Five Best Champagne Brands
There are more than a hundred major champagne houses (maisons), as well as over 19,000 minor ones, grouped, designated and interacting in ways too tiresome to describe. Although testing the wine from each and every one of them seems a fine prospect, it’s still hardly doable. This is why we limited our testing to only a portion of the major houses and narrowed it down to what we think are the five best champagne brands.
The Armand de Brignac brand is fairly young compared to the rest of the best champagne brands on our list, but it has one of the best marketing departments you’ll see in the industry. The brand apparently came into being during the late 1940s, early 1950s, when the matriarch of the Cattier family named their wine after a novel character she was reading at the time.
No one took particular notice of the House of Cattier until the turn of the century, when they revived the brand and became an overnight hit.
Today, the house has a fairly low yield for a named brand, about 60,000 a year, but they make up for it by targeting big spenders. They’re quite successful at it, too. One of their regulars is the rapper Jay Z, who even gave a bottle of Armand a fairly prominent spot in the video for his song Show Me What You Got. Another high-roller that enjoys this brand is Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks (an NBA team, for those wondering), who bought a Nebuchadnezzar (15-litre bottle). Not to fall behind, the Boston Bruins (an NHL team) bought a Midas (30-litre bottle), which was one of only six of its kind at that time. Talk about exclusiveness!
Armand de Brignac comes in bottles that emphasize this exclusiveness, as they are metallized, with a pewter label in the likeness of an Ace of Spades. Again, the yearly production is fairly small for a named brand, and most of it is their cuvée de prestige (flagship) Armand de Brignac Gold Brut, a tête de cuvée (first pressing) and the oldest in the line. There’s also the intensely flavoured Rosé, which is mostly Pinot Noir and about 12% red wine added for colouring, as well as the Demi Sec, which is the sweetest of the five varieties. Finally, there are the Blanc the Blancs and Blanc de Noirs, which are made from 100% Chardonnay and 100% Pinot Noir, respectively. The Blanc de Blancs is the youngest and the rarest of the five wines the house produces, and carries a matching price-tag.
The year is 1812, Napoleon invades Russia, the first volume of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales is published, Charles Dickens is born, and Alphonse Pierlot founds one of the best champagne brands of today. The house has a great and interesting history, which began with two land parcels in Tour-sur-Marne. When Pierlot passed away, he willed the parcels to his cellar master, Eugene Laurent, who kept the production going until his death in 1887.
Laurent’s widow, Mathilde, took over the matters, and for a while the company was known as Veuve Laurent-Perrier (“veuve” means “widow” in French), and sales soared. The good fortune lasted up until 1914 and the outbreak of the Great War (and the even greater war soon after that). Long story short, in 1939 a certain Mary-Louise Lanson de Nonacourt bought the brand, and it remains largely held by de Nonacourts.
Aside from being one of the largest family-owned champagne houses today, the Laurent-Perrier brand is a part (a major part, obviously) of the Laurent-Perrier Group which also includes the houses of De Castellane, Delamotte and Salon. The group export to more than 120 countries worldwide, and have a big yield of over 7 million bottles yearly. Together with Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquiot, this brand makes the triad of the largest and best champagne brands today.
Laurent-Perrier primarily relies on the Brut, a non-vintage cuvée (blend of a couple or more vintages matured in barrels), with high Chardonnay content that makes it light and full of freshness. Another of their more famous wines is the Rosé, one of the few Rosés that still uses the saignée method of production (essentially, this implies “bleeding” off the grape juice after a brief contact with the skin; that way, there is no need to add any red wine to colour the champagne).
The house of Moët & Chandon is The (with capital T) most prominent Champagne house, founded all the way back in 1743. It is not only the oldest on our list, but also the most… prolific, shall we say. Thanks to filling more than 28 million bottles yearly, they are responsible for making almost 10 per cent of the entire champagne production, and that’s including the villages added after the 2008 expansion.
With this in mind, we have no problem naming them one of the best champagne brands, if not the best champagne brand in… well, the world.
The house is a part of the LVMH (Moët Henessy Louis Vuitton) conglomerate, though it started as merely Moët et Cie (Moët and CO.). It was founded by Claude Moët who very soon became one of the chief suppliers for the wine-lovers of Paris and, among others, King Louis XV, Louis le bien aimé (the Beloved). In 1833 it was renamed to Moët & Chandon when Pierre Gabriele-Chandon bought enough stocks to become the partner of Claude’s grandson, Jean-Remy Moët. Almost a century and a half would pass before the Moët & Chandon merged with Henessy Cognac (in 1971), and another sixteen years before they merged with Louis Vuitton (in 1987) to make the financial behemoth that is the LVMH Group.
Today, Moët & Candon holds a royal warrant as Queen Elizabeth II’s champagne supplier. In 2006, the brand issued a limited (and, frankly, rather ostentatious) bottling decorated with Swarowski crystals, both as a marketing stunt and a way to proclaim the brand’s elegance. If you ask us, they only succeeded doing the former.
In 1842, the house introduced its first vintage champagne (champagne made from the grapes of only one particular year’s harvest), and in 1921, they made the first of what was to become their best known wine (though they did not release it until 1936). You might recognize the name – Dom Pérignon. Each year, 5 million bottles of the near 30-million capacity are set aside for this label. On average, a bottle of Dom Pérignon will age for 12 years.
The brand is mentioned in many a song and at least one opera – Richard Strauss’s Arabella. Other instances include Killer Queen by Queen and Billy Joel’s Big Shot, as well as Snoop Dog’s Drop It Like It’s Hot, Nas’s The World Is Yours and Represent, not to mention the three separate songs by The Notorious B. I. G. It’s also interesting that Moët was the official supplier of Formula 1 from 1966 to 1999, and has recently reclaimed the title (in 2016).
Louis Roederer’s “wine of the tsars and stars” saw its inception at the Three Emperor’s Dinner, a royal banquet organised by King William I of Prussia. The official story goes that the champagne bottles were made of clear lead glass so that Tsar Alexander II of Russia could admire the bubbles.
More malign tongues will say it was transparent because the tsar feared someone might plant a bomb inside (which was indeed a possibility). Whatever the reason, Cristal will go on to become the favoured wine of Russian tsars and probably the first prestige cuvée, with the appropriate high price and an image of exclusiveness to it.
The house releases anywhere between 300,000 and 400,000 bottles each year.
Cristal was in fact so prestigious that it wasn’t available commercially until 1945, and has been increasingly associated with hip-hop music and the ostentation characteristic of that sub-culture culture.
Some of the more famous admirers of the quaff include, 50 Cent, The Notorious B.I.G., Big L, and, most notably, Jay Z (before the fallout caused by what looks to us as a big misunderstanding).
Another big name that enjoyed Cristal was Tupac Shakur, who liked it so much that he created a cocktail named Thug Passion, which is still popular today.
The house of Veuve Clicquot (remember, “veuve“ means “widow“ in French) is the second biggest champagne house and the most deserving to find itself on our list of the best champagne brands. It’s also the second oldest, after Moët & Chandon, being founded in 1772 by a certain Phillipe Clicquot-Muiron. As the astute reader may’ve guessed, the business was taken over by Madame Clicquot, who would go on to make perhaps the greatest mark in champagne history.
The house is probably the first to make Rosé champagne, but still, this is not the greatest contribution that Veuve Clicquot made. With the help of her cellar master, Antoine de Müller, Madame Clicquot devised the riddling rack, which essentially made the mass production of champagne possible.
You see, one of the stages of champagne production is the so-called riddling, or “remuage”, where vintners manipulate the bottle by turning it around its axis so that the lees (dead yeast and other assorted whatnots) travel from the bottom to the neck of the bottle. Since the comet vintage of 1811, there was not much excitement in the house of Veuve Clicquot until the current cellar master, Dominique Demarville, re-introduced wooden caskets (oak) for wine maturation.
Today, about 10% of all the wine from the house is made from cuvée matured in these caskets. Moreover, this is, at the moment, the only brand that uses biodegradable boxes made from their own vines.
One of their best known wines is the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut Non-Vintage, which has a high content of Pinot Noir and an opulent, full-bodied taste. The quaff requires at least 2.5 years to age properly. Another is the Rich, which was specifically designed with cocktails in mind. This one is rated doux (sweet), and contains more than 50 grams of sugar per litre.
Veuve Clicquot has for the most part resisted the demands of the market for more dry champagne, and still insists on opulence, though they do release wines with the tag cave privée (old vintages with low dosages, sugar content, fairly dry).
The brand is best known for staring in such masterpieces as Casablanca and Babette’s Feast. It is also mentioned quite a few times in the popular series Downtown Abbey, and Ian Fleming’s James Bond is said to enjoy a glass or two in no less than three books – Casino Royale, Diamonds Are Forever and Thunderball. However, the brand is probably best known for the Åland find, a treasure-trove of 145 bottles of wine, 45 of which are Veuve Clicquot. We could talk of fame, age and volume, but when it comes to contributions, there’s no brand better than the Veuve Clicquot.
A Brief History of Champagne
For those of you not in the know, not every sparkling wine has the right to be labelled “champagne”, although it is a catch-all name for all bubbly wines in some countries. In other words, all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne.
Granted, champagnes and sparkling wines are produced using the same process, one which requires second fermentation to make the iconic bubbles (though there are differences in how the wine is then treated from manufacturer to manufacturer), but there are certain limitations to the usage of this name. So, where does the difference actually come from?
In short, there are two things manufacturers must honour to earn the right to name their wine champagne – the wine must be made from the grape grown in the French region of Champagne and it must be made in Champagne. Naturally, not all countries will adhere to this, but most did make it illegal to use the label unless this is the case. Fun fact (well, whether it’s fun or not is rather debatable) – in 2008, the Belgian authorities destroyed over 3,000 bottles of certain sparkling wine from California for having the label “champagne” on them.
As far as grapes go, there are three primary sorts that the Champenois (obviously, the residents of Champagne) grow for their trademark wine – Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both red/black). However, there are four other varieties, much less frequent and barely grown (Pinot Blanc is a good example).
While the Chardonnay is responsible for champagne’s freshness and acidity, the two Pinots give it length and backbone, and most champagnes will be a blend of the three. However, some houses still make Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay), as well as Banc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir), which are fairly exclusive and, therefore, costly.
Contrary to what you might’ve heard, Dom Pérignon did not invent champagne, though he did coin the famous phrase “I am tasting the stars”. Granted, the Benedictine monk did contribute to the production and quality of champagne later on, but the credit goes to his fellows from the Abbey of Saint-Hillaire. The abbey is, oddly enough, nowhere near Champagne, but rather near Carcassonne, in Occitanie (the monk would’ve probably known the region as Languedoc).
The invention of champagne was purely accidental, and it took quite some time before the process was understood well enough to be controlled (grâce à certain Benedictine monk). The monks making it even called the wine le Vin du Diable (the Devil’s wine) for the rather unfortunate tendency of exploding the bottles or launching the corks at tremendous speeds. Interestingly enough, the monks even had to wear specially designed iron masks as protection when going down to the cellars to handle the bottles.
The invention did suit the Champenois fine as they struggled to gain the upper hand over their competitors in Burgundy and Bordeaux (even today, Champagne’s climate is not suited to growing the grape that would rival that of the more southerly and maritime regions, which is key to making superb red wines).
The years before the 17th century were rather uneventful for champagne, but things picked up when people started associating it with nobility, royalty and prestige in general. The first to catch on to this trend was one of the names on our list of the best champagne brands – Laurent-Perrier. This happened all the way back at the end of the 19th century, when the house began advertising their champagne as the favourite of the kings of Belgium and Greece, as well as Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, along with a number of other nobles.
Since then, the biggest excitement was the advent of cuvée de prestige, or what today might be known as flagship (the best of the best, with a price to match), probably modelled after Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon.
Although a prestigious quaff and a favourite of snobs and nobs, of stars and royalty, champagne is not beyond the middle class, and a big portion of the production ends up there, actually. As a matter of fact, the demand for the French bubbly wine has soared so much so that the limited production capacities can’t follow the pace, despite the fact that the wine region was expanded in 2008, and the production of the best champagne brands is similarly on the rise.