On a warm, June morning Jordan Salcito hosted a panel called “Sensational Champagne” at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic. As Salcito went over the nuances of the 2005 Dom Perignon and Christian Coquillette Saint-Chamant’s Rosé Brut, the crowd eagerly sipped along. “The best years for Champagne are ‘07, ‘08, ‘04, ‘96, ‘90, ‘95 and ‘88,” Salicito said. And by “Champagne,” she means exactly that — wine that goes through a second fermentation in the bottle and is made in the Champagne region of northern France.
“It’s fun to introduce people to how diverse Champagne is,” said the Momofuku beverage director and founder of Bellus Wines. “At [Momofuku] Ko, we had an all-sparkling menu and it was one of the most popular pairings there.”
The first thing to understand about Champagne is that each village in the region gets rated based on quality. Grand cru is the highest, followed by premier-cru and “village.” While seven grapes are allowed to be planted in the region, three varieties make up the vast majority: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Finished wines are categorized by dryness or sweetness. Most Champagnes are blends of vineyards, grapes and vintages, but finished bottling can also be single-vineyard, single-vintage and single-variety. Blanc de Blanc refers to a Champagne made from entirely white grapes (generally Chardonnay); Blanc de Noir is a Champagne made from entirely red grapes (usually pinot meunier and pinot noir). Rosé Champagnes can either be a blend of white and red wines, or made from red grapes by a process known as saignée, whereby the red grape skins are allowed to “bleed” color into the grape juice.
In France, many small growers in the Champagne region sell their grapes to the big houses like Taittinger, Charles Heidsieck and Krug, but then use the leftovers to create grower Champagnes. This brings us to the two “schools” of the wine — big bottles and growers. “It’s like the Ritz [Carlton] verses a boutique hotel, and you know you can count on a specific kind of luxury with the big names,” Salcito said. “A great wine list can’t take sides; you have to represent both styles because that is the complete story of Champagne.”
Salcito previously stinted as a sommelier and manager at the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant she described as having an amazing vino list. While she worked there, the wines were curated by master sommelier Dustin Wilson (who recently left the restaurant to pursue his own project). One of the highlights of this menu, she said, was the balance of obscure bottles as well popular labels.
Aside from EMP, Salcito’s top picks for places to drink the prestigious, fun wine start with Momofuku, and not just because she heads the program. “We showcase the various styles of Champagne,” she said, adding that, in a way, the list there is like a history lesson of the wine. From there she mentioned Charlie Bird, a Manhattan restaurant where her husband Robert Bohr is a part owner and the wine director. Also, Rebelle, the newly opened space by the Pearl & Ash team that is helmed by wine expert Patrick Cappiello. “They have an amazing list,” she said.
But since we were in Aspen, she couldn’t overlook the Champagne options found nearby at Five-Star The Little Nell. Then, nearby in Boulder, is Frasca, which offers a full page of Champagnes, including bottles of Jacques Selosse’s Blanc de Blancs Substance Grand Cru Avize and Godmé Les Champs Saint Martin Grand Cru Verzenay. On the west coast, Salcito appreciates the work of Taylor Parsons of République in Los Angeles. “He changes wines daily,” she said. “It’s a short list and when the bottle is gone it’s gone.”
But even though she loves drinking bubbles at all of these state-side places, Salcito’s absolute favorite hotel for wine is Almhof Schneider in Austria. “It’s one of my favorite places to drink wine period,” she said. “They understand hospitality on another level. It’s family run since the 15th century and everything you touch is beautiful. Plus, the list is thoughtfully done and full of hard-to-track-down bottles.”