A Lover's Guide to Champagne

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the Champagne and the stars.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"

Champagne is the much talked about, much written about, much enjoyed ambrosia from the gods. So, what makes Champagne so special? In this post, we will explore how Champagne is made, and attempt to uncover the sweet mysteries behind this magical beverage that makes us all love it so much.  Sparkling wines (generally bubbles not made in Champagne) and Champagnes are by far my favorite and as a result I spend much of my time hanging around Westport Rivers, a winery making European quality sparkling wines in Massachusetts. Let’s dive right in with some of the most important things to know about the bubbly beverage that will improve any day of the week.

What is Champagne, anyway?

Champagne is a legally protected term that is used for sparkling wines produced within the region of Champagne, France and under the strict rules and parameters of their governing body.  Traditionally, Champagnes are made from three noble grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Most importantly, Champagne is delicious, sparkly, and fancy!

How is Champagne made?

Champagnes from France must be made using the Méthode Champenoise, aka the traditional method.  After a primary fermentation of a base wine made from a combo of the noble grapes, the wine is then placed directly into the bottles with additional yeast and sugar for a secondary fermentation, which is where the beautiful bubbles are naturally created. Bottles rest in tirage for a period of time depending on the style, but at minimum three years for the fanciest of vintages. During this time, carbon monoxide has infused the wine GOOD, but also left behind a bit of a mess, BAD.

Afterwards, the dead yeast cells, aka lees, need to be removed. The lees are what create the often nutty, or brioche like hints in fine Champagnes, but no one wants that murkiness to hang around. Frankly, people want their wine to be clear. The Champagne bottles then go through a process called remuage, aka riddling, which allows the yeast cells to collect in the neck of the bottle to be flash frozen and forced out right before corking and caging (Dégorgement). A final dosage is added ( a winemaker’s secret recipe of wine and sugar) and then you get to enjoy the completed masterpiece.

The entire process is extremely labor intensive, but in my opinion you can taste the difference in the quality of the product. If you have ever had the bad Champagne hangover, it was most likely from a cheap bottle of sparkling wine, and not a fine Champagne.  Cheaper sparkling wines are injected with carbon dioxide, much like a soda, and the result is in a much harsher morning after. 

What do these French words mean on the bottle?

There are multiple styles of French Champagne, but here are the biggies:

  • Blanc de Blancs - 100% Chardonnay, and my absolute favorite!  These are typically dry, delicate,  and delicious.
  • Blanc de Noirs - 100% black grapes, either all Pinot Noir, a Pinot Meunier, or a combination of both. These wines are unique, interesting and often a real delight with light raspberry tones and a gray or dirty rose color.
  • Cuvée - Simply put, the proprietary blend of any Champagne house. More indicative of a house style, these wines often stay the same year after year and are reliable picks for celebrations and toasts.

Vintage Champagnes (i.e. those with a year assigned to them) are BIG MONEY because all the grapes are from a particular year, and therefore have some variance in quality and style. Best vintages to watch for: 1996, 2002, 2004, and 2006.

There are more French words... HELP!

In order from dry to sweet, the following terms are used on Champagne (and most sparkling wine bottles) to denote the sweetness of the wine. They correspond to the measure of the residual sugar in the wine:

  • Extra Brut
  • Brut
  • Extra Dry
  • Sec
  • Demi-sec
  • Doux

Can I drink this with food?!

YES! Champagnes are amazing with food. I recommend pairing drier brut styles with classic pairings such as oysters and chocolate, or with more rich dishes such as southern style fried chicken.

So what should you drink this Valentine's Day?

You can never go wrong with a classic like Veuve Clicquot to surprise your sweetheart, hands down my favorite easy-to-find Champagne (after Dom Perignon, obviously).

Looking for a cheaper alternative?

Look around your local wine shop for crémant. Crémant is sparkling wine from France, but NOT from the Champagne region. Many are made using the méthod champenoise, but are a fraction of the cost, and sometimes made out of some interesting varietals.  Crémant de Bourgogne is a personal favorite of mine from… you guessed it… Burgundy. 

Something local?

Westport Rivers makes amazing sparkling wines in New England using the Méthode Champenoise, and can ship (almost) everywhere in the United States. Their RJR Brut is a perennial classic, and pops up on wine lists in classy joints and oyster bars across the land.

Let us know what your favorite sparkling wines are, and who will be enjoying them with this Valentine’s day.