Falling Champagnes Prices Mean Bubbly Holidays for Bargain Hunters

If they're lucky, Champagne makers will have flat sales this holiday season, after a year when revenue for many of the best-known labels dropped as much as 50 percent for non-vintage and up to 85 percent for the top cuvees.

Prices have plummeted in the U.K., with the likes of Bollinger, Moet & Chandon, Lanson Black Label, and Nicolas Feuillatte selling for less than half in some stores, according to the Web site of U.K.-based wine magazine Decanter. There have even been reports of grapes being left on the vine in Champagne vineyards to stem the glut.

"We have adjusted our prices accordingly," said Bertrand de Fleurian, U.S. president for Laurent-Perrier, in a Bloomberg interview. "In fact, our prices are lower than two years ago, even with the strength of the euro."

All of which is good for the consumer, whose reluctance to celebrate anything during the recession caused the sales of the world's most celebratory wine to fizzle. Many switched to cheaper alternatives, boosting sales of non-Champagne bubblies like Spanish cavas, California sparkling wine and Italian prosecco.

This last saw an increase in sales in the second half of 2008 and first half of 2009 to $24 million, up from $19 million for the same period in 2007-2008, according to the Nielsen Co., a global research firm.

A recent tasting this month of 15 vintage Champagnes by the Wine Media Guild of New York gave me ample evidence that very fine bottles are now available at pretty good prices.

Little BodyOddly enough, one of the priciest of the sampling—Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d'Or Prestige Cuvee 1998 ($120)—was terribly oxidized (I tasted two different bottles to make sure), and the $120 Bollinger La Grande Annee Brut 1999 smelled musty and lacked any distinctive vintage character. Some, like the G.H. Mumm Cuvee Rene Lalou Brut Prestige 1998 ($150) had little body, tasting almost watery.

Still, there was plenty to love, especially in the 1999 vintage, which is now showing a fine equilibrium of fruit and minerals with that patina of age that gives it character. Here are the Champagnes I most enjoyed and believe are worth their prices. In most cases, they can be found in stores and online at lower retail prices than the ones I've posted here.

Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2000 ($60)—If you like a good burst of citrus in your Champagne, this is a fine example, made from 100 percent Grands Crus Chardonnays. Ayala, owned by Bollinger since 2005, has had the same cellar master for a quarter century, Nicolas Klym, and the creamy style of the marque is rewarding, especially in this vintage.

Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 1999 ($95)—Pol Roger has been aggressive in its global reach over the past few years, not least in modernizing its facilities as of 2004. This older 1999 vintage shows the richness achievable in an all-chardonnay Champagne. It begins with a light floral bouquet but really develops on the mid-palate, with plenty of vanilla and lemon flavors.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 1999 ($75)—For a Blanc de Blancs, this, too, is showing exceptional body. The house is the fifth-oldest in the region, and it never produces more than 50,000 cases. Aged on the lees for five years, it has developed a rewarding balance on every count—fruit, minerality and vintage character.

Taittinger Millesime Brut 2002 ($70)—James Bond's favorite marque, Taittinger is one of the loveliest, full-fruited Champagnes, drawing on a vast number of its own vineyards and other growers to maintain the voluptuous house style. The toasty yeast notes and the fresh scent of pineapple all coalesce in a Champagne consistently among the most rewarding.

Laurent-Perrier Brut 1999 ($60)—A very good price for a very fine Champagne, Laurent-Perrier has made a big push into the U.S. market since first arriving in 1998. The style is elegant but the 52-48 mix of chardonnay and pinot noir, along with a light dosage, give this a bold, modern edge that goes with a wide variety of foods, from shellfish to chicken.

Pommery Brut 1999 ($70)—The aroma bolts from the glass, the minerality is in ample supply, and the aging has worked to give this an ideal balance that should be even better in a year or two. I have always found its top-of-the-line Cuvee Louise too bone dry, but this blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier has the light fruit sweetness that for me characterizes a beverage that is, after all, made from grapes.

Henriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs Brut Prestige Cuvee 1995 ($135)—This was the most expensive of the wines I liked most, and, if you're feeling flush, it's worth the price. The wine has the complexity that comes from aging and a truly luscious, creamy texture that went well with a dish served at lunch that day at the restaurant Felidia: ravioli filled with cheese and unsweetened chocolate with tender broccoli di rape and crumbs of amaretti almond cookies. A triumph of complex flavors!

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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