What makes a Champagne good? Even more importantly, what makes it the right Champagne for you? After all if you don’t like it, no matter how good it is, how expensive it is, does it really matter? I think not. I personally love Champagne, and no time isn’t right for Champagne. I am all about making up an excuse to celebrate just so we can pop (actually you don’t want to “pop” the cork, you want to slowly open) a bottle of bubbly and call it a celebration. No, I’m not a lush, I just happen to love Champagne and think it makes any occasion more fun! Champagne actually compliments so many everyday meals, it doesn’t have to be saved only for a special celebration. So that being said, how do you go about picking the perfect Champagne for your romantic getaway. And yes, I am suggesting that Champagne is going to be part of your romantic getaway whether it is awaiting you in your hotel room, or starting your day off with breakfast, or at a romantic dinner for two, an impromtu picnic, whatever – it is just romantic! Let’s take a little more in depth look at Champagne.
First of all what makes a Champagne a “Champagne” and not just a sparkling wine? In order to be named a Champagne the wine has to have been made in the Champagne region of France. The heart of the Champagne region lies 90 miles northeast of Paris and is
divided into three parts; the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs. It must also be made by the special process called Méthod Champenoise. There are three grapes used to make Champagne and they are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Most champagnes are made from a blend of the three. Champagnes made from 100% Chardonnay grapes are called Blanc de blanc. Blanc de noirs are made entirely from black or red grapes. The juice from all grapes is white. Rosé Champagne is produced by allowing a longer period of time for the juice to be in contact with the skins, which is what gives red wine its color. Or the more expensive way, by adding a small proportion of red wine to it. (Which some say is better). Other wine producing regions throughout the world offer their own sparkling wines, and California has found a very solid foothold on sparkling wines. Other regions include: Itlay (Prosecco), Spain (Cava), South Africa and many others.
The natural climate and topology of the Champagne region plays a big part in the characteristics of the grapes, as the vines growing on different slopes, with different sun exposure, soil, rainage and climates are quite diverse. As a result, the grapes and the wines all display different aromas and structures and characteristics of their individual growing sites. Of course the climate varies a little from year to year and certain years are better for the grapes and therefore that is why certain years are more expensive; hence a vintage year (V).
Most of the Champagne produced today is “Non-vintage (NV), meaning that it is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages (years) and this helps the quality and taste stay consistent over the years. A non-vintage Champagne must be 15 months old before it is sold. Vintage Champagne (V) is made only from grapes harvested during a specific year. These specific years the grapes had exceptional growing seasons (85% of the grapes used must be from the vintage year.). Vintage Champagnes must be 39 months old before it is sold, (3 years after the 1st January following the harvest, however many houses will age their wines for longer than this legal minimum.) Premium vintage Champagne or Prestige Cuvée is made using only the best grapes from the top vineyards for that year or a blend of the producers best vintages. Examples of these wines are Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, or Louis Roederer’s Cristal. Charateristics of the finer Champagnes are smaller bubbles (which is directly related to aging time) than sparkling wines. You shouldn’t get too hung up on whether your Champagne is vintage or non-vintage, some of the most knowledgeable wine connoisseurs have been fooled at tastings!
Most of us standing in the wine store don’t know what year was better for the grapes though, do we? No, but we do know what we think tastes good to us. The Champagne producers have already done this for us by labeling the Champagne either NV or V. (You are going to pay more for the V Champagne, and even more for the Cuvées.) There are quite a few great Champagnes that are NV. More on those further down. You should know how to read the label so you can tell what degree of sweetness/dryness you are buying. If you know for example that you love a dry wine over a sweet wine you probably are going to favor the drier Champagnes too.
The degree of sweetness is rated:
Extra-brut/Ultra Brut/Brut Zero/Brut Nature/Brut Sauvage – Totally dry, no sugar added.
Brut – very dry, contains no more than 1.5% sugar.
Extra-dry/Extra Sec – Medium dry, can contan up to 2% sugar.
Sec/Dry – Slightly Sweet, can contain up to 4% sugar.
Demi-sec – fairly sweet, can contain up to 8% sugar.
Doux – Sweet, can contain up to 10% sugar.
The label of the Champagne has to display the following: the house (Producer) from which the champagne has come, the style (V or NV or Cuvée), the degree of sweetness, the region in which it was produced, the percentage of alcohol, the size of the bottle, the name of the Champagne, and the harvesting year (vintage).
Some Champagnes to try: (Not all of these are going to break the bank, but remember, as with any wine, you are going to pay more for any Champagne in a restaurant. So if possible, try to shop ahead for some of your Champagne needs if you are going somewhere you can BYOB, or pack one for your hotel room!) If you ever have the chance to go to a Champagne tasting, go! – it is a great way to find out what you like and don’t like, and much cheaper than buying! Often restaurants will have wine flights and just recently I enjoyed a Champagne wine flight at Park Avenue restaurant in Barrington IL. Wine flights are also a fun way to sample different sparkling wines and Champagnes to get a better idea which ones you prefer.
Moet & Chandon (NV White Star) (V Dom Perignon)
Krug NV Grande Cuvee Brut
Vueve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label
How do you store your Champagne once you have bought it? Champagne should be stored on its side in darkness; sunlight can spoil it. Actually, storing your Champagne in your refrigerator is likely to affect the quality of Champagne due to the shaking created by the refrigerator’s compressor. Basement climate cabinets are the best places to store Champagne (ideally, between 53 and 59 degrees F). It can be recorked and kept in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. (Great for breakfast Mimosas!)
Chill your Champagne in an ice bucket with a combination of half water and half ice. Make sure 3/4 of the bottle is immersed. To open the bottle, after you have removed the foil and cage material, cover the top with a cloth. Then holding the cork through the cloth, slowly turn the bottle until the cork “pops” free.
Lilly Bollinger of the Bollinger Champagne house in France, was well-publicized in the Champagne region, leaving several noteworthy quotes and this is my favorite:
Lily Bollinger was asked “When do you drink champagne?”, and replied:
I only drink champagne 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 am not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.
Again, I always say, it is always appropriate to serve Champagne, and it is so romantic!