At a holiday party last week, I noticed one of my guests perusing the selection of wines I’d lined up on the kitchen counter. She looked puzzled. “Can’t decide which one to drink?” I queried. “Well, I don’t know much about wine,” she said, “I don’t drink wine much, but I love Champagne.”
Her comment caught me by surprise since I’ve always considered Champagne to be an acquired taste, and one that usually comes after prolonged experimentation with still wines. But I’m always interested in talking about wine, especially with newcomers who think they don’t know anything about it. I enjoy talking with wine rookies because their palates are still “virginal.” More important, their minds aren’t cluttered yet by ideas and notions about what they ought to like versus what they really do like.
Well, it turned out that this gal had tried sparkling wine a few times but recently was treated to a birthday bottle of Dom Perignon. “I suddenly got it,” she said about the Dom. “I could really taste the difference between Dom Perignon and the cheaper Champagnes I’d had before, and it suddenly made sense. I could understand why someone would pay $100 for a bottle of Champagne.”
I’ve had the same experience. Until I spent a week a few years ago in the towns of Reims and Epernay, in the Champagne region of France, most of the Champagne I’d tasted all seemed pretty much the same. But a week’s immersion in bubbles, in a place where the natives drink Champagne for lunch with their grilled-cheese sandwiches (a superb food and wine match, by the way), resulted in my ultimate determination that no two Champagnes taste alike.
Although most Champagne is produced via exactly the same method, no two Champagne houses produce wines that taste alike. Each house has its own style and signature. Because my party guest’s palate and her taste memory hadn’t been clouded yet by dozens or more Champagne experiences, it was easy for her to distinguish between Dom Perignon and the lesser Champagnes she’d had in the past. The difference was clear. The Dom Perignon tasted to her like it was worth $100. Like I said, I’ve had the same experience.
Now generally speaking, when it comes to wine I’d rather have five bottles of $40 wine than one bottle that costs $200. And although I hesitate to try to quantify something as subjective as a wine-tasting experience, it’s usually the case that the $200 bottle doesn’t taste to me five times better than the $40 bottle. So perhaps I’ll sacrifice some quality for quantity, since my budget doesn’t allow me to drink $200 wines habitually.
But the exception is Champagne, where I really do think you get what you pay for. Again, for budgetary reasons I happily drink inexpensive Spanish cavas and domestic sparkling wine more often than classy French Champagne. But a $100 bottle of Champagne usually does taste five times better to me than a $20 bottle. That’s because the elite Champagne producers of France have, over the centuries, created Champagne styles that are so consistent, so refined and so dependable, that they’re actually worth what they cost. A bottle of $160 Salon Champagne sent me to heaven, whereas I’ve had plenty of bottles of still wine in that price range that weren’t particularly exceptional. And the best bottle of Champagne will cost a fraction of the best bottle of Burgundy.
So my advice to you this holiday season is to take the plunge: Go out and splurge on the best bottle of Pol Roger, Krug, Bollinger, Heidseick, Salon, Perrier Jouet, Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Roederer, Gosset, Deutz or Dom Perignon that you can afford. You’ll get your money’s worth.