Mid-priced Champagne buyers have a new reason to appear smart, plus the best oysters in lower Manhattan

by alice forstead

There are those precious few among us—bathed as they are in the verbiage of competitive viniculture—who will nod with appreciation at a cheaply bought but still wonderful Roederer Estate Brut, a Freixenet Brut Nature, or Korbel (all $20 or under), but let’s face it: when it comes to ringing in the new year, and particularly when you’re under any form of scrutiny, it’s good to splurge a little. And sure, if you had a particularly terrific year at the hedge fund office, there’s Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 or Bollinger Vielles Vignes 2004 at your command ($2,000 and $1,000, respectively), but we ambitious middle grounders are ever in search of the perfect mid-priced gem, one that makes us look at once generous and knowing.

Your tireless editors have been at work on this problem for the last six months, and have come up with what we think is a corker of a solution. Champagne Duval-Leroy has been producing wines of distinction since 1859, including a relatively recent roster of organic varieties. The vineyard is just 490 acres, mostly Chardonnay grapes (which all good champagnes must at least be partly made from), and is currently run by Carol Duval-Leroy, the widow of former head Jean Charles Duval, who passed away in 1991. She is a visionary in many respects, has presided over steadily increasing sales, and is—among many other distinctions—the first woman ever to be appointed chair of the Association Viticole Champenoise, the winemakers association of France’s Champagne region. À votre santé, Carol!

There are too many good things about Duval-Leroy to detail adequately here, but let’s just start with the fact that there is perhaps no vineyard in the under-$100 category that blends Pinot and Chardonnay grapes with anything approaching Carol’s finesse. A hint of sweetness is apparent in the Brut, but, true to its name, the impression is principally a wonderful grassy dryness at first taste, followed by hints of cocoa and figs. To us, it simply makes mincemeat out of a Veuve Clicquot or Mumm, and depending on where you shop, can be had for the astonishing sum of $40, which beats the former, and pretty much matches the latter.

If you’re toting relatives or pals to the city for the Nouvelle Année, and want to pair bubbly with the finest raw bar we’ve seen south of 14th Street, order Aqua Grill’s (20 Spring Street) Oyster Tray, a selection of on-the-half-shell wonders from chef Jeremy Marshall, who co-owns the eatery with his wife Jennifer. Our most recent was graced by the Kumamoto variety from Humbolt Bay, California (though the list changes often). Originally from Kumamoto in Japan, this slow-growing wonder ain’t large at 1.5-2.0 inches, but has a deep cup, firm texture, a rich, creamy flavor and buttery-sweet finish.