Champagne 101

Posted On November 30, 2006

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With the holidays right around the corner, Champagne and sparkling wines take center stage.

Festive and pretty, sparklers are the drink of choice for many holiday occasions. But because they often aren’t enjoyed during less celebratory times, it’s often confusing and difficult to know what to choose when the occasion calls for some bubbly. And worse, Champagne and sparkling wines are usually popped open at fancy affairs when there are lots of guests, adding even more stress to the equation.

Fortunately, it’s really not as overwhelming to your psyche or your wallet as you might think to pick a perfect Champagne or sparkling wine. 

First of all, it pays to know the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine. Champagne comes exclusively from the Champagne region of France. It is illegal to call a sparkling wine from any other region, in France or otherwise, Champagne. There also are several regions outside of the Champagne region that produce bubbly. Regions in France that aren’t Champagne produce Cremant. Cava is a naturally fermented sparkling wine from Spain. In the States, wineries from Northern California, and Oregon, have produced some fine sparkling wines as well.

But just buying a bottle of Champagne is not a guarantee you will enjoy it in the glass. So, how do you make sure you get the best bubbly bang for your buck? The thing to look for at any price is: Is it naturally fermented?

There are two ways sparkling wines become, well, sparkling. The Charmat or Methode Champenoise method, also called “naturally fermented” or Methode Traditionelle, involves a process in which a well-blended wine that already tastes great is introduced to a solution of sugar, yeast and water. The concoction is then sealed in the bottle. The yeast further ferments the wine and adds carbon dioxide, which creates the “sparkle” or bubbles.

Naturally fermenting Champagne and sparkling wine creates a softer, smaller bubble compared to the second way of making sparkling wine, which involves simply injecting carbonation into the wine. It’s a lot cheaper and quicker to make sparkling wine by that method, but the quality suffers. You can tell a dramatic difference. The bubbles are like those in soda pop, very coarse.

Bubbles, however, don’t make the Champagne. I find bubbles to be the least important aspect of sparkling wine, even though that’s what makes it different. The base wine is more important. One good way to determine whether you like a Champagne or sparkling wine is to taste several in one sitting, not sipping to drink them, but sipping to evaluate them.

Let me suggest, when having some friends over to sample several bottles, serve the wines in regular wine glasses when tasting them. While they look great, classic Champagne flutes don’t have enough room to let you stick your nose down into the glass to see how the wine smells. And those wide and shallow Champagne glasses let the bubbles dissipate too quickly. I also suggest, to leave the wines out for a while after you’ve popped the cork so they warm up a bit.

A warmer bottle of Champagne, or any wine for that matter, will reveal any flaws it might have. In other words, if it tastes great warm, imagine how great it will taste chilled and in fancy flutes at your event.

The Champenoise, Champagne makers in the Champagne region, would hate to have you know to drink it warm. They’d rather play the marketing game against each other than have you know how to really taste Champagne.

NEVER pop a sparkling wine or Champagne cork if the bottle is warm, it is too volatile and could be dangerous. Make sure the bottle has been sufficiently chilled, at least 15 minutes in an ice bucket with ice and water or at least three hours in the refrigerator, before safely opening a bottle of bubbly.

It’s not impossible to find a really good sparkling wine or Champagne on any budget, but depending on how much you’re spending, you should have certain expectations.

Bottles that cost $10 and under should offer a fresh, pleasant, short and crisp flavor. Be scared of anything too toasty and rich at this price. It might wind up being too cloying, and that toastiness could become an imperfection once it warms up at your event.

In the $20 and under category, look for a sparkler that features some bread-like or doughy character, which indicates time “on lees,” or with the yeast, an indication that the wine was not forcibly carbonated. Look for texture in the mouth, a softness.

In a higher budget range, anything over $20 a bottle, there should be more of that softness on the palate, but also dryness to the wine. You will start to find an elusive quality in these Champagnes as they sit in the glass.