The best of the kosher bubblies

When Champagne producers first marketed their product with enthusiasm in the late 19th century, they avoided the intentionally staid campaigns for Bordeaux’s red wines, which were represented as distinctively male.

The Champagne manufacturers targeted men and women alike through a variety of methods, including posters and labels featuring images of sporting events and leisure as well as scenes of romantic love.

Appeals to the middle class as well as the aristocracy helped Champagne become a mainstay of toasting at almost any occasion, from launching ships to celebrating a marriage. And with the June wedding season upon us, there is little time to waste in selecting the perfect bottle of bubbly to toast your nuptials.

When I recently put in a call to the distributor of some kosher wines, I told him that we were planning to launch a ship and were in need of some kosher Champagne. Happily, the samples arrived after Pesach, and the great Jewish seafaring tradition can continue into the new millennium.

Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon, the 17th century Benedictine monk who was the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, in the rolling hills above Épernay in the Champagne district of southeastern France, did not invent the drink we now know as Champagne. He did, however, make many refinements to the winemaking process, including the introduction of heavier English glass to support the pressure of the carbonation created by a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

For the record, the Champagne region has a trademark on the use of the terms “Champagne” and “methode Champenois,” which is very strictly enforced. Only 12 percent of the sparkling wine sold across the globe is technically Champagne from Champagne; the rest is grouped under the category of sparkling wine. In general, the best sparkling wines are from Champagne.

If the so-called Champagne you see at the market was made in Bayonne, N.J., run as if you were being chased by a mob of angry, pitchfork-wielding, trademark-enforcing French farmers.

I put together a crack team of Jewish “Fizzicists” — including Napa Valley winemaker Robert Sinskey, and Laurent Masliah, proprietor of A Cow Jumped Over the Moon, a kosher wine, cheese and chocolate shop in Beverly Hills — to taste some kosher and non-kosher sparklers. This was by no means a comprehensive tasting, but there are presently so few kosher Champagnes that the 11 bottles we had on ice represented a good sampling of what is available. You might have to be Jewish to love some of these bubblies, but there were a few that truly stood out.

We started off by tasting some inexpensive bottles and it was immediately clear that you get what you pay for. I am a firm believer that one can find great values in all kinds of wines, but one should never, ever try to get away with something and drink cheap bubblies. Some of these wines were truly awful. I can only imagine what kind of celebration they might denote: “The market crashed! Let’s open some fizzy swill to mark the occasion, honey!” If you served this at a wedding, the message would be: “mazel tov, but not too much.”

We tried a range of styles, from Bartenura’s Italian Proseco ($15), which was deemed “light and nice,” to an Israeli sparkler by Carmel called “President” ($12), which had all the charm of drinking effervescent haberdashery cologne. A Napa Blanc de Blancs from Baron Herzog ($20) was passable if you weren’t too discriminating, but the Pommery ($60) was possibly corked (though no one could recall another bottle of corked Champagne), surprisingly tannic and bitter on the finish. It would have been bitterly disappointing, too, but we still had low expectations — and the wines were doing little to dissuade us from this opinion.

That changed when we opened a bottle of Laurent-Perrier nonvintage Brut ($65) that was noticeably softer and more developed than the others. “This is Champagne!” declared my mother-in-law, getting into the spirit of the thing at bottle No. 9. We opened a comparable bottle of nonkosher Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut ($45) to serve side by side, and our group unanimously preferred the kosher selection. Laurent-Perrier also makes a big-ticket rose Champagne ($100), which is widely considered the top of the line, but again my panel liked the Brut best.

Our last wine of the night was an Asti, also by Bartenura ($15), which showed good typicity. That means that if you’re inclined to like light, sweet sparkling wines, you’ll probably like this, and if not, by all means, stay away.
In the same way that the greatest praise one can bestow upon a California Chardonnay or Pinot Noir is that it is “Burgundian,” the highest compliment one can offer a kosher wine is that you’d never know it was kosher.

The history of kosher Champagne is one of the shortest chapters in the Jewish wine canon. Nicholas Feuillate, one of my favorite producers, used to make a kosher Champagne but gave up the enterprise because it was too much work to maintain two parallel operations for such a small production. We’ve come a long way in a short time, and you can expect more producers moving into the market as demand grows, with resulting higher quality.

J.D. Smith is the author of “The Best Cellar,” and a regular contributor to The Jewish Journal.