Fortune’s ultimate holiday Champagne guide

December 23, 2014, 10:00 AM UTC

Over the next two weeks, most of us will put our lips to a Champagne flute at least once. And almost as many of us will spend a few flummoxed, wild-eyed minutes at the corner store, scanning the racks for just the right bottle.

When shopping for Champagne, many customers come in “looking for a bottle of wine that, when they pull it out at their house, everyone knows what it is,” says Theo Snyder, manager of the Total Wine & More in Sacramento, California.

Rather than leave you to your own devices (which may or may not include making wine-buying decisions based on rap songs or label color), Fortune blind-tasted more than 50 vintage and nonvintage, brut and rosé bottles from the biggest names in Champagne, at prices ranging from $36 to $375 a bottle.

Our goal? It’s not to send you into the hinterlands chasing mythical wines you’ll never find, but instead to evaluate and recommend Champagnes you should be able to buy around the corner. Today. Whatever your budget, whatever the occasion, we have just the Champagne for you.

Want to know more about some of the other bubblies we tried? See our additional tasting notes.

Holiday Parties and Midnight Toasts: Nonvintage Brut

Moet et Chandon NV Imperial Brut

When you need a relatively inexpensive, please-everyone bottle to bring to a friend’s house to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, nonvintage brut Champagnes are the way to go. They are fresh wines made to be drunk now.

Nonvintage bruts also offer a glimpse into how a Champagne house’s other wines might taste. Laurent d’Harcourt, CEO of Champagne Pol Roger, calls their nonvintage brut “the DNA of Pol Roger. We want to have year after year consistency. . .We want our regular clients to rely on the ‘house style.’”

Recommended Wines

Veuve Clicquot NV Brut Yellow Label ($49) What people have in mind when they say “bubbly.” Good acidity; lively and fresh. Flavors of bone, mineral, citrus peel.

Moet & Chandon NV Imperial Brut ($41) Medium-bodied, feminine-styled Champagne. Pretty floral/perfume/vanilla aromas. Sour apple and nougat flavors. There’s nothing not to like here.

Piper-Heidsieck NV Brut ($40) Pale yellow; fragrant, perfumed nose. Offers straightforward apple, peach, and tart citrus flavors. Moussey mouthfeel; a festive pour.

Intimate Gatherings: Nonvintage Bruts and Blanc de Blancs

Maybe you and your honey have vowed to spend Christmas in bed, watching a Breaking Bad marathon. Maybe you’re spending New Year’s reminiscing with your closest college buddies. These are the wines you want. They’re nonvintages and are thus still relatively affordable, but they’re also wines to savor. And because your party is small, you may even get a second glass.

Recommended Wines

Pol Roger NV White Foil Brut ($50) Strong boned, with lively acidity from the get go. Mouthcoating, serious; softish feel backed by intensity. Yellow fruit, with a fresh herb/peach pit tang.

Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Blanc de Blancs ($85) Deep, wide aromas—cumin, buttery pie crust. Shows good length and presence on the palate; flavors are zesty citrus enveloped in a smooth minerality. A good apéritif.

Gosset Grand Reserve NV Brut ($68) Wide dust and stone fruit aromas. In the mouth it has backbone, but is edged with rich caramel/crème brûlée flavors. Pleasurable and refined.

Bollinger NV Special Cuvée ($73) Inviting butter/croissant aromas. It toes the line between feeling crisp and acidic, rich and weighty, and the tart green apple and lush pastry flavors bear that out.

First Blush: Nonvintage Rosés

Rosé Champagnes are almost always more expensive than their brut equivalents. Hervé Deschamps, chef de caves at Perrier-Jouët, explains that technical aspects of the winemaking process and duration of the wine’s aging (at their house, three years for nonvintage and over seven years for vintage) are factors that drive the price up. The fact that they are ultrarare doesn’t hurt, either.

However special rosé Champagnes are some consumers, says Snyder, are still under the false impression that the wines are sweet. Those who try rosés and fall in love with them, she says, rarely return to brut.

Recommended Wines

Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Rosé ($85) Pale strawberry-pink color. Light raspberry and white pepper aromas, with a raspberry crème brûlée flavor profile. Clean and dry, with good length and heft.

Taittinger NV Cuvée Prestige Rosé ($84) Mouthfilling raspberry and fresh cream flavors; nice minerally finish. Nice mouthfeel; a contender for the dinner table. All-purpose rosé.

Nicolas Feuillatte NV Brut Rosé ($48) This is an easy-drinking rosé—a good party wine, if your guests are pro-pink. Soft and easy in the mouth, with a dry but juicy plum finish.

Perrier-Jouët NV Blason Rosé ($85) Strawberry and nougat flavors are swathed in a moussey, creamy feel. Feels feminine and fresh.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Vintage Champagnes

Vintage Champagnes are complex wines from grapes grown in a single, exemplary growing season. French law dictates that these wines must be aged at least three years. They can cost twice as much as their nonvintage counterparts.

“People don’t realize that Champagne ages,” says Oumy Diaw, the world’s first official Champagne sommelier. Her suggestion? Buy a case of a single vintage Champagne, schedule “Champagne time as a gift to yourself and your friends” once a month, and take notes on how it evolves throughout the year—because evolve it will.

Recommended Bruts

Pol Roger 2004 Vintage Brut ($114) Shows verve and class. Very pretty floral/citrus/mineral aromas; lively citrus peel flavors are edged in fresh herb. A wiry core that wears a creamy jacket.

Louis Roederer 2007 Vintage ($79) Focused peach and vanilla aromas. Has a rush of intensity on the palate, good acidity, and lingers long on the finish.

Veuve Clicquot 2004 Vintage ($90) Nougat and tart Granny Smith apple aromas. Intense from the start on the palate, and stays that way. This is a nice mouthful of wine—it’s zesty, and has a long, steely, lingering finish.

Recommended Rosés

Louis Roederer 2008 Rosé ($79) Pale, ballet-pink hue and delicate ginger/citrus/nut aromas; peppery raspberry and citrus peel flavors, with very intense orange peel finish. Lively, great acidity.

Dom Ruinart 2002 Rosé ($89) Gorgeous salmon/almond color. Beautifully complicated: has an “old books” note on the nose, then is flush with tart raspberry and fresh herb on the palate. Mouthfilling and meaty on the finish.

Pol Roger 2006 Rosé ($130) Clean, clear aromas of red berries and a hint of Grand Marnier. In the mouth, the juicy berry flavors sneak up on you, but stick around. Moussey feel.

Drink These With Food

Though many of the dozens of wines we tried would probably marry well with food, some just jumped out at us as must-try matches for particular dishes.

“You can literally start a dinner with Champagne and go all the way through dessert,” says Snyder. When pairing these sparklers with food, Diaw, the Champagne sommelier, says “there is a bottle for everything.” She likes Krug rosé with red meat and thinks Bollinger rosé a great match for poultry.

Recommended Wines

Laurent-Perrier NV Cuvée Rosé ($100) A delight. There’s juicy red fruit at its core, with mouthwatering grapefruit on the finish. Crisp, clean, lively acidity. Versatile enough for salmon, duck, even the Feast of the Seven Fishes. 

Nicolas Feuillatte 2002 Palmes d’Or Brut ($153) Beautiful nose: wide fresh hay/meadow. Constantly changing on the palate: soft, then weighty and creamy; then bright and lively. We want this with tuna tartare. 

Gosset 2000 Grand Millésimé Brut ($100) Beautiful golden color. Cheese rind and nut flavors nod to its maturity, but there’s still a lively core of sour apple here. Weighty and rich—just the thing for buttery lobster.

Taittinger NV Brut La Francaise ($60) Feels like a retro wine, restrained and tailored with minerally, peach skin flavors. Easy, moussey mouthfeel. Pair with raw bar and cold appetizers. 

GH Mumm NV Brut Cordon Rouge ($45) A bit heavier than most other nonvintages we tasted. Core apple flavors have an earthy, edge. Solid, mouthcoating, decent length. Try with hot hors d’oeuvres.

Champagne for People Who Don’t Like Champagne

They are no friends of ours, but there are people in the world who profess not to like Champagne: Maybe your father-in-law thinks it’s a frou-frou, ladies’-only drink. Or your wife thinks it’s just too acidic. Whatever the naysayers’ quibbles, these wines will change their minds.

Recommended Wines

Krug MV Grande Cuvée ($180) Krug is singular and totally over the top. This is sexy, masculine, mouthfilling, “high roller table in Vegas” Champagne to sip and savor. Has rich toast/caramel aromas and even richer, toasty, nutty flavors. Finishes long.

Krug MV Rosé ($305) Gorgeous golden-pink color. Lush, meaty aromas carry through to the palate, where there’s a core of currant. The Krug rosé has the same creamy, rich feel the brut has, but is a subtler wine.

Delamotte 2004 Blanc de Blancs ($112) The Delamotte is like the 4’11” woman who looks unassuming but is a black belt in karate. Subdued at first, then a surge of stone fruit flavor on the midpalate takes hold and doesn’t let up.

Charles Heidsieck NV Brut ($65) Creamy and mouthfilling, with a toast/nutmeg/peach flavor profile. Very appealing and rich.

Moet & Chandon NV Imperial Rosé ($55) This solid, muscular rosé might be the ticket to turning a red wine devotee on to Champagne. Flinty around the edges, with tight, tart red fruit.

'Money Can Buy Happiness' Champagne: Prestige Cuvées

Maybe it has been a very good year for your bottom line. Maybe you need a gift for the heart surgeon who saved your life. There are wines—really, really good wines—for such occasions.

These Champagnes are outstanding; they are the best of the best from top Champagne houses. Their packaging is beautiful too. You will, however, pay for what’s in the box and in the bottle.     

Recommended Wines

Pol Roger 2002 Cuvée Prestige Sir Winston Churchill ($305) Golden, Rapunzel-hair hue. Alluring right out of the gate: olive oil, fresh pastry and orange aromas. Very balanced and rich on the palate, with accents of dust, mineral, even leather. Super sexy.

Bollinger 2002 RD Extra Brut ($375) Chalky, perfumed, floral aromas. RD has a finely textured mouthfeel, with great grip on the midpalate and a long, dust and lime-peel finish. Cerebral and delicious.

Perrier-Jouët 2004 Belle Epoque Rosé ($300) A special wine for a drink-by-candelight occasion. Elegant styling; dusty, minerally feel, with a hint of strawberry and fresh herb flavors. Finely textured and so nuanced.

Dom Perignon 2004 Blanc ($159) Tangy, tart and sleek. Offers bright lime and grapefruit flavors that last through a long, lively finish. Though a decade old, it has many years left in it.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin 2004 La Grand Dame ($280) Intense, serious and persistent. Yellow stone fruit flavors are bright but kept in check with mineral, herb and citrus peel through the finish.

Other Standouts

You can’t go wrong leaving a wine shop with any of the wines we’ve recommended thus far. But even after tasting over 50 bottles of bubbly, there are some that we just can’t forget.

Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Reserve ($55) Beautifully delicate on the nose: perfumed, floral, minerally. Crisp and focused on the palate with lively acidity, stone and stone fruit pit qualities. A class act, especially for a nonvintage.

Laurent-Perrier MV Grand Siècle ($175) This is a multivintage wine made up entirely of vintage wines and it is just delicious. A meaty aroma hints that something big is coming on the palate, and so it does. Intense and zesty, with vanilla and marzipan accents. Very well balanced and harmonious.

Taittinger 2005 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ($170) Biscuit, almond, and warm bakery aromas. Plush in the mouth, with a peach/pink grapefruit spine supporting the toast, nut and pastry nuances. Elegant and rich.

Daryna Tobey lives in New York and has been writing about wine since 2001.

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