All You Need to Know About Champagne


Pop the Cork 

Most people limit their champagne intake to the holiday season, and it shouldn’t be that way. It is so good! Champagne’s bracing acidity also makes it the ideal partner for a wide variety of foods. You have to know that champagne must come from the Champagne region of France; sparkling wine made anywhere else in the world must have a different name (Cava, Prosecco, etc.). Though champagne is light colored, it is usually made from a blend of two red grapes and one white. Blanc de blancs is champagne made entirely from Chardonnay. It is lighter, crisper, and better on its own as an aperitif. Blanc de noirs is champagne made from only red grapes with their skins removed, mostly Pinot Noir. It is softer and fuller-bodied. If you like dry champagne, look for Brut on the label. Extra dry means medium dry, sec means slightly sweet, and demi-sec means quite sweet. Drink demi-secs after a meal or with dessert. Nonvintage champagne has no year on the label. Wines from multiple harvests go into the blend, and bottles typically sell for $35 and under. Drink such champagne within five years of purchase.

Vintage Champagne 

If you want champagne with more heft, more profundity, look for something with a date on the bottle. Most champagne is nonvintage, meaning it’s a blend, or cuvée, combining wine from the most recent vintage with reserves from prior years. The goal is a consistent “house style” that never fluctuates.

In great years, exceptional wines are selected for a vintage-dated cuvée. Vintage champagnes are aged a minimum of three years before release, as opposed to just fifteen months for nonvintage.

Cristal, Dom Pérignon, and La Grande Dame are “prestige cuvées”—the most rarefied vintage-dated wines, which age even longer before (and after) release.

Nonvintage champagnes skew cleaner and lighter, whereas the vintage stuff brings a toastier, more appley richness; it has a potent structure more suited to dinnertime than to the cocktail hour.

You should try: Champagne Dom Pérignon, vintage 1999, $150 

Pink Champagne 

Like all champagnes, rosé has to be made only in the Champagne region of France (otherwise it’s simply sparkling pink wine). The pink hue comes from a little red wine being added to the base or from grape-skin contact early in the process. Despite the bubble-gum color, almost all rosé champagne is completely dry. This is often indicated by the word brut on the label. Sweeter bottlings usually have the word demi-sec. Drink these after dinner or with dessert. Rosé champagne pairs better with food than white champagne. It has a bit of the richer, firmer structure of a red wine, so you can drink it with roast duck, lamb, or even rare steak.

You should try: Nicolas Feuillatte NV Brut Rosé, $38 

Champagne‘s Indie Movement 

The champagne industry might be dominated by big brands, but lately it’s the tiny grower-producers that are attracting all the attention in the fizz biz. These are small-production, artisanal wines, produced by vineyard owners who might have otherwise sold their grapes to large houses such as Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot (two brands that, by the way, account for more than half of all champagne sold in America).

Although grower champagnes still represent a mere blip on the screen in terms of sales, it’s a much bigger blip than it was a few years ago, thanks at least in part to the enthusiasm of the pros.

Magnum bottles 

You see those supersize bottles of wine gathering dust on backbars and store shelves and you wonder: Who buys those things? The answer is You, at least on New Year’s. A large dinner party is the perfect occasion for the everyday wine guy to invest in magnums. Not only does wine mature more slowly (and taste better) in larger bottles, but the bottles themselves look impressive in hand and give your wine presentation some focus. One magnum (two bottles’ worth) easily serves a dozen, enabling you to pour the group in one shot for all your friends!

Cheers !


There are 11 comments

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  1. BarJock

    Boo on you JC, best quote ever is from Madam Bollinger (even before James Bond made Bollinger cool). “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.
    When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”

    Steer clear of the junk like Andre, Cooks, Korbel. There are plenty of great ones out there that are cheap but not crappy. Mumm from Napa and Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros the CA branch of Tattinger is also great.

    POP the bottle for fun but when you pour, pour slowly into the glass at an angle so it doesn’t foam up. The bubbles is where it’s at, foaming will make it taste a bit flat.

  2. needadad

    The recently released Dom Perignon 2002 (going for about $150..though cheaper prices can be found on the net) is MUCH better then the 1999.

    The 1996 is still tops that I’ve had

  3. Bottom4Buds

    Best American Budget Bubbly: Gruet from New Mexico, or Chateau St. Michelle from Washington State. Bigger Budget: Iron Horse Sonoma or Schramsberg Blanc de blanc. Try their J.Schram if money is no object.

    For French, try Gatinois from Aÿ, same grapes that go into Bollinger for <$40 a bottle, although I'm still a Clicquot fan, especially Grande Dame with dinner!

  4. WineGeek

    Poor JC. Never had tasted a good champagne. So much history and craftsmanship that goes into producing a delicious champagne that it would be a travesty to call the entire category “bad wine with bubbles.” Try a Dom Perignon 1996 and get back to me. Agree with BarJock on staying away of the cheap stuff. Anything that bubbles for less than $10 is not champagne.

    Also, it is worth noting that grower champagnes just don’t have the consistency to produce great quality champagne year after year — with having such limited supply, grower champagnes can’t fully express the notion of assemblage which is the cornerstone of champagne production — it is a blend of different wines from different grapes and/or years to produce a delicious end product. Imagine putting together all the different grapes and vintages and regions to produce a consistent taste profile of excellent quality — this is just something a grower champagne cannot do by definition. I’ve had some really terrific ones — but when I’m spending that kind of money, I would prefer to know what I’m drinking will taste delicious.

    We Americans should be drinking more champagne because it is something that just elevates a meal, excites the senses, and just plain fun. JC, you can taste some champagne and I know you will have a different opinion after drinking Krug.

    Anyone else have any thoughts?

  5. Ben

    It’s a little pedantic to insist that only wine made in the Champagne region may be called Champagne. That’s true in France, and many other countries and appellations adhere to the tradition (by custom and by statute), but by no means all of them. In the United States, there is no law prohibiting the use of the term. In consequence, many California sparkling wines say “champagne” prominently on the label.

    Another potentially misleading piece you’ll see on some labels is “methode champagnoise” — which refers to the process by which the post-bottling fermentation (the bubbles) was produced. It refers only to the winemaking, and not to the fruit’s origin.

  6. BroColor

    Everyone should have some knowledge of Champagne basics, never know when you might want to kick up your heels. Having a wonderful affair or celebration with friends due to a promotion, special day, birthday, gathering for bunch, who knows, or just you and that special person in your life, your own Phillip Morris…..and you.

  7. Jon

    Happy New Year! Here is hoping that all of your New Years Eve Celebrations were full of Fun with Friends and perhaps even a Frolic with that some one special with a climax of your favorite Champagne and that your bubbles are still a fizzling and never flat! Happy 2011!

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