Someone got engaged? CHAMPAGNE! New Year’s Eve? CHAMPAGNE! New baby? CHAMPAGNE (for everyone except the mother)!
Champagne is the confetti of drinks–it’s only to be brought out on special occassions. So when you do buy, pop, serve, and drink champagne, you better do it right, because if you mess up, you have to wait for another celebration to redeem yourself.
What is champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling (carbonated) wine made from seven different types of grapes. The flavor is usually fruity. There are two rounds of fermentation to carbonate it, and it takes a legal minimum of 18 months to make it, though a good Champagne will take at least three years.
What’s the difference between sparkling wine and champagne?
Legally, as with all French wines, a Champagne must come from the Champagne region, but colloquially when Americans say “champagne” what we’re really talking about is sparkling wine. (For this article, Frenchly makes the distinction with capital-c Champagne (from Champagne) and lowercase-c champagne (from anywhere else).) Essentially, all champagnes are sparkling wines but not all sparkling wines are champagnes.
In America, we have Bordeaux from California and Chablis from South Carolina. However, according to several historical treaties, we shouldn’t be allowed to do that. After some pressure from the E.U. and the International Champagne Committee, the U.S. passed a law in 2006 banning the use of the word “champagne” (and the names of several other French region-based wines) on any American-brand wine made after March 2006. All brands existing before March 2006 can continue to call their California red wine “Bordeaux”.
Chardonnay is not just a wine, it’s also a type of grape used in the making of champagne. The three types of grapes used to make champagne are chardonnay (white grapes) from Burgundy, pinot meunier (black grapes) from Champagne, and pinot noir (black grapes) from Burgundy.
Reading the Label
Real Champagne comes from Champagne, is written with a capital C, and should say “Methode Champenoise” on the label. “Vintage” with a year next to it means the grapes from that harvest during that year were excellent and used to make that champagne. If there’s no “vintage” with a year, the champagne was made using grapes from multiple years and it’s called an N.V. (“non-vintage”).
Champagnes sweetness is classified by the amount of sugar in grams per liter. In order of least sweet to sweetest: brut nature/brut zéro (fewer than 3g/L), extra brut (fewer than 6g/L), brut (fewer than 15g/L), extra sec/extra dry (12-20g/L), sec (17-35g/L), demi-sec (33-50g/L), or doux (more than 50g/L). If the champagne is “blanc de blancs” then the champagne is made from only chardonnay grapes. If the champagne is “blanc de noirs” then it’s made from pinot meunier and/or pinot noir grapes.
IN A RESTAURANT
What to order and not order
The top-notch champagnes are Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon. According to the CEO of Sotheby’s Wine, ordering champagne by the glass is a good deal. What not to order often depends on preference, but we can tell you that White Zinfandel is—in the words of Frenchly’s editor—“always crap.”
Picking a champagne
Sommeliers are the keepers of knowledge. They taste the wines and develop the wine list. They know it perfectly. Tell them you “want to spend something in this *points to a price on the menu* range.” Tell them what you’re ordering for dinner. Tell them about the flavors you like. Trust them.
When the champagne arrives
Because there’s a bucket of ice, water, and condensation involved, there’s a court dance of silver and crystal before and during the arrival of the champagne. The sommelier will show you the champagne and say the name (and if it’s vintage, the year) to confirm it’s the right bottle. Confirm it’s right, and they’ll pop the cork. The cork will be set down next to the person who ordered the champagne. The person who ordered the champagne will be poured a taste. If it tastes like it’s gone bad, the sommelier will retrieve a new bottle . If the wine is good, the sommelier will serve the rest of the party. The person who ordered the champagne be asked if they want the cork or not. Saying no is fine. The person who ordered the champagne will be asked how they want the temperature of the champagne—chilled or room temperature. Champagne is better cold so keep the ice bucket.
Tasting the champagne
Champagne needs no swirling as it’s already aerated from the bubbles. (Also the skinny glass will swirl it to the floor.) Simply look at it—the bubbles should be small, the color bright. Smell it, it should be fragrant. Sip it, feel it in your mouth, then swallow.
Discussing the Flavor
The most inexperienced consumers will raise their eyebrows and say, “mmm”, but Frenchly wants you to do better. Champagne usually has fruity flavors; the lower-quality champagnes often have citrusy primary flavors and aromas, and the higher-quality champagnes often have stone fruits (peach, apricot, prune) as their primary flavors. If the champagne is old enough, it has secondary flavors and aromas which are subtler. (Think about nutty and baked fruit flavors.) The oldest champagnes have tertiary flavors and aromas which you also might not be able to detect, things like cocoa, coffee, and mushroom. If someone asks you why you like a champagne, and you’re at a loss, say “c’est le terroir” which means “the region is everything”. What you’re really saying is, “I like it because of distinct flavors that I won’t mention by name, that happen because of the location where the grapes are grown and the wine is made.”
Temperature for Serving
Chilled but not cold. If it’s too cold, the flavor is lost. About three hours in the fridge, or on ice for 30 minutes is fine. It heats quickly in the glass, so don’t wait more than a few minutes to toast and drink. Once open, keep the bottle in a bucket of ice water.
When done right, you won’t look like an idiot. First hold the bottle up and look at the label. Read it. (This isn’t necessary, but you’ll look intelligent doing it.) Remove the foil from the wire cage around the cork. Set your hand on top of the cage and cork. At the bottom of the exposed cage is a circle of wire—twist it to loosen the cage. One hand around the cage and cork, hold the base of the bottle with your other hand at a 45-degree angle away from people, pets, and fragile things. Twist the base of the bottle back and forth. The pressure forming in the bottle pushes the cork out. Alternatively, if you want the cork to go flying, saber it.
If your masculinity, curated artistic persona, or reputation at work depends on your ability to wield a knife and slice off a cork and glass stem, by all means, saber away. Do it away from everyone, and check the sabered part to make sure it broke cleanly, not leaving shards of glass on the floor. For the bravest, here’s a video about how to saber.
A tulip or flute glass is the proper vessel from which to drink champagne. Drinking from a larger glass causes the the bubbles, flavor, and coldness to disappear faster. Hold both the tulip glass and champagne at an angle, and pour the champagne slowly down the side of the glass. Stop pouring when the forming foam nears the top, wait for the foam to settle, then continue pouring.
In France, at the end of a toast, or the beginning of a dinner, everyone holds up their glass and says “Santé” or “Chin” (pronounced like cheen, emphasis on the ee).
The best thing to do is either buy it and drink it a few hours later, or buy it and stick it in the basement where it’s away from all light, in a cool place, stored horizontally. Once it’s open, consume it. If you have to save it because you didn’t drink it all, don’t put the stopper in too tightly—the trapped carbonation could cause the bottle to explode. And definitely don’t suction-seal it, because that removes the carbonation. Champagne with a lowercase-c without carbonation is basically White Zinfandel.