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Champagne: How, When, and What

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.” It’s 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 aren’t 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.

After being fermented into wine, various lots are blended together into a cuvée (blend) that will maintain the house “style.” The still wine is then put in Champagne bottles along with a measured amount of sugar and yeast. The bottle is sealed and a second fermentation begins inside. After a month or two, the yeast have converted all the sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol. Trapped in the bottle, the carbon dioxide is what gives the wine its sparkle. The wine receives further aging in the bottle with the spent yeast still inside. This second fermentation in the same bottle you will buy is the essence of the “methode champenoise.”

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.

The final part of the “methode champenoise” consists of very gently shaking the nearly upside down bottles to slide the spent yeast to the neck of the bottle and then freezing the contents of the neck. The frozen yeast plug shoots out of the bottle when the cork is removed. The small amount lost is then replaced with Champagne from the same batch and with some sugar. This will determine whether it will be a Brut (pretty dry), Extra Dry (slightly sweet), Demi Sec (dessert), etc. The bottle is then recorked, packaged and shipped to your store.

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 isn’t necessary and definitely don’t 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)

Under $16    Under $25    Under $35    Under $45    Under $80
Sumarocca Argyle Drappier Carte Blanche* Roederer Brut Premier* Larmandier-Bernier Vertus 1er Cru Vint*
Bellenda Prosecco Scharffenberger (formerly Pac. Echo) Charbaut Gold* Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru* Agrapart Vintage Millésime Grand Cru*
Willm Cremant Gruet Blanc de Blancs (NM) Nicholas Feuillatte* Agrapart Blanc  de Blancs Grand Cru* Charles Heidsieck Vintage*
Conte Mangesa Prosecco Domaine Mumm Aubry Brut Premier Cru* Gosset* Veuve Clicquot Vintage*
Gruet Gold Label (NM) Domaine Chandon S. Anderson Bollinger Special Cuvée* Heidsieck Monopole Diamant*
Charles de Fere Cuvée Jean Louis   Iron Horse Veuve Clicquot* Alfred Gratien Vint*
    Montaudon* Nicholas Feuillatte Rosé* Pol Roger Rosé & Vintage*
  Paul Laurent* Taittinger* Jacquart Vintage*
    Domaine Carneros Perrier Jouet* Delamotte Vintage*
      Mumms Cordon Rouge* Charbaut Certificate*
      Schramsberg Schramsberg “J. Schram”
        Drappier Grande Sendree*

Over $100: It’s 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.


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