Ah, Champagne. It is like that person that you have a crush on from afar. It is exciting and elegant and carries with it an aura of fun and celebration that is irresistable. It can also be mysterious and somewhat hard to understand. And when it is a vintage that is sought after by many, it can lead to the question: is it really worth it? Is the reality as wonderful as the promise?
But Champagne is really not so hard to understand. It is all about a place and a method. The place confers the name, the method produces the product, and the method can be reproduced elsewhere, leaving you endless options for any budget if you would like to enjoy a sparkling wine.
My goal with this post is to answer five basic questions, and hope that once they are answered, we will understand more about this elusive unicorn of wines.
1. "Champagne" is not always Champagne?
Correct. Not all sparkling wines are Champagne. By European Union rules, only sparkling wines of the Champagne region may use the name Champagne. So if you see an American wine claiming to be Champagne, it's not--although that doesn't mean it cannot be a good wine. In addition many people (including me) often refer to all sparkling wines as champagnes because we are used to it, and let's face it, it just sounds so much better. That doesn't mean that the difference should not be paid attention to: many wines that call themselves Champagne are not made using the same method. And knowing more about any wine can help you choose one you are more likely to enjoy within your budget.
Why are the French so protective of the Champagne designation? Well, first of all because they are proud of their regional food and wine and they are very protective about preserving its reputation. But also because: Champagne is a famous wine, the particular method for making sparkling wine was perfected in the Champagne region, and the best Champagnes are among the finest wines in the world.
2. How do you evaluate a sparkling wine?
Well, your taste is of course individual to you, but learning the different characteristics of sparkling wine can help you get an idea of what you would like and what to ask your wine store clerk when looking for a sparkling wine.
First, what color do you want? Sparkling wine may be white or pink (and very rarely, red). I am partial to pink, but I am unsure whether that's based on objective differences in taste or whether I really just think it's prettier. I don't trust myself in that regard.
Second, how sweet do you want your wine to be? Nearly all sparkling wines contain sugar, but not all are perceptibly sweet. How sweet a sparkling wine tastes depends on how the sweetness is balanced with acidity. Most sparkling wines are high in acidity because they are harvested before they are too ripe and the carbon dioxide in the wine adds to the impression of acidity.
Sweetness categories are:
- Extra brut, brut nature, or brut sauvage: Totally dry
- Brut: Dry
- Extra dry: Medium dry (tricky, no?)
- Sec: Slightly sweet
- Demi-sec: Fairly sweet
- Doux: Sweet
- The bubbles: The tinier the better, and they should float upward in a continuous stream. Be aware that your glass can affect the bubbles too! Once they in your mouth, the bubbles should be gentle and not aggressive.
- Balance: Regardless of whether your taste runs to sweet or dry, the acidity and sweetness should still be relatively balanced.
- Texture: Traditional-method sparkling wines have a creamy texture as a result of extended aging.
- Finish: There should be no bitterness in the finish of a good sparkling wine.
The Champagne method is a traditional method in which the second fermentation of the wine is conducted in the bottle. Champagne has been made this way for hundreds of years and can be made in no other way. A sparkling wine made with this method, but produced outside of the Champagne region may be known as crémant. Crémant has its own rules. A Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy), like the one shown in the picture, must be at least 30% pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc, or pinot gris. In Europe, this method is called the traditional or classic method. In the United States, it's called the champagne method or méthode champenoise.
In this method, every single bottle becomes a small fermentation tank. The wine must ferment in the bottle for at least fifteen months and usually for three years or more. Each bottle is filled with the wine and a sugar and yeast solution, closed, and then let to rest in a cool, dark place. Carbon dioxide and fermentation lees (sediment) are produced by the process occurring in the bottle. The interaction of the lees and the wine changes the texture and flavor of the wine. After a year or more has passed, the bottles are shaken and turned so the lees fall to the neck. The lees are flash frozen in the neck and then removed from the bottle, leaving clear sparking wine. Finally, a sweetening solution is added to the bottle to adjust the flavor, and the bottle is prepared for sale.
Before the second fermentation, the traditional method also has several unique characteristics: the grape pressing must be gentle and meticulous to preserve the flavor and color, and the base wines must be blended carefully to create the best blend for fermentation. More than 100 different wines can go into a base wine, and the vintner has to have the knowledge to predict how this blend will taste, not today, but years from now, after it has undergone the second fermentation. That is no joke. That is HARD.
4. What should I eat with my sparkling wine?
Sparkling wines are very versatile wines. You can drink them with almost anything. The best combinations for sparkling wine include eggs (which is why the Champagne brunch is a staple in the gambling towns); spicy Asian foods like Thai, Indian, Hunan, etc.; fish and seafood; light pasta dishes; risotto, poultry; and aged cheeses. A sparkling rosé goes well with lamb or ham (but I am not sure about spam, clam, or jam).
Do not serve a brut or extra dry champagne with fruit or dessert - look for a demi-sec instead. Sparkling wine from the Asti region of Italy works well for desserts.
5. Which sparkling wine should I buy?
The answer to that, of course, will be different for everyone. First, off, stay within your budget. A sparkling wine doesn't have to break the bank. The Cremant that is in my picture cost all of $15 and I like it every bit as much as the comparable Champagne rosé from Nicolas Feuillatte, which costs more than twice as much. I think a good starter sparkling wine is Prosecco. You can easily find a good Prosecco for less than $20 and it is a crowd-pleaser. The cheapest sparkling wine is cava , from Spain (I am sure you have seen Freixenet before - that is a cava).
The US produces many fine sparkling wines. J winery makes a $30 sparkling wine that comes in a stunning bottle. It's really good for nice dinner parties. The most famous California sparklers are Mumm Cuvee Napa, Domaine Carneros, and Domaine Chandon. Those are all good bets and between $25-$40.
The real deal will generally cost you, especially if you want to get a vintage champagne , as opposed to non-vintage. These are real luxuries but it's worthwhile to have some on the special occasions of your life. Some of the best (with their famous bottles in parentheses) are:
- Light: Taittinger (Comtes de Champagne), Ruinart (Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs), Pommery (Cuvee Louise), Piper-Heidsieck (Champagne Rare), G.H. Mumm, Perrier-Jouet (Fleur de Champagne), and Billecart-Salmon (Cuvee Elisabeth Salmon Rosé)
- Medium: Moet & Chandon (Dom Perignon), Charles Heidsieck (Blanc de Millenaires), Pol Roger (Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill), Philipponat (Clos de Goisses)
- Full: Krug (Clos de Mesnil), Louis Roederer (Cristal), Bollinger (Grande Annee), Veuve Clicquot (La Grande Dame), Delamotte