The term “Champagne” is often used generically to refer to all sparkling wines, but it properly refers only to the high quality sparkling wines that come from France’s Champagne District and that are made according to the “methode champenoise. Its important to understand this process because it explains the difference between the real stuff and the $8 sparklers that use shortcut methods.
The difference between Champagne and other
sparklers begins in the vineyard. Only 3 varietals are commonly used** in
Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (a close relative) and
Chardonnay. Yes, the classic blend is 2/3 red grapes and only 1/3
white grapes! Blanc de Blancs use only Chardonnay. (They
arent necessarily better, just lighter and more delicate.)
The grapes are picked a little under ripe (better bouquet) and
they are pressed quickly, often in the field, to prevent bruising
on their way to the winery and to preserve freshness.
Generally, the longer the aging, the better,
more flavorful and more refined the Champagne will be. The better
sparklers from other parts of the world may use this technique,
but they often start out with lower quality grapes and they are
generally aged only 9 - 18 months. True non vintage Champagnes
are aged 2-3 years. Vintage Champagnes (all the grapes are from
one year) are aged 3-5 years. The luxury cuvées or tête de
cuvées (these use grapes only from the very best vineyards)
generally age 6-7 years before they are released.
Should you age Champagne after you buy it? Generally not. Fine French Champagne is ready to drink within months of release. Some vintage Champagnes and most luxury cuvées can benefit from 2-4 years of further aging. But it isnt necessary and definitely dont over do it. If stored well, the best Champagnes will hold for up to 10 after bottling (that can be up to 20 years after the vintage date on the bottle), but you are taking a risk. That 1966 Dom Perignon in your cellar was darned good - about 15 years ago!
Our Favorite Bubblies (* denotes French Champagne)
Over $100: Its hard to go wrong when you plunk down $100 or more. Especially good: Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, Perrier Jouet Flower bottle, Roederer Crystal, Salon, Taittinger Comptes de Blanc, and Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame. Some may be in short supply.
** Other varietals are permitted but not widely grown. A very few growers still have small lots of vines such as Arbanne, Petit Meslier, and Fromenteau. These were more common before phylloxera, but were rarely replanted after the phylloxera problem was solved. Interestingly, Pinot Gris is permitted because the law specifies "Pinot" without making any distinctions.