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Champagne, we are now told, is not one big amorphous place, as the marketing insisted for so long. It comprises dozens of smaller villages, each with its own distinctive terroir and character. It might as well be Burgundy.

Pick Rosé Champagne to celebrate the holiday season

Dec 27, 2019 5:50 AM

CHAMPAGNE used to be such a simple thing. You popped a cork, and the gushing fountain of wine cued celebratory joy.

You might have had a preference among the house styles of the big Champagne producers, or grand marques. Or maybe you simply chose a brand as your own, as if it were cigarettes or beer.

The evolution of Champagne since those easy 20th-century days epitomises the problem facing the larger wine industry. Champagne, we now know, is a far more complicated affair than an elegant pop and pour.

Now, it's both dinner jackets and dirt, the blending art of the cellar master and the idiosyncratic expression of place. There are big houses and small grower-producers, oxidative and reductive styles, all of which is enough to stop any party before it begins.

Champagne, we are now told, is not one big amorphous place, as the marketing insisted for so long. It comprises dozens of smaller villages, each with its own distinctive terroir and character. It might as well be Burgundy.

It's no longer enough to understand that a nonvintage Champagne is a blend from multiple years. We now need to know the base vintage in the mix and every bottle's disgorgement date.

Even the slender, elegant flutes are no longer acceptable, as now it is widely believed within Champagne circles that they do not do justice to the complexity of the wine, no matter how pretty they may be. Ordinary wineglasses are now preferred.

Marketing types long for the simplicity of old, and not only with Champagne. Throughout the wine industry, they assert that wine is too complicated for most people, and that this complexity drives consumers away. Far better to simplify the choices - the preferred term is "demystify."

But demystification is too often a synonym for dumbing down. The beauty of wine is its glorious diversity. Sure, it's complicated. For those who do not want to absorb the details, aid is easy to come by, namely from good merchants and sommeliers, even wine critics.

As in politics, the wine industry has a choice. Do you convey a simple message in which the complexities are ironed out because they distract from the goal? Or do you present a situation in full, intricate detail, hoping that voters or consumers will appreciate the nuances and make better choices?

With Champagne, consumers can still do it the simple old way, asking for their favourite big brands as if it were still 1990. Or they can set aside trepidations, shed the marketers' blinders and explore the knotty, sometimes perplexing world of Champagne as it is understood today. The goal is not mastery, but simply to recognise and enjoy all its subtle expressions.

The wine panel is here to help. With our minds on the holidays, when most sparkling wines are purchased in this country, we recently tasted 20 bottles of nonvintage rosé Champagne.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests: Sabra Lewis, events manager for Zachys, the retailer and auction house in Scarsdale, New York, and Victoria James, beverage director and partner at Cote and author of Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé.

We decided to restrict our tasting to rosé Champagnes from grower-producers, those who farm all or nearly all their grapes and make the wines. These Champagnes tend to be more idiosyncratic than those from the big houses, which in their nonvintage wines have more resources to create smoothly consistent styles from year to year.

We decided to look at rosé Champagnes both because they have ridden the wave of rosé popularity and because they offer so much variety, starting with the way they are produced.

Most rosé wines are made from the juice of red grapes, which is briefly macerated with the pigment-laden skins. When the desired colour is achieved, the juice is whisked off to begin its journey through fermentation to wine.

Some rosé Champagne is made this way, too, but most is made by combining just enough red wine, from pinot noir or pinot meunier, with white wine from the usual Champagne blend of grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Is one method better than the others? I've had excellent bottles from both, and I can't tell the difference.

In our tasting, we found a great deal of diversity in the wines. Colours ranged from the palest onionskin to an almost brilliant maraschino cherry, yet the colour was rarely a clue to the body and character of the wine.

Some were rustic - with bubbles that seemed overly harsh, or with parts that had not seamlessly knit together. A couple seemed unfinished. "Rusticity is not always the most pleasant thing in Champagne," Victoria said.

Many more were classically elegant, creamy, lively and beautifully textured. Some conveyed a distinctive complexity that seemed more akin to fine wine with bubbles rather than a typical Champagne. We found this vinous quality attractive.

"So many different points of view," Sabra said. "Such a diversity of styles and intentions."

Most of the bottles in our tasting were labelled "brut," as are most Champagnes, meaning that the dosage can range from zero to 12 grams of sugar per litre. But our favourite turned out to be a "brut nature," meaning it had no dosage at all.

That was the Rosé Zero Brut Nature from Tarlant, a beautifully balanced wine with complex flavours and plenty of energy. Our No 5 wine, the Campania Remensis from Bérêche & Fils, was an extra brut, with a dosage from 3 to 6 grams. It was rich, fresh and tangy.

Otherwise, all our favourites were bruts. Our No 2 bottle was the balanced, elegant, lightly fruity Diebolt-Vallois. It was followed by the complex, savory Cuvée Rubis from Vilmart & Cie and the subtle, chalky, almost Burgundian Brut Grand Cru from Hugues Godmé.

No 6 was the exuberant, tangy C de Rosé from Perseval-Farge, followed by the creamy, floral Rosé Brut from Marc Hébrart, and the lively yet subtle Théodorine Brut from Apollonis, a new name for the Champagne producer formerly called Michel Loriot.

The Apollonis was our best value at US$45, roughly the lower limit nowadays for rosé Champagnes. Many top bottles today are more than US$100, which is our cap for these tastings. The Bérêche was our most expensive at US$90.

If you do have an appetite for further exploration, I highly recommend Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers and Terroirs of the Iconic Region by Peter Liem. Otherwise, simply enjoy. NYTIMES