By Robert Parker Winemakers in Spain, Italy, California, and even Australia make some pretty fine bubbly. Still, nobody beats the sparklers from France's Champagne region. The best are from specific vintages—1990, 1995, 1996, and 2002 are a few. Many nonvintage champagnes (the "NV" on the label indicates it's a blend of several vintages) are wonderful, too, and come at far lower prices. Champagne can be damaged by poor storage and bright in-store lighting, so be sure to buy from a merchant with fresh inventory.
Moët & Chandon
Its Dom Pérignon is unquestionably the world's most renowned champagne. The 1996 is legendary, and plan on spending $200—if you can find this 98-point beauty. The 1998 scores 92 points and should be easier to find.
Perhaps the best nonvintage brut in the marketplace is Pol-Roger, which runs less than $50. If you have $200 to spend, check out the flagship offering, the 1996 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
Roederer's famed luxury champagne, Cristal, is said to be as popular among Mafia dons and drug kingpins as it is among wine connoisseurs. However, that shouldn't dissuade anybody from checking it out, especially if you are willing to spend $200-$250 per bottle. Roederer's more reasonably priced offerings ($30-$40) include their nonvintage brut and blancs de blanc.
An exquisite 100% chardonnay champagne, the Comtes de Champagne, is about as delicate and elegant as bubbly can be. The 1995 vintage, with ripe apple and pear scents, scores 96 points and will cost you about $175. Taittinger also produces a delicious nonvintage Brut for about $35.
This house's expensive La Grande Dame is as good as it should be for the price (it runs from $65 to around $150, depending on the vintage). The nonvintage brut, at about $50, is topflight.
While not a small house, this remains something of an insider's secret. The nonvintage brut is one of the best in the marketplace, at about $40. The real glories here are the nonvintage brut rosé ($60) and the vintage rosé champagne called Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon. The 1996 is exquisite (96 points, $150).
Just about anything produced at this small artisanal house is of impeccably high quality. The nonvintage Brut Tradition Grand Cru (91 points, $50) produces scents of pears, yeast, and toast.
A terrific champagne house producing very good nonvintage and vintage blancs de blanc as well as a superb nonvintage Cuvée de Réserve, usually priced under $50.
Wines rated from 96-100 are extraordinary; 90-95, excellent; 80-89, above average to very good.
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