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[Photograph: Champagne and glass from Shutterstock]

For most people, Champagne is the bottle that you pop open once a year—a quick glass of fizz you drink as the ball drops (or as you make a special toast.) Plenty of people only taste that yellow-labeled bottle and think they don't even like Champagne that much. But there's a lot more to the wines made in this French wine region about 90 miles northeast of Paris, and we tried 23 of them to figure out which nonvintage bottles tasted best. What's the best value in this region of fancy bubbly? Here's what we found.

What is Nonvintage Champagne?

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[Chardonnay grapes in Champagne. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

In most wine regions, there's a year on the label of every bottle—the year the grapes were grown. This number matters in wine: some years are hot and sunny and the grapes get very ripe. Some years are cooler, and so the grapes might retain more tart acidity, and they might not end up making a wine with quite as much alcohol. Each year—each vintage—is different.

Grapes are grown every year in Champagne, too, but not every wine has a year on the label. In the best years, Champagne houses will produce a vintage Champagne (with the year on the label) and that wine will only include grapes from that year, with no older wines blended into it. This wine will have the specific characteristics of that year's growing season, and since these wines aren't made every year, they're in limited supply and pretty pricey.

In contrast, most Champagne is non-vintage. This means that the final product is a blend of wines produced in different years—a little of the 2008, a little of the 2006, and onward. There's more of this wine on the market, and it's less expensive.

What's the Deal with Houses and Growers?

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[Photograph: Champagne corks closeup from Shutterstock]

Remember that yellow label? You see that iconic packaging everywhere because it's one of the most commonly sold Champagnes in the US. Veuve Clicquot one of the big brands of negociant Champagnes—negociant means that at least some of the grapes are purchased, not farmed on the Champagne house's own property. Negociant Champagnes (which will have a tiny NM on the label) make up about 96% of the Champagne sold in the US. (Ten years ago, that number was more like 98%.)

The houses, as these negociant brands are called, tend to blend grapes from vineyards all over the Champagne region in order to make its nonvintage wine in a recognizable, consistent style. That way, you know what you're getting when you buy a bottle of Veuve, Moët, or Perrier-Jouët.

Some find this consistency useful and dependable, while others say this takes the romance out of the wine. Unlike Coca Cola, which you expect to be made in a factory to taste the same, can after can, wine is an agricultural product, like a tomato. Some might even find something creepy about a super-consistent wine, or wonder what character was lost in the blending.

Romance aside, there's a loss of specificity when wine from all over a large region is dumped into one barrel. Have you ever been to a wine tasting at a vineyard, where you start out tasting the cheapest bottle (say, a wine with "California" on the label, but no mention of a more specific area within the state.) That bottle could be perfect weeknight wine, with a generic flavor that is recognizable as, say, Cabernet. Some of the grapes might be from Napa, and some from Sonoma, and some from high elevations, and some lower, and any quirks pretty much average out in the blend. The second wine you taste in the lineup might be a bit more pricey, and all the grapes might come from the Los Carneros area, and the cool evenings might make this wine taste different, from, say, an Oakville Cabernet. Comparing the two can be interesting, and usually there's more complexity in these wines than in the more generic all-California blend. Finally, you might taste a top of the line single-vineyard Cabernet—these grapes haven't been blended with other grapes from elsewhere. You'll likely find that the wine seems focused and full of flavors you can pick out—whether it's from the age of the vines, or the soil where the grapes were all grown, or from the particular weather conditions of that single hillside. The same range—from a blend that smooths all rough edges into one "house style" that's the same year after year to a specific (and quirky) single-vineyard wine—exists in Champagne.

But Maggie, you say, if the houses buy their grapes from all over the region so they can make a consistent blend for their nonvintage Champagne, how would you get to taste something grown in a specific village or just one vineyard? Well, that's where the other 4 percent of Champagne sold in the US comes in—the grower Champagnes, marked with "RM" on the label. (The RM stands for récoltant-manipulant, or grower-producer.)

The little guys grow their own grapes and make their wine from the grapes they grow. Sometimes these same growers also sell some grapes to the big houses—but they tend to reserve their best plots for their own winemaking projects. And while the big houses buy grapes from hundreds of different villages and blend them all together, the RMs tend to make wines that reflect the character of certain spot of land. So even when you buy the cheapest wine these growers make—their nonvintage offering without a year on the label—you tend to get a more specific wine than you'd get with the big guys. And if that grower happens to own only high-status grand cru farmland, then that is where your grapes are coming from—even in the cheapest NV bottle.

(There are few other reasons these growers tend to be a good value—for that, check out Terry Theise's post on how marketing affects the price of wine.) Theise, who imports grower Champagnes, calls the growers "the microbreweries of Champagne", while he compares the big houses to MillerCoors or Anheuser-Busch.

Of course, we shouldn't rush to generalizations. Some wine made by growers is delicious, and some is not—just like with any winemaker anywhere in the world. Some bottles of big-brand Champagne are tasty, and some are less tasty. Moreover, while some Champagne houses are owned by big luxury-goods firms, some are not. There are some smaller houses, too, and some of them grow some of their own grapes, but are forced to purchase the others, and some larger houses are starting to offer more location-specific wines at the higher end of the price scale. In any case, as Jon Bonné recently wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, we have more options today than ever, and "it is a glorious time to be Champagne lover."

Nonvintage Grower Champagnes We Love

Though grower Champagne makes up a tiny proportion of the total sold in the US, there are more than 180 different growers imported here, so we clearly couldn't try them all. (I'm putting it on my life list, though, so I'll get back to you.) Still, we tasted a range, from rustic and quirky options to purely pleasing, shimmering sips. (Unfortunately, we couldn't rate them all—one bottle was corked. Yep, that happens with sparkling wine, too. Here's how to detect it.)

20111220pehusimonet.jpgOf all the Champagnes we tried, Pehu-Simonet's Selection Brut was one of the most strikingly delicious. It's 70% Pinot Noir, and definitely has fruitiness as the core, mostly reminding us of tart raspberries piled onto vanilla ice cream. This wine had a remarkable purity of fresh-fruit flavor on a chalky crushed-stones backbone, with a wash of cidery, nutmeggy spice. It's sturdy and serious enough to serve with Arctic char or salmon, quiche or mussels. It's around $45, and I wish it were more widely available, but they only have about 22 acres of land, and make about 4000 cases of wine each year.

Gaston Chiquet is one of my favorite producers in all of Champagne, and their NV Brut Tradition (Carte Verte) is fascinating. A deeply stony, smoky wine, it's almost more grainy than juicy, like seeded bread with wheatberries and pine nuts, the perfect match for earthy foods like roasted turkey or chicken and root vegetables, or anything with chestnuts. This dense, precise wine is 45% pinot meunier, and is a great introduction that that grape if you're uncertain about its flavors. There is a hint of green plum, bay leaf, and thyme, with a gravely minerality throughout. It sells for around $45.

Rene Geoffroy's NV Expression Brut is a cooler-tasting Champagne, mostly herbal and floral, with hints of cucumber and juniper (think of it as the gin and tonic of Champagnes.) It's refreshing and taut, a little lavendery. Slurp it with oysters. It sells for about $50.

We liked the zingy acidity and chalky backbone of the Jean Velut NV Brut "Montgueux" which is mostly made from Chardonnay with 15% Pinot Noir. The first sip is a woosh of citrus: lemon, lime, and lime peel, with a lingering tartness supported by chalk, pears, and hints of sage. If you like tart dry riesling, you'll love this wine (especially with sushi or lightly cured fish, or with goat cheese.) It's around $40, though we've seen it for less.

Of course, it can be a challenge to find grower Champagne in some areas. If you can't track down these bottles, ask your local wine shop which grower Champagnes they do stock, and look for other growers such as Vilmart, Joel Falmet, Pierre Moncuit, Pierre Peters, Cedric Bouchard, and Pierre Gimmonet. If you're interested in trying these wines, tell your local wine store—they may be able to special-order them for you or they may consider stocking them if they know there's interest.

Negociant Wines We Recommend

Ployez-Jacquemart is an example of a negociant wine made on a smaller scale. Their annual production is around 90,000 bottles (for reference, Moet & Chandon's annual production is said to be 26,000,000 bottles.) 20111218philipponnatbottle.jpgThe Ployez-Jacquemart Extra Quality NV Brut costs about $40 a bottle, and the fruit is all from 1er Cru and Grand Cru vineyards. It's a bright, intensely focused wine, with a lot of floral quality—hints of thyme, perfumey chamomile, and bay leaf, with tart starfruit-like acidity and a touch of something tropical.

Champagne Philipponnat's Royale Brut Reserve was by far one of our favorite bottles, negociant or no. It's rich—as if dosed with a touch of grassy olive oil, and complex, with a fruity fullness from pinot noir that reminded us of tangy apricots. It's not super toasty, more butterscotch than caramel, and it would be delicious with pork chops or salmon. It costs around $36, and is miles better than many Champagnes at that price.

We also really liked the Brut Grande Cuvée from Champagne Moutard, a medium-sized negociant that uses about 25% of its own grapes and purchases the rest. Their entry-level Brut is 100% Pinot Noir, giving it very fresh fruit at the core, like a bite from a juicy Bosc pear, surrounded by an oyster-shell, sea-salty minerality and long-lingering floral finish. It's the ideal wine for seafood—plan a meal with oysters and crab! (And invite me over to share.)

As far as widely available bottles go, Moët & Chandon's Brut Imperial is a bottle you can rely on. This may sound silly, but this is a winelike Champagne, with red berry flavors from a majority of Pinot Noir, and a fruity core of roasted Golden Delicious apples. There's a classic (some might say generic) toasted brioche, pear, and lime zest flavor, and as a whole, this wine is richer, and has a bit more heft than some. It's around $37 unless you snag a discount.

In contrast, our other standby widely-available bottle, Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut NV, is shimmery, floral, and crystalline, lacking the cashew-and-cream unctuousness of the Moet Brut. It's very polished and clean, effervescent and light, with hints of thyme and dried pineapple ring. You can certainly do worse than this, especially for $35.

We're surprised that more people don't mention another $35 option, Charles Heidsieck's Brut Reserve, as their go-to Champagne. It's more of a classy dinner-party sipper than a festive toast—it's rich, full of apple pie filling flavors, fruit and clove and nutmeg, with malty grainy notes that some would describe as biscuity. It's elegant wine with a sparkle of tangy lemon acidity and an orange-peel edge that keeps it from getting cloying. Since there's lots of golden toastiness in this wine, serve it with crisp-skinned chicken (fried if you dare) or pate on toast.

We also like Champagne Henriot's Brut Souverain, which we've seen on sale for as little as $30 this time of year. It has a round richness balanced with bright green apple tartness. It's a weighty wine, juicy but not berry-liked, with a hint of chamomile, caramel apple, and even marzipan. Serve it with pizza or an Alsatian onion tart.

Though it's out of our preferred price range at around $60, Champagne Gosset's Brut Grand Reserve has a weighty elegance we liked—it's laced with layers of dried apricot and dried pear flavors, orange peel, a little toffee, and a fragrant floral element, like roses dried between the pages of an old book. It's hefty enough to serve with lobster bisque or a curry-sauced salmon, or get fancy with hors d'oeuvres like scrambled eggs with caviar or smoked salmon on potato chips or latkes. But would we rather drink this than 2 bottles of one of the cheaper wines mentioned above? Probably not.

A Few You Can Skip

Since Champagne is so expensive, you shouldn't shell out for disappointing bottles. Champagne has the potential to be fascinating and delicious, on its own and especially with food.

In general, we fared better with the grower Champagnes than the bigger brands. Many of the nonvintage negociant wines we tried just didn't stand out enough to us to be worth recommending—they were a bit bland. Nicolas Feuillatte Brut offered straightforward and pleasing fruity brioche flavors, but nothing that could keep us interested. Pol Roger's Extra Cuvee de Reserve was only slightly more complex, with a little hint of pears, lemon rind, and juniper, in a lightly toasted package—pleasant, again, but not compelling. Champagne Henri Giraud's entry-level Esprit Blanc de Blancs was plenty drinkable but uncomplicated, with light pear and fennel flavors. It would be good with sushi, but it wasn't exciting enough to justify the expense. Champagne Taittinger's NV Brut La Francaise was appley and pastrylike, but a little sour and even bitter on the finish, like a hard nectarine. It could cut through the fat of a rich meal like porchetta, but it's not a wine we'd be likely to bring home again.

Though I know plenty of people associate the yellow labeled Veuve Clicquot with celebrations, I just can't recommend it, especially when you consider the price—a whopping $40. The bottle we tasted was so tart it felt harsh, with a slightly sour, barely-ripe apricot flavor. It doesn't have the smooth richness and complexity of almost any of the other wines we tried.

Champagne Bollinger's Special Cuvée smelled a bit like rich coconut, and offered a savory, winey richness that some tasters liked, but others weren't wowed. Try it with seafood bisque if you are looking for something elegant rather than refreshing. We also weren't that into Louis Roederer's Brut Premier, which reminded some of our tasters of ginger ale. It's toasty but a little faceless, with round cooked-apple flavors but a bit hollow at the center. I was hoping that Jacquart's Brut Mosaique would be good, especially since it's on the low end of the price scale at around $32. But this intensely caramel-flavored vanilla-scented wine was just too oaky-seeming to us; it might please someone who generally loves California Chardonnay.

On the grower side, J. Charpentier's Brut Reserve shows the rustic side of Pinot Meunier, and we'd have a hard time recommending it to anyone who is just looking for a pleasant bubbly to drink before dinner. It's smoky and cardamom-laced, with almond and toffee flavors that veer toward burnt sugar. Savory sesame notes make it an interesting partner for cheese, but it's not for beginners.

Champagne Pascal Redon's Brut Tradition didn't really impress us when we first opened it; the acidity was a little soft, and the flavors were straightfoward. Appley, cider donuts with cinnamon sugar, fine for pairing with cacio e pepe or even a Thai green curry, but pricey at $48. After sealing with a Champagne stopper overnight, we found this wine tastier on day 2, becoming silkier and fuller (with a touch of nuttiness) with the added oxygen. The added alto note improved this wine markedly; it's a method worth keeping in mind.

More Sparkling Wine

The Serious Eats Guide to Sparkling Wine
Taste-Along Report: Cava
Good Bubbles For the Buck: Picking The Best Prosecco

About the Author: Maggie Hoffman is the editor of Serious Eats: Drinks and coeditor of Serious Eats: Sweets. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiejane.

Disclosure: All wines were provided as samples for review.

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