If you want the best, you buy Champagne. If you are looking for aromatic complexity, elegance and poised, precise flavours, it beats all other sparkling wines hands down.
Why does Champagne reign supreme? First of all, Champagne means three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay is a white grape; the two Pinots are both black. Each brings something special to a blend. Chardonnay suggests flowers, vanilla, honey; Pinot Noir is earthier, rootier, more structured; Pinot Meunier adds fresh, appley notes.
Secondly, Champagne is the name of a place in northern France. It’s a range of low chalk hills which rise gently up from a dreary agricultural plain east of Paris. The hills drain the chalk and lift the vines towards the sun, allowing them to achieve the barest minimum of ripeness. Turn those grapes into wine, and their nervy, high-acid profile is perfect base material with which to make great sparkling wine. True Champagne, therefore, comes only from Champagne.
Thirdly, Champagne is made by a unique method, now imitated wherever winegrowers want to make great sparkling wine. The Champagne method begins with still wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grown within the Champagne area. That wine is then bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast, and carefully laid on its side in the cool, deep cellars which honeycomb the region.
Very slowly, the yeast ferments the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the CO2 has nowhere to go. Bubbles form. The fermentation leaves yeasty sediment in the bottle. After at least 12 months (and usually much longer than that), the wine is upended so that the sediment settles in the bottle’s neck. It is then removed by freezing the neck, allowing the gas to expel the frozen plug of sediment, and quickly recorking the bottle, adding extra syrup at the same time to balance the naturally high-acid profile. The yeasty sediment, too, has left rich, sometimes creamy flavours in the wine.
The Champagne is now ready to be opened and enjoyed. There are a number of different Champagne styles. The most widely seen is non-vintage Brut: a blend of different years, bottled with up to 15g of residual sugar, which encapsulates each house’s style. These wines are usually given a branded name, such as Moët’s Brut Imperial, Bollinger’s Special Cuvée or Roederer’s Brut Premier.
A question of style
Single vintage (or Brut Millésime) Champagnes reflect the characteristics of a single good or outstanding vintage, and receive extra cellar age. Blanc de Blancs means a Champagne made from Chardonnay alone, and Blanc de Noirs a wine from either or both of the Pinot varieties. Very dry Champagne is called Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut Zero or Brut Integral, while sweeter-than-normal Champagnes are called Sec (which paradoxically means ‘dry’), Demi-Sec or Rich.
Champagnes made from the best vineyards in the region are labelled Premier Cru or (better still) Grand Cru. Finally, there are the celebrated luxury Champagnes, usually called prestige cuvées in French. Examples include Moët’s Dom Pérignon, Roederer’s Cristal and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame. Most are wines from a single vintage (although Krug’s Grande Cuvée is multi-vintage), and are blended from the finest parcels of vines and the most successful wines of the year.
Champagne bottle sizes
Champagne bottles come in a dizzying array of sizes, from the tiny quart (20cl) right up to the gargantuan Melchizedek, which is a staggering 30 litres – the equivalent of 40 75cl bottles. Curiously, the majority of larger bottles are named after ancient kings. This is the full list:
Quart – 20cl
Half-bottle – 37.5cl
Demi – 50cl
Standard bottle – 75cl
Magnum – 1.5 litres (2 bottles)
Jeroboam – 3 litres (4 bottles)
Réhoboam – 4.5 litres – (6 bottles)
Methusaleh – 6 litres (8 bottles)
Salmanazar – 9 litres (12 bottles)
Balthazar – 12 litres (16 bottles)
Nebuchadnezzar – 15 litres (20 bottles)
Solomon – 18 litres (24 bottles)
Sovereign – 26.25 litres (35 bottles)
Primat – 27 litres (36 bottles)
Melchizedek – 30 litres (40 bottles)
Champagne and food
Champagne and oysters are a classic food pairing
Champagne is an extremely versatile partner for food; it goes well with a variety of dishes and ingredients. The best pairing we’ve tried is with fish and chips – the clean, refreshing acidity of the Champagne perfectly cuts through the fattiness of the fried food. Champagne is also a terrific pairing with seafood of all kinds, but especially oysters, mussels and langoustines – the elegant, citrus character works brilliantly. Champagne even works with meat dishes, too – try a heavier Blanc de Noirs style with game – you’ll be surprised how good the combination is.
Did you know?
- a Champagne cork can reach up to 40mph when popped
- there are approximately 50 million bubbles in a 75cl bottle of Champagne
- Marilyn Monroe reputedly once took a bath using 350 bottles of Champagne
Typical Character and Style of Champagne