Champagne: Six Things to Know Before You Buy
Is there anything more festive than a champagne toast? To enhance your sipping, serving and gifting bubbly this season, we’ve covered the basics and not-so-basics of champagne. So here are six key things to know to make sure you get the best sparkler for you, (or for a gift) to ring in the summer celebrations.
1. Not all that sparkles is champagne….
Sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it is from Champagne, France. The most well respected champagnes are grown in Grand Cru vineyards, found in the top three regions of Champagne: Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. The soil in these regions is important; the mineral-filled chalky soil adds unique character to the Champagne. The soil is also great for growing chardonnay and pinot noir, two of the most often-used grape varietals in Champagne. The largest areas for production are The Aube and Côte de Sézanne. It can be difficult to decipher the region in which the grapes are grown for brand-name Champagne, but for small-producer champagnes, the growing region is often printed on the bottle. As a result, to purchase the highest quality champagne, consider buying from a small producer in one of the best regions. (more on this later…)
Champagne also must be made through a special method called “methode champenoise.” The wine begins without bubbles and after an initial fermentation, is put in a bottle with added “liqueur de tirage” (Sugar and yeast) for a second fermentation to form bubbles. The bottles are stored horizontally and riddling, or turning the bottle, slightly is done daily. This process induces a texture and flavor from the lees, or dead yeast. At the end of the champagne making process, the extra yeast is removed in a process called disgorgement.
2. There are several different types of champagne
The different grape varietals used in a champagne determine the color and flavor profile of the wine. The grapes most often used are chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. Most champagnes are a fairly even mixture of the these grape varietals. Champagne that is made solely out of chardonnay is considered a Blanc de Blancs, and a sparkler made of solely pinot noir is a Blanc de Noir. Depending on the percentage of each grape used, the champagne exhibits distinct flavor profiles. Champagnes featuring large percentages of Chardonnay tend to have more finesse and elegance, while Pinot Meunier is more rustic. Champagnes with a large percentage of pinot noir tend to have a richer character and can be pink-tinged.
3. For special occasions, or gifts, vintage champagne can be a great choice
Vintage champagne tends to be more expensive than non-vintage champagne, but it is often worth the price. Vintage champagne tastes different each year as it uses grapes from only the year of its namesake. Most of the time, there needs to be an exemplary quality of harvest for each specific year that a vintage champagne is produced. These vintage champagnes must be aged for a minimum of four years, lending them more character and finer bubbles. Non-vintage champagne is different in that it is created in a “house” style, which is the same every year, and must be aged for only 15 months. Some of the cuveés are ranked as prestige, meaning the top of line for the winery. Each house is limited to one prestige wine, for example, Dom Perignon represents the top of the line Moet & Chandon.
4. Everybody knows the names Tattinger and Veuve Clicquot, but grower champagne can be an inexpensive alternative that delivers exceptional character and quality.
Grower champagne comes in a variety of prices, and have advantages that more well known champagnes lack. Grower champagnes are very personal, as they are entirely made from grapes from one producer. The use of only one vineyard’s grapes creates a champagne that is more expressive of its vineyard site. This is very different from champagne houses, as they may or may not use their own grapes; they buy fruit from other producers and growers in order to make enough quantity. Grower champagne is becoming more widely popular, sending the large champagne houses outside their typical area for grapes, and lessening their quality. By purchasing grower champagne, you are supporting small farms… and still getting a product that is comparable to the big name houses for a lower price point! And although the farms are more personal, grand and premier crus are still available in grower champagne.
5. Certain sparkling wines can rival true champagne.
There are a variety of other sparklers made using the methode traditionelle, or champenoise, as well. Cava is a spanish cave aged wine, at a great value. Cava is made in the same method as champagne, but are made with different grapes, including macabeu, parellada and xarello. Franciacorta is a sparkling wine from the Province of Brescia, in the region of Franciacorta, Italy. Like cava, it is made in the same method as champagne. The grapes used are chardonnay, pinot nero, and pinot bianco.Crémant de Loire wines can be white or rosé. These sparkling chenin blanc’s from the Loire region of France stand up well next to champagnes, but have more gentile bubbles. These sparkling wines are fantastic, and range in price points starting in the low teens. Each has a unique flavor profile, and small bubbles akin to those of wines produced in the Champagne region.
6. Let’s talk prosecco!
Prosecco is a relatively inexpensive Italian alternative for champagne and other sparklers.
Prosecco uses the grape glera, but other grape varieties may also be included. The name is derived from the village of Prosecco, where it is believed that glera was originally grown. Unlike champagne, the second fermentation process takes place in pressurized stainless steel tanks, rather than inside the bottle. Tank production causes the prosecco to be much less expensive to produce, and therefore tends to be available at a lower price point. However, this lower price point does come with a few inferior traits. Prosecco is not aged, therefore the wine has less finesse. Due to it’s young qualities, prosecco has much larger bubbles than other sparkling wines.
One of our staff members recently visited Champagne, continue to check our blog for her step-by-step guide to navigating Champagne.
-Pauline Fink, Staff