almost a Meh. Very Good. 87 Points.
Next on the list would be Dom Pérignon, the tête-de-cuvée (top wine) of Moët et Chandon (and treated as a separate entity), but I was unable to convince anyone to send me a bottle, which is probably a good thing since I like to hold on to my Doms for at least a couple of decades (I had a 1973 Dom in 2010 which was phenomenal) and find younger version a tad aggressive.
Perrier-Jouët and Laurent-Perrier are both imported by Pernod Ricard and combined sold 84 thousand cases (47/37). Unfortunately, I did not acquire a bottle of P-J for this blind tasting, so the note represents my views from a bottle I popped in late October.
NV Perrier-Jouët Champagne Grand Brut, France: Retail $50. 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay. I do not drink a ton of Perrier-Jouët and I am not exactly sure why. I guess like most people (or at least most champagne drinkers), I find a NV Brut (or two) that I like and I usually just stick with that. Thus we drink a lot of Mailly Grand Cru, which I like given the predominance of Pinot Noir in the blend. While 80% of this wine comes from black grapes, half of that is Meunier and its characteristic floral quality is evident on the nose, along with under-baked bread, and freshly grated lemon grind. The palate is tart and yeasty with a vibrant sparkle and the finish is slightly above average. Yes, I know that P-J is owned by a huge corporate conglomerate, but one could do worse in the category and price point. Excellent. 90 Points.
NV Laurent-Perrier Champagne La Cuvée Brut, France: Retail $45. 50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier. Plenty of yeasty and nutty notes along with tree fruit aromas on the nose (pear, mostly). The palate exhibits plenty of finesse, lovely nutty flavors, a good balance of acidity with a dash of sweetness, and a vibrant sparkle. I tasted this blind with a dozen other sparklers and I figured this had to have a predominance of Chardonnay since the emphasis is clearly on finesse and freshness over a fuller-bodied style. Very Good. 89 Points.
Pommery is next on the list with 37k bottles sold. It is also one of the houses on the must visit list as the caves have incredible bas-reliefs carved into the chalk walls.
NV Pommery Champagne Brut Royal, France: Retail $40. 33% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Noir, 33% Pinot Meunier. Tasted blind. Wow, this medium-yellow wine has a fairly odd nose: flinty, vegetal, almost some petroleum. NOT what I expect from a wine from Champagne. Although some citrus eventually comes in, but still, odd. The palate is MUCH better (although a fairly low bar, there). In fact, the palate brings the goods—the palate is laden with fruit, depth, verve, but that nose… Excellent. 90 Points.
Mumm falls into the ninth spot, just slightly behind Pommery at 36k cases sold in 2019.
NV G. H. Mumm & Cie Champagne Cordon Rouge Brut, France: Retail $50. 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier. Pale straw with perhaps a slight golden tint. The nose here is slightly richer with more peach than pear, and not really any citrus on the nose. But there is plenty of fresh-baked croissant goodness here. Plenty. The palate has a subtle sparkle, but plenty of tartness and that autolytic quality that comes from time on the lees. Rich, deep, fantastic. Excellent. 92 Points.
Rounding out the top ten is Taittinger at 34k cases sold. The Taittinger family also still owns one of the premier sparkling wine producers in the U.S., Domaine Carneros.
NV Taittinger Champagne Brut Réserve La Française, France: Retail $50. 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier. Pale straw in the glass with all kinds of yeasty goodness, slightly obscuring the pear and golden apple fruit (with a twist of lemon rind) on the nose. Lovely. The palate is equally stellar with an instant burst of acidity, then a wave of the aforementioned fruits, and a delicate, persistent sparkle. This is a fabulous start to flight #2. Excellent. 91 Points.
There are another two wines that figure prominently among the various top-ten lists that I consulted, and even though they did not figure in the top-twenty wines on the Shanken/Impact Databank report but they are both quite popular in France, so weigh that for what it’s worth.
NV Lanson Champagne Brut Black Label, France: Retail $38. 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Meunier. Pale straw with a decided flinty, matchstick, dirty nose. Those aromas are so powerful, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to detect any sort of fruit here, initially. Eventually, I can find a bit of pear and lemon rind behind all that distraction, but this is still the funkiest nose of the flight. Another wine where the palate far outplays the nose: good fruit, nice acidity, complexity, and all the stuffing. But that nose… Excellent. 91 Points.
NV Canard-Duchêne Champagne Brut, France: Retail $40. 45% Pinot Noir, 35% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay. One of the top ten in sales worldwide, I tasted this blind against the other nine. Slightly golden in the glass with plenty of golden apple, a distinct yeastiness, a touch of minerality, and even a small dose of honey. The palate is rich and full-bodied but also with considerable grace. I do not have much experience with this house in Ludes, but I have a strong feeling that will soon change. Excellent. 90 Points.
The final two I added to the blind tasting for separate reasons. The Kirkland (i.e., Costco) champagne is a bargain at $20 and widely popular among budget-conscious wine writers and consumers alike. The second, Mailly Grand Cru, is another co-op, but it is much smaller than Nicolas Feuillatte. It is, however, the favorite champagne in our home, so much so that we named our dog Mailly.
NV Kirkland Signature Champagne Brut, France: Retail $20. 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Pinot Meunier, 15% Chardonnay. I included this wine in a blind tasting with the Top Ten selling Champagne brands to see how it would stand up. It’s made by Manuel Janisson in the Grand Cru town of Verzenay, which right away makes it an intriguing wine even before you get to the price of twenty bucks. Yeasty and ripe peach make for a very pleasant nose, leading to a surprisingly fruity palate (again, ripe peach), good sparkle and acidity. For Twenty bucks? A solid Champagne. Very Good. 88 Points.
NV Mailly Champagne Grand Cru Brut Réserve, France: Retail $42. 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. Tasted blind. Another pale straw with a yellow tint, this is far more citrus than the first two in this flight, with a floral aspect, and plenty of yeastiness here too, which makes me think there might be more Pinot Noir in this blend. Lovely. Nutty, really nutty on the palate, this tastes like an older Pinot-dominated champers. This is a fantastic wine, and if I am right, that it might be a tad older, which is right in my wheelhouse. Excellent. 93 Points.
Finally, here are the above 13 wines (minus the Dom Pérignon, of course) ranked, in order of preference.
- Mailly Champagne Grand Cru Brut Réserve
- Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut
- Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Champagne Brut
- G. H. Mumm & Cie Champagne Cordon Rouge Brut
- Taittinger Champagne Brut Réserve La Française
- Lanson Champagne Brut Black Label
- Moët & Chandon Champagne Brut Impérial
- Pommery Champagne Brut Royal
- *Perrier-Jouët Champagne Grand Brut
- Canard-Duchêne Champagne Brut
- Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut
- Kirkland Signature Champagne Brut
- Nicolas Feuillatte Grande Réserve
*Not a part of the blind tasting.