Known as the exclusive drink for special occasions, the traditional ideas about champagne have been stripped away and it has become the perfect choice for any time of year; and now that temperatures are on the rise, there is nothing better than popping open a bottle of champagne and enjoying a glamorous and refreshing summer.
If you’re still not sure which champagne to buy, here are a few tips on how to choose. It’s time to explore the diversity of the world’s most popular bubbles!
To start with, not all sparkling wine is champagne and, although President Vladimir Putin has declared that only sparkling wine (champánskoe) made in Russia can be labelled as champagne, the reality is that champagne (the one and only original champagne) comes from a region in north-east France that is defined and protected by a denomination of origin: Champagne.
This region is world renowned for the quality of the terroir growing three main varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are the main ones used to make champagne, but other varieties like Arbane, Pinot Blanc, Petite Meslier and Fromenteau (or Pinot Gris) can also be used.
Choosing a champagne that you will like
Champagne is usually made from a blend of three varieties: the Chardonnay white grape along with two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This champagne, although it is made with two red varieties, has a characteristic colour that can range from pale gold to intense yellow and in the youngest ones, there are notes of white flowers, citrus fruits, white and yellow pulp fruits and a delicious touch of red fruits.
A more aged champagne will be rounder and more complex and will offer notes of dried fruits, honey and brioche. This is the standard champagne style.
Blanc de Blancs Champagne
When we talk about a “Blanc de Blancs” still or sparkling wine, this means that it has been made with white varieties only. When it comes to champagne, this means that in most cases, it has been made entirely with the Chardonnay variety. These champagnes tend to have more fruity flavours of lemon or apple.
Rosé champagnes are made by macerating red grapes; Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. The skins provide the colour, but also increase the complexity of the sparkling wine by adding organoleptic characteristics that give it a particular personality.
They are also made through assemblage, which is the most commonly used method. This involves adding “still” red wine to the champagne’s base white wine when it is bottled ready for the second fermentation.
These reds, made from the authorised Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, tend to have low tannins and high acidity and are added with the aim of providing notes of red fruits like strawberry or raspberry as well as an elegant pinkish hue.
Wines made from the Pinot Noir grape add body and structure while wines made from the Pinot Meunier grape are fruitier and rounder.
Rosé champagnes are more difficult to make but are more gastronomic and sophisticated.
Blanc de Noirs Champagne
This champagne, a “white made with red varieties”, is made from only Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes, which are the red varieties authorised to make Champagne. It is called Blanc de Noirs because the varieties do not macerate with their skins, so they do not add colour to the champagne base wine.
These champagnes are made with great care and love so as not to colour the wine and the result is well-structured sparkling wines with elegant notes of strawberries and white raspberries.
Choosing a champagne by its dosage
The word dosage refers to the liqueur, a mixture made with wine and sugar or grape must, which is added to champagne at the end of the second fermentation and after disgorging, and gives it a certain degree of sweetness and a special character. Some producers use their own recipe that may include cognac, aged wines, cane sugar or sugar beet.
Champagne is mostly made as Brut, which can contain up to 12 grams of residual sugar per litre, but there are also some that are drier: from Dosage zéro/Pas dosé/Non dosé, where no dosage has been added, to Brut Nature, with up to 3 grams of sugar or Extra Brut, which can contain up to 6 grams of sugar per litre. Or champagnes like Extra Dry, which contain between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per litre, Dry, with a residual sugar content of 17 to 32 grams of sugar per litre, Demi-Sec, which can contain up to 50 grams of sugar per litre, and Doux, which contain more than 50 grams of sugar per litre.
In a gin and tonic there are about 14 grams of sugar per litre while a cola can contain 110 grams of sugar per litre, to give you an idea of how dry or sweet a champagne can be.
Choosing a champagne by vintage or aging
Traditionally in Champagne, wines from different vintages are blended together, and this mixture brings balance and harmony to the sparkling wine. The harvest year is not usually stated and these are known as Non Vintage (NV).
There are also Millésime champagnes, which state the vintage year and are made with a blend of wines from the same year, either because of their typicity or the quality of the vintage. A Millésime champagne will always be a high quality sparkling wine that represents the character of its vintage.
All Champagne sparkling wines are aged for a minimum of 15 months. Vintage champagnes age for a minimum of 3 years and special vintages are aged for much longer. Time helps a sparkling wine to develop and increase its organoleptic properties.
A young champagne of about two or three years old reveals an explosion of youth with aromas of white fruits and flowers, citrus fruits like grapefruit and lime and spices like vanilla and aniseed. Notes of red and black fruits as well as notes of rose petals may be present in wines made with varieties like the Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.
Vintage champagne, aged for 3 to 8 years, may have aromas of honey and dried fruits, candied fruits, dates, blonde tobacco, fudge and butter or liquorice.
Prestige champagnes (aged for longer) have notes of toasted bread or spices, quince paste, aromas of undergrowth, coffee and cocoa.
We hope that all these tips will help you to work out which champagne to buy. We know it’s not easy to choose, but the good thing is that champagne is so versatile and elegant that you can’t really go wrong! Don’t wait for a special occasion, every day is a good day to pop open a bottle, and as Oscar Wilde said, “Only the unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking Champagne” and that doesn’t sound like you. Cheers!