25. Scharffenberger Brut Excellence ($20)
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This majority Pinot Noir wine, even rendered as a white, has the Pinot’s characteristic hints of cherry, berry and plum. Add Chardonnay and malolactic fermentation, and you get a creamy undertone of vanilla, caramel, hazelnut and freshly baked bread. You can confidently age this, but I can already tell you—you won’t. It’s just too drinkable.
24. Elyssia Pinot Noir Cava ($18)
This is one yummy pink cava, folks. A bit of a cherry-bomb, with raspberries and lime in supporting roles. Elegant, not skimpy on the bubbles, and remarkably versatile. Acidity balanced as an Olympic gymnast and a bright, bright finish.
23. Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour NV ($40)
I remember a time when Domaine Carneros was a little bit more of a local secret and their price point wasn’t quite so lofty. Those were good times because the wines were a freaking steal for the quality. This is far from their priciest, however, and it’s lovely. Made in honor of tastemaker and bubby-aficionado Madame de Pompadour, this is a youthful and fruity wine I personally would not recommend cellaring for too long. Foamy mousse that hangs on like crazy. Dominant notes of cherries and raspberries, along with a little spice (cinnamon or allspice), and a significant presence of orange zest. A certain exuberance, but not a diva.
22. Iron Horse 2010 Brut X
Dry to the edge of bony. Honeysuckle on the nose, then stone and saline notes take it from there. Peach, pear and a little citrus on the finish. Bracing. Tart. Restrained. All about structure.
21. Gruet Grande Reserve ($42)
This 80/20 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend is on the heavier-bodied side, and very layered. Gruet’s Grande Reserve is an elegant, complex, serious wine. Think toasted bread, caramel, white chocolate in addition to the more typical apple and citrus notes found in these blends. Dry but rich, with a long finish. Gorgeous.
20. Drusian Rose Mari Rose ($15)
A pink Pinot Nero spumante from Veneto, Italy. Ethereal pink with slight violet tints, this wine is whispery and soft, but not a wallflower. Soft but persistent bubbles, and delicate floral and fruit notes. (I get raspberries and roses.) The appropriate occasion for this wine is absolutely anything. The pairing? Ditto. I officially defy you not to love this stuff. It’s my go-to for pizza, especially that one with the potatoes and white truffle oil.
19. Gosset Grande Reserve Brut ($70)
So, there are austere, bony, spectral sparkling wines. And then there are wines like Gosset, with an unabashed Baroque decadence. The Grande Reserve Brut is explosive, though harmonious—like a big resounding chord. Rich, with a honeyed character and lots of toast tones, as well as neroli, peaches, and fresh profiteroles. Raspberry and lime on the finish. The aromatics are intense, the mouthfeel dense and full-figured. I want to say goat cheese is the obvious choice here. I have known people to say it is fabulous with fried chicken.
18. Larmandier Bernier Latitude Blanc de Blancs ($45)
This biodynamically farmed cuvee Champagne would most appropriately be placed in the “Le Charm-Bomb” style of French sparklers. It’s incredibly festive, very versatile, and has a sort of wittiness to it. (Please don’t ask me how it is that wine can have or not have a sense of humor, but trust me, it’s a thing, and frankly not everything that comes out of Champagne has the ability to laugh out loud.) It’s a Chardonnay, and its main expression is grapefruit and crushed stone, but there’s a healthy ration of orchard fruit notes too, including aromatic quince. Dry but faintly honeyed, with a beautiful bead and a skin-tight finish. Focused but don’t expect it to take itself overly seriously. You can get that from plenty of Champagnes. Come to this one for a break from all that. Finesse for days, non-snooty. Gnocchi would enjoy a night out with this.
17. Mumm Napa Valley DVX ($56)
This cuvee from Napa is just plain delicious. The winemakers get “free rein” on this limited edition wine, which means there’s more year-to-year variability, which means I’m discussing the 2009 release specifically. This is one of the best sparklers in Napa Valley, with a burnished gold hue and persistent mousse. Explosive palate, with raspberry and alpine strawberry leading but also a good deal of fig and nut tones and a hint of vanilla. It balances creaminess and acidity very nicely.
16. Billecart Salmon Brut Reserve ($50)
If you lined up ten wine experts and asked them what their favorite Champagne was, they’d probably all say something different, and regardless of their training and experience, each answer would be founded in an emotional reaction they had to that wine. Billecart-Salmon is my “it’s an emotional thing” bubbly. It might hit you differently, but you can expect excellent craftsmanship from these guys, and in the case of the Brut Reserve iteration, a bright straw hue with slow, almost levitating bubbles and a nose full of ripe pears. Mid-palate is largely about stone fruits, with a slight grassiness and a touch of mango. It’s bright and clean and joyful.
15. Schramsberg Brut Rose ($40)
A Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend from the Northern California Coast, this beautiful wine is structured, elegant and clean, equally at home with sashimi or chocolate—it can stand up to something rich and unctuous but also plays nicely with light appetizers and salads. The 2007 bottling is a rich, layered mixture of cherry, strawberry and raspberry flavors, with ghost notes of mandarin and melon and something faintly yeasty. Will not disappoint any reasonable human.
14. Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($65)
With a brilliant gold color and long-lasting bubbles, this highly vivacious stuff is aged for a long time on the yeast, so it has a very mature and voluptuous nature—it’s a bit like someone managed to bottle sunshine. Ripe fruit notes (plum and apricot, a little mango) mingle with lightly nutlike traces on the nose (pistachio?) while the palate expresses buttery pastry, cherries and caramel and praline notes. The texture is lavish and lush. If I were going to step out on Billecart-Salmon I’d be hooking up with Heidsieck for sure. (In other words, put this in the Awesome Gift Column.)
13. Lucien Albrecht Cremant D’Alsace Reserve ($20)
I love this stuff. Love. It. It is just so freaking good. Albrecht is a long-respected name in Alsatian sparkling wine, and this wine is a perfect example of why you don’t need ultra-deep pockets for something incredible. For what a bottle of Dom Perignon 2005 would cost you could get nearly a case of this, and you’d probably be equally happy. Made from Pinot Blanc grapes and showing the soft green apple note characteristic of that varietal, this is an ultra-elegant, crisp, refined, layered and well-structured wine. A creamy texture, beautiful beading, and a long, light, lemony finish. It is sophisticated, versatile, and approachable. As with so many of these wines, this would have an affinity for food from the same region, and Alsace tends toward the rich and substantial (think pork and game and stews and tarte flambée). Perhaps I’m a heretic but I’d pair this with anything.
12. Dom Perignon Brut 2005 (about $200)
There are few “prestige cuvee” wines on this list. Partially, it’s because it’s questionable whether it’s worth it in light of the price range. For some people, the high price tag is a key part of the opulent experience, and it’s part of what they want. Personally, I prefer to drink things that do not give me guilt pangs or a credit card balance I can’t pay off. I’m calling out the vintage here because it’s the only Dom Perignon I’ve ever tasted so I cannot speak to anything else, and also because it’s a very good wine made from a reputedly difficult vintage. The nose is a decadent mixture of toasted brioche, subtle fruit notes and a hint of citrus and chalk. It’s a substantial wine with caramelized tones on the palate and even a hint of smokiness. A long, persistent finish. Is it a beauty? Oh, definitely. Is it a bucket-list kind of wine? That’s up to you. There are plenty of sparkling wines I’d be equally thrilled to drink that I can buy without donating an organ. With this stuff you’re kind of drinking an experience at least as much as a glass of Champagne. Oh, and for the record? Here’s a pairing no-no you must, and I mean must, take very seriously. Do not, ever, under any circumstances, I don’t care who you are—do not pull this wine out on a first date with someone you are trying to impress. All you will impress upon them is a huge red flag and the impression that you are leading in the polls for the Asshat City mayoral race. Ignore this public service announcement at your peril.
11. Boschendal Cap Classique Brut
I seriously owe a debt to the person who turned me on to Boschendal (yo, Juliana: Thanks!) This Brut bubbly is a pinot and chardonnay blend with a golden color, a super-bright lemon tone followed by orange peel and almond notes. On the palate, citrus dominates, but there’s some stoniness to it, too, and whispers of tropical fruit notes (pineapple? I think pineapple). This wine is delicate and balanced and not one you should plan on cellaring. It is “Of the Now,” and best drunk young. It might make you feel young, too.
10. Henriot Brut Souverain ($40)
Stong gold hue. Persistent itsy-bitsy bubbles. Fresh to the edge of being a tad sharp with a kind of greenness to it. Medium-bodied, appley. Reined in and elegant, a perfect companion for fish, but as with most of these wines, perfectly happy to hang out with a wide range of food companions, or confidently stand alone.
9. Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Brut Cuvee Annamaria Clementi ($120)
Ca’ Del Bosco is a venerable and highly awesome Franciacorta producer, and this cuvee is truly world-class. This is a glamorous movie star of a wine, meticulous but energetic, with fine and vivacious bubbles and a bright gold color. It’s aged for at least seven years, which gives it an incomparable bouquet and stunning levels of nuance. Baked apple, caramel, lemons, bread. Apricots, crushed rock, wild herbs. Intensely creamy on the palate with a long, long, long finish. One of the greats, and a wine that is great for celebrating a special occasion, or being the occasion.
8. Bollinger Brut Special Cuvee ($70)
Fun fact: When James Bond foregoes his signature martini for a glass of bubbly, he orders Bollinger. And with good reason: It’s indisputably one of the masters of the genre. Aromatic and complicated, with itsy bitsy starry bubbles and a liquid-gold hue. Baked apple, spices, peach, a bit of walnut, brioche and pear. Superb structure and luscious texture. Not exactly a Tuesday night price point for most of us, but if you occasionally find yourself with a bottle in your hand you’re never going to regret it. Bollinger is one of the greats. Pairings: the sky’s the limit with this one, but do your palate the favor of making it something created with care. If you choose to add a side of Dr. No, that’s perfectly reasonable.
7. Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve NV ($40)
This is a very affable wine, and while it’s more of a splurge than most cavas, it’s not an unreasonable one. On the delicate side, crystalline and almost silvery in the glass, meandering, unending bubble-streams. A tad shy on the approach but the nose unfolds into a floral and white nectarine and pear thing, and with a little time, starts to show complicated notes of riper fruit, and savory spices (like curry? Maybe fenugreek?). Dry and fresh with a light finish. A bit reserved, but a great friend once it opens up. Try it with something that echoes those spice notes or just enjoy it as an aperitif.
6. Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru ($80)
This Champagne flies a bit under the radar. But bring it as a host gift if the host in question is a wine connoisseur and you will secure a permanent spot on that person’s guest list. Nose of peaches, piecrust, almond or marzipan and a little sweet cherry. A kind of lemon curd thing unfolds on the palate, along with tart green apples, orange rind, mineral notes and spice. Deep, deep depths to this stuff and a molten-gold color that’s totally gorgeous. It’s a complex and impressive concoction and absolutely as good as or better than plenty of champagnes for which you shell out a good deal more.
5. JM Gobillard et Fils Millesime 2010 ($60)
The term “Millesime” is common in perfumery but in describing Champagne it means the same thing: extra-high quality. And this is some pretty fine stuff. Be careful opening this one if you’re flying solo because you will drink the entire bottle and then start sending racy text messages to your ex by accident. Sleek, structured, finesse in a glass. Straw color, lovely aromatics (violets and strawberries), persistent perlage, and pleasant mix of fruity and pastry-like notes. A beauty. Broadly food-loving but I happen to like this one best paired with an empty house and a movie I didn’t have to negotiate with anyone about.
4. Champagne Krug Vintage Brut 2000 ($300)
See, this is a really good example of “it’s personal,” sub-clause “I only tried it once and I recognize it’s fabulous but I can’t really afford it, which inherently makes it less good for me personally.” Many people venerate this Champagne. It deserves a high rank for its complete awesomeness, but I get more excited about makers like Lucien Albrecht or Boschendahl, who make utterly delicious wines you can actually drink without taking out a home equity line. If you’re the kind of person who can drop $300 on something you will, let’s just say it, turn into pee, then you know what? Skip the Dom and get this; it’s a pretty kowtow-worthy wine. It’s a sucker punch with a huge towering presence, incredible complexity, and serious aging power. Notes dominant in this vintage now? Nougat, caramel, roasted nuts, candied citrus zest, ginger, pastry, and a long lime finish. Rich and luxuriant with intriguing salinity. Deep gold color, unapologetic opulence. Try it at least once. Especially if someone else is paying for it! This wine is the Emperor of “I am the occasion” special-occasion wines. I knew someone whose dad bought a high-end Napa Cabernet when she was born and opened it with her on her 21st birthday. This is a wine I’d do that with.
3. Charles Heidsieck 2006 Rose ($150)
If you like your Champagne on the intense side with a slightly less intense pricetag, this is your guy. There’s an immediacy and power to this stuff. Apricot tone in the glass, beautiful bubbles, massively aromatic nose reminiscent of strawberry jam, baking spices and honey. Creamy mouthfeel, and a highly nuanced and rather eccentric palate—plums, piecrust, blackberries—I even get some rather unexpected spice notes; Is that cumin? Fennel? Before you figure it out it reveals a deeper layer that expresses tea, figs, and pink peppercorns. If that list of spices sounds odd or intimidating, don’t sweat it—it’s amazingly seamless and, with all due respect to La France, the stringent regulations on what you can call Champagne result in consistent greatness but also … predictability. There is a certain limited range of flavors. Heidsieck has managed a very surprising one here. So … if you’re planning to surprise someone special, this might be the moment to pop the cork on a bottle of this nectar.
2. Domaine Carneros “Le Reve” ($100)
Domaine Carneros is owned by Taittenger and retains a strongly French style and character. Their price point has gone up quite a bit since the first time I found myself on their patio, which is a drag; if I’d known what was going to happen I would have gone into hock to purchase cases of “Le Reve” and they’d probably still be awesome right now. It’s soft, mellow, fairly nonastringent, with a nose of fresh scones. Its name means “the dream,” and it is pretty much just that. An incredibly luxurious wine. White flowers, peach, honeysuckle, quince, fig, almond and something indefinably creamy. If you wanted something special for—I don’t know why but I want to say Mother’s Day?—I’d look into this one. Not that it has to be that. There’s just something really Spring Occasion about it.
1. Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ($80-$100)
This might not be your desert island wine, but it is mine (assuming your desert island has refrigeration). Never-ending, beautiful effervescence, pale coral color with a hint of gold, nuanced nose (alpine strawberry and pear play the leads). Crisp and ethereal, with hints of black cherry, chalk, rose petals and damson plum. Creamy yet light on the finish, focused and direct with a pleasant astringency and pretty much perfect balance. There’s something ineffable about this stuff—it’s fresh and brisk and airy but at the same time substantial. If you could bottle happiness it would probably taste a lot like this.