A GUIDE TO CHAMPAGNES
There are a variety of Champagnes to choose from and at times that can be a bit overwhelming for different reasons. It’s not cheap and the labeling is not something we understand on a daily basis. Here is a quick and easy guide to help you understand the different styles of Champagne and the fine print on the label. Champagne specifically refers to sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. The infographic below specifically speaks to Champagne. Anything outside of Champagne is referred to as a ‘sparkling wine’.
Champagnes are classified according to their sweetness level. From driest to sweetest the spectrum goes from Brut Nature (Zero), Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry (Sec), Demi-Sec (see the infographic below).
The standard crowd-pleaser that most people drink is Brut Champagne, but don’t pass on the other styles. A crisp glass of Brut Zero is especially wonderful with seafood, and a sweeter bubbly can be lovely with dessert. I’ve included pairings below for the different styles of Champagnes.
Cuvée: This typically means it’s a blend of different grapes and/or specific barrels. The cuvée method is often used to create a signature taste and drinking experience for a brand of Champagne that will remain consistent over the years.
RM or NM: You will see this as fine print on the bottle. RM stands for Récoltant Manipulant is a wine producer that also vinifies their own grapes – meaning they grow the grapes themselves and handle the entire winemaking process in-house. NM stands for Négociant Manipulant, which is a wine producer that buys some or all of the grapes used to produce their wines. Most Champagne houses, especially the larger more familiar names, are NM.
Vintage or Non-Vintage: Vintage Champagne is made with grapes grown in one particular year. Non-Vintage Champagne is a blend of grapes from two or more years. Vintage Champagnes will have a unique flavor profile and can certainly be special, but non-vintage Champagne is what you’ll most commonly find for sale, and is no less enjoyable.
Blanc de Noirs or Blanc de Blancs: Blanc de Noirs are made from darker Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Blancs de Blancs are made only from white grapes.
HOW TO CHILL AND SERVE CHAMPAGNE
Chilling and Serving: Champagne should be served ice cold. This will keep the bubbles in prime condition. Place Champagne in an ice bath (mix water and ice) up to the neck for 30 minutes prior to serving. Adding a little rock salt to the ice bath can help enhance the chill time.
Color and Bubbles: The colors can range from off-white to gold and from coral pink to salmon pink. It’s fun to understand the bubbles in each Champagne. Are they lively, delicate, or robust? Do they form a pearl necklace on the surface of the wine? Next time you are having a glass try to notice and take note.
The Bouquet of Champagnes: Champagnes can be creamy, toasty, floral, fruity, savory, nutty, or jammy. On your next tasting, consider which of these attributes might best describe the Champagne you’re enjoying.
A FEW OF MY FAVORITES
You can expect to pay at least $30 to $50 for a bottle of Champagne, and of course this can go upward to $500 depending on the brand, vintage and style.
$30 to $50:
Brut Zero (Nature): André Clouet Silver Champagne Brut Nature, which means no additional sugars were added to the fermentation process. It has notes of green apple, a hint of grapefruit, light brioche with some spice.
Brut: Laurent-Perrier Brut has notes of white peach, green Anjou pear and crisp apple with a slight mineral finish.
Brut: Taittinger Brut is such a class act. It has notes of apple, pear, peach, apricot, lemon, lime, orange, pineapple, kiwi, butter, cream, vanilla, flower, ripe cherry, plum, strawberry, raspberry and mushroom. There are over 30 different blends that make up this Champagne.
$100 to $200:
Brut: Krug Grand Cuvée Champagne is what I will splurge for. When we celebrate something special, this is what I open. It has notes of candied lemon, almonds, spices, savory herbs and dried pears. Also in this price range, Dom Pérignon or Cristal can make fantastic gifts as they are recognized the world over for elegance and luxury commemoration. At the same time, be cautious of the trendy Champagne bottles that you see popularized in music and movies, as the quality of the wines themselves may not match the price tag.
A FINAL NOTE ON VARIETY
One essential thing to remember is the importance (and fun) of variety and exploration. As wine drinkers we often become creatures of habit and preference, buying the consistently reliable brand, but you run the risk of ‘burning out’ your palate by drinking the same type of wine over and over. With true Champagne especially, you can safely explore many options and winemakers. While not a complete guarantee of quality, the basic production standards of Champagne-region wines provide enough consistency to explore within your price range and find a wealth of different tastes and drinking experiences. Step outside the world of the big producers and explore smaller-batch Champagne houses. Keep tasting and pairing notes. Discuss what you like and don’t like. And have fun with it – after all, you’re drinking Champagne!
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