A real symbol for luxury and ceremonial events, champagne can easily give a hard time to the amateur who tries to explore its world. The multiple flavours it encloses in each bottle and the wide range of brands existing on the market today are to blame for this complexity. Simply confiding in a well-known producer is not enough to avoid bitterness, headaches or bad taste.
Here are a couple of tips about how to discover the aroma, and enjoy a glass of champagne in its entirety.
Champagne: the making of
There’s nothing like it
As a novice, you don’t want to be regarded as a pretender. Anything but. As a novice, you want to learn the know-how. That’s why, for starters, it would be suitable for you to introduce the champagne by calling it a “creamy Bourgogne drink”. It’s true that you’ll find some sort of a resemblance between all the bottles. But you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
We must mention now that the champagne is a very specific and unique product that got an AOC for itself (The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée is a French certification granted to certain geographical indications for wines, cheese and other agricultural products). Without wandering too much on its long history and all the groundbreaking innovations made by the best of the best (Dom Pérignon, for instance), the apprentice should note a couple of facts:
- it’s a wine produced in a particular area, known as the territory of champagne:
- it contains three specific grapes: pinot noir, pinot meunier and Chardonnay;
- the main requirement is that all the grapes must be manually harvested.
Different brands, such as Veuve Clicquot, Vranken and Pommery, produce exclusively champagne. Therefore, when it comes to these names at least, you can be certain that you won’t make any mistakes, but do bear in mind that there are quite a few winemaker families that stand comparison with the common brands extremely well.
As a general rule, one of the safest ways to avoid being mistaken is to verify the label on the bottle that should say “champagne”, a required appellation.
Diversity, and assortments
In the first steps of making the champagne, we can find 3 types of grapes:
- pinot noir (red grapes) – very rich fruity aroma;
- pinot meunier (red, also) – with similar flavour, rarely present in the matured champagne;
- Chardonnay (white ones) – with notes of citrus, white flowers and hazelnuts.
Traditionally, the champagne contains this 3-part assembly, with various dosages. Generally, this aspires to be the right balance that can be easily recognized by novices buying, par example, Cordon Rouge de Mumm (apropos, this is one of the most consumed brands in France), Carte Jaune de Veuve Clicquot or the Brut Impérial Moët & Chandon. If you happen to find yourself at a wedding, or at a new year’s eve party, you’ll be familiar with 3 brands, at worst.
Be that as it may, there are two contrasting matters we have to take into consideration:
- the blanc de noirs (“white of blacks”, white wine made with red grapes) is a champagne 100% pinot noir;
- the blanc de blancs (“white of whites”, white wine made with white grapes) is pure Chardonnay.
We are talking about less common products, but very temperamental and special ones: the first remains firmly on its position, more conventional, not as much as a rustic type, but perennial, whilst the latter relies on delicacy and grandeur. For the first type, we’d recommend a Bollinger Vieilles Vignes which most definitively has that je ne sais quoi we all love. If not, you can pick Paul Bara, without reservations. You will not go wrong with this exquisite choice. As for the other one, the Ruinart blanc de blanc, it stands for a stainless reference.
Old fashion: the latest fashion
The vintage-type champagnes are still very rare due to the year they are produced in and the necessary amount of time they need to grow up. To mature. Imagine that they need a minimum of 3 years to stay in the bottle before being commercialised. Oh, and the best ones can be taken hostage for over 10 years time. E.g. Dom Pérignon is fully revealed in its grace after a whole decade. However, there is one please mind the gap about this timing process that we must be aware of: if it’s too long, it’s too much. The decline usually occurs after 15 years, it does depend on the timing and the producer yes, but one should not take any chances.
Years, years, many years, but what happens when the champagne is only a baby, not even one year old of age? Well, in this situation, one rule applies: you sip and enjoy it within 15 months. Otherwise, its taste won’t be perceived as it should be. Disappointment will take over. Don’t fool yourself: being cheaper has nothing to do with its quality, or that it might not have any assets. On the contrary. It’s just a matter of ingredients and product characteristics. Also, it can be a subtle touristic guide: if you find yourself in front of the Ruinart Chardonnay house, the longest established champagne house since 1729, you’ll be astonished.
Wine, sweet wine
Dry, medium dry, off-dry, semi-sweet – how much is too much? 80% of champagnes are labeled “dry” (“brut”), meaning that they contain just enough sugar to cover the acidity of the wine. It is very traditional, but it’s best to be keep out when eating a dessert.
Of course, you can find a variety of tastes, more or less sweeter:
- brut natural (less than 3 g/l sugar);
- extra-brut (0-6 g/l);
- brut (6-12 g/l);
- extra-dry (12-17 g/l – extremely rare);
- dry/sec (17-32 g/l – rare, also);
- medium-dry/demi-sec (32-50 g/l);
- sweet (more than 50 g/l – particularly appreciated in the 19th century, nowadays being very rare).
The brut natural and the extra-brut types are en vogue at the moment, and that would be because the low amount of sugar cannot take away the quality of the wine, therefore you will have to face a high-class product regardless its lack of sweetness. To try one out, you can always choose the Ultra-brut de Laurent Perrier, the first one who used 0 g/l sugar, alongside with a delicious seafood plate. Then let yourself be amazed.
The rosé, outside the boudoir
Very famous indeed (25% sales in France), the rosé type was always the subject of many misunderstandings concerning its use and essence. Or dare we say “mistreats”? A false impression is that this champagne should be consumed solely by women. And all this on account of the pink colour and the softness of taste which are better suited for the feminine touch. The reality is a bit different. Considerably different, that is. A good rosé is made out of the red pinot noir wine with the main purpose of getting educated as a powerful and distinctive kind. One of a kind. In this case, men ought to be buying at least 2 bottles of rosé, straightaway.
This pink champagne can be produced using 2 methods:
- by molding together the white and the red wine (an inexpensive process, with a high quality outcome);
- by maceration (rare procedure that requires great skills in liquefying the skin of the red grapes to obtain the proper colour).
The croma makes the difference. The second one classifies champagne as a rustic type, whereas the first one is preferred. The privileged, the chosen one. To be successful, the maceration process depends on a key factor: the quality of the red wine. The champagne appellation demands the producer to use a Saint Emilion or a vintage Bourgogne (anyway, a champagne-wine is mandatory). The problem is that few champagne-producing regions have good red wine. They – essentially – have to boil it down to Aÿ, Ambonnais, Bouzy and Verzenay.
You can’t possibly think that all the great maisons (including the experienced ones) can use first-rate red wines. Not a chance. Laurent Perrier and Dom Pérignon are among the lucky ones. They are nonpareil, so to speak. As for the others, well… news aren’t that bright: a mixture of good or less good red wine, or a mediocre type served only to produce the rosé, at best. How unfair, by golly.
One thing is for sure, though: gathering all this information will help you become if not a connoisseur, then a soon-to-be-one. Opt for Paul Bara (a great producer from Bouzy, a village where the most delicious red wine for champagne can be found), Bernardin et Fils, or any other similar brands.
Another critical element is the assembly, the containing secrets of the champagne. If the Chardonnay predominates, the result will be very faint. On the opposite side, a bottle marked Pinot Noir will be a pleasant surprise to discover by the red-fruit lovers. Unfortunately, the composition is seldom revealed, so the only solution is to taste the products.
The food and champagne rendezvous
You know what they say: it’s better to be safe than sorry. People who choose a non-vintage brut wine think likewise. But how about making an audacious choice? The bold ones should follow these ideas:
- pick rosé, but in no circumstances side by side with seafood;
- explore l’Ultra Brut de Perrier;
- stir up your appetite with a Ruinart spécialité.
Up until now, we assumed that food should be a delicate chaperon for the non-vintage champagne, the newest type. But preferring the classic, the mature one can make your meal unbelievably tasty. Sky is the limit then:
- open up a blanc de blancs;
- explore a vintage, prestigious blanc de noirs;
- go for a medium-dry or a rosé with your dessert.
Also, remember that a conventional 75 cl bottle can fill up 6 glasses. Depending on the number of your guests, don’t hesitate to opt for a magnum type (double) or a larger glass. All in all, the ideal format is the magnum (1.5 ml) because it offers good carbon dioxide emissions after the second fermentation. The champagne will be grateful to find itself in a magnum, rather than in an ordinary bottle, or the 30L one (seldom the case). If you are planning on impressing your guests (or baptize your yacht – note that 1L is enough for a 30-foot boat), then Drapier is the expert to turn to.
The concept of the brand
Now, with friends and close acquaintances, things are not that complicated. But if you are having real-wine connoisseurs for dinner, the situation can get embarrassing in a jiffy. Read these tips and tricks to annul that possibility.
Trust the winemakers
Your way or the highway: if you know for certain that it’s better to have a Paul Bara rosé than a mediocre Moët, think no more: the savvy experts appreciate it. Moreover, if you will take the time to explain and describe the taste, you will have the opportunity to find yourself welcomed in a realm where taste is the master. In a nutshell, if you have a bottle of Tarlant, don’t choose Mumm instead. Meanwhile, you may talk about Kandisky’s work, for a change.
A great deal of brands are making history, as we speak: Moët & Chandon (very famous, except the Ice Imperial), Canard-Duchêne (“cheap”), Mumm (likewise, even though its 3L bottle is the official Formula 1 champagne), and some come with a story attached: Veuve Clicquot (the legend says a widow was selling champagne to the tsars), Ruinart (with its old maisons). Despite the fact that there are safe bets, bien sûr, try to avoid the non-vintage brut Veuve Cliquot. Refinement and know-how are mandatory in a Gosset bottle, an excellent option, by the way. Fine and rich bubbles, strong aftertaste… just try it before you sip any other brand listed above, and you will feel the difference.
If outstanding and superb are the characteristics you’re looking for, look no more: Dom Pérignon and Krug are the answers for you. The only answers. Perchance Louis Roederer can be the one, with its well-known Cristal wine. It’s been said that there are 2 clubs: the Dom Pérignon drinkers, and the Cristal lovers (in the United States of America, rappers have identified their image with this brand).
As for the ultra-luxurious names, there isn’t much to say. These brands are quite confidential. Goût de Diamants is the most noteworthy-one – it was created in collaboration with a Nigerian designer (Nigeria is the no. 1 consumer of champagne in the world) and it is the most expensive bottle till today – €2 million. The price is partially justified by the design – entirely handmade, the diamond and white gold decorations. Armand de Brignac is another ultra-luxurious champagne brand, or The Angel Champagne – which was launched in association with Mariah Carey.
The big puzzle with these last concepts is the 2-edge approach:
- the term “champagne” is frequently connected to the rap world, a class of bling-bling and flashy gossips (moreover if we’re referring to the west coast);
- it can create a confusion about the drink, that is worse than a poor quality-vintage Cristal Roederer.
Very modest – given the price, the vintage Gosset wine will change your day completely. Pardon, make your day. But one should keep in mind that to find a good champagne is not a question of price, but of a reflection of its origins, traditions, its style de vie.
To read more, go to:
The Mumm Champagne website – a complete guide about the art of serving champagne
The Bureau de Champagne, UK – read about the food and champagne pairing