How to Select Good Champagne

how-to-select-good-champagne

Choosing the perfect bottle of champagne shouldn’t be difficult if you understand the basics. Before you make your selection there are several important things to consider when deciding between the wide variety of champagnes available. Make sure to:

1. Understand the origins.  Champagne, with a capital c, refers to varieties made exclusively in the Champagne of France. Other champagnes, known also as sparkling wines, are made in various areas across the globe including California, Australia, and Italy. The varieties produced in France are held to a highly specific production standard called appellation. This process is an ancestral method and requires strict adherence to each individual step.

2. Decide on a price range.  There is a wide range of prices available for different varieties. Champagne from France ranges anywhere from $40 to $100 and is determined by whether the bottle is of a mass produced variety or a vintage selection. Laurent Perrier and Moët & Chandon are the more affordable varieties and vintage Champagnes include Dom Pérignons and Krugs.

If you’re opting for a sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne of France you can expect to pay anywhere from $8 to $30 a bottle. The price difference depends on the vineyard, the bottling process, and taste. ?

There are also exclusive champagnes that are available for purchase that range from a few hundred dollars to several thousands of dollars. Vintage bottles of Pol Roger Winston Churchill can sell for $300 to $600 dollars and rare finds, including bottles salvaged from the bottom of the Baltic Ocean on a crashed 1907 ocean liner, may sell for upwards of $10,000.

3. Choose the bottle size.  Champagnes come in a wide variety of bottle sizes. Pay attention to the size of the bottle when making your selection. If you are choosing a bottle that is above 3 liters be prepared for a higher price tag because the glass bottles are far more difficult to make. You may also want to consider choosing smaller bottles in order to enjoy several different champagnes.

4. Select a variety based on sparkle, taste, and color.  There are three main differences in champagnes; sparkle, taste, and color. These differences make up the unique flavor of each champagne and are important to your selection process.

  • Sparkle The champagne’s sparkle is determined both by its nature and its temperature. If you choose a bottle that barely sparkles in your mouth it is a sign that it isn’t cold enough or it is of poor quality. A good rule of thumb is that the smaller the size of the bubbles the higher the quality. The amount of sparkle, also known as sparkling intensity, is really up to the individual and depends primarily on personal preference.
  • Taste The tastes of champagnes are incredibly varied and offer something for every individual preference. Brut is a popular flavor of champagne and boasts a dry and oaky taste. You may be interested in a sweeter variety that features hints of citrus or vanilla. It is important to pay attention to both the dryness and the flavor of the specific variety when choosing a bottle.
  • Color There are many different colors available ranging from amber to silver to pink. The most common color of champagne is a faint yellow color created by the skins of the grapes used.

Romance and Champagne

When the Romans were attempting to establish viable vineyards in the Champenois region of northern France around the fifth century, things didn’t look good for the now highly-prized wines from that region.  Pale and pink in color, the wines from that region were not very full-bodied, and often very acidic.  Also, the temperate north rather than the warmer south meant that the grapes failed to ripen fully, and cold winters often stopped the fermentation process altogether in the chilly months, only for it to start again as the temperature rose in the Spring – at worst, casks and bottles would burst under gas pressure, and at best, the wine would be full of bubbles, much to the horror of the French makers, who considered this a terrible fault.

However, the British, not generally renowned for their culinary good taste during the 18th century, developed something of a taste for sparkling wine, especially amongst the upper classes and aristocracy.  Not to be outdone, the French claimed back their previously considered “spoiled” wine as their own, and champagne as a drink associated with wealth and celebration was born.

What’s in a Name?

Champagne obviously takes its name from the region in which the famous pinot noir grapes are grown, but did you know that one of the most famous brand names in the champagne industry – Dom Perignon – was actually that of a 17th century monk?  A perfectionist, Dom Perignon insisted on the vines now growing above a certain height, and limiting contact between pressing and grape skin, thus standardizing the pale perfection of today’s champagnes rather than the more pinkish hue generally expected from a white wine made from red grapes.

Sweet as Sugar

The British didn’t let their early fascination with sparkling wine wane, and much debate and experimentation went on with regard to making it bubble.  Christopher Merret, a scientist, opined that pretty much any wine could be made to sparkle by adding sugar.  Poems and plays of the period mention the beauty of a glass of sparkling champagne with increasing regularity, with an early link between champagne and romance made in the 1693 play “Love and a Bottle”.

Vive la Revolution

Champagne even managed to show some love back during the end of the eighteenth century – champagne merchants happily changed the titles of noblemen and women to the revolution approved “Citizen” on their invoices, thus saving many lives.  As the aristocracy fled across Europe to safety, many of the brand names we recognize today fled with them.

You might think that EU rules and regulations about what can and cannot call itself champagne might have taken some of the modern day romance out of this most luxurious of sparkling wines, but whether it’s engagement or wedding, special occasion or just because we can, champagne is still our first choice of wine to add a special glamor and polish to any occasion.  From a humble and disappointingly flat product that was a laughing stock amongst its more established wine-growing neighbors, this acidic formerly pink drink has pulled off the most romantic transformation of all, truly going from ugly duckling to beautiful swan.