Selecting a Good Champagne

A sommelier shares his bubbly tips

Life’s too short to drink bad champagne

When it comes to choosing a bottle of champagne there are a few basic concepts to bear in mind; our budget, the type of champagne we would like (fresh, vinous etc), the occasion and the company we are expecting. It may seem silly, but the latter two points are extremely important. Champagne is made to be shared and once you open a bottle, it must be finished; otherwise it will bring bad luck to whoever has opened it.

Despite the current worldwide economic crisis, champagne sales are experiencing record highs. Having a glass of this wine (because it is a wine after all) when you feel down is like taking an aspirin when you have a headache. Champagne is much more than a drink which never goes out of fashion; it is a way of life.

Each brand or winery has its own particular style and the difference lies in the fact that certain brands are more consistent than others. Champagne is made using 3 varieties of grape – one white variety: Chardonnay and two red varieties: Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.

In the region of Champagne in France, once the wine base has been made it is stored in stainless steel tanks for several years before it is fermented for the second time, in bottles. This last phase in the elaboration process is called the “méthode champenoise”, or the traditional method.

The mixture of still wines (Cuvée) and the proportion of each grape variety determine the taste and style of each champagne, as does the proportion of vintage wines.

The following are the most representative different types of champagne:

  • The B.S.A (Brut Sans Année or Brut) which are the most popular and which register the highest number of sales.
  • The Vintages, which are made using grapes from one particular year, allowed to age (up to 30 years) and produced in very limited quantities. The best brands do not usually produce more than 5 vintages per decade.
  • The Rosés, which are very much in fashion. Perfect as an aperitif and very glamorous; these champagnes are usually more expensive than the Brut variety.
  • The Blanc de blancs, which are made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape variety. The term was created by the “Salon” brand in 1905, the first brand to make a champagne which was 100% Chardonnay.

Cuvée champagnes are the highest luxury a winery can expect to produce, as far as quality is concerned. Pricewise this kind of champagne is very expensive and is often not accessible to the standard consumer. They are the best wines made using grapes from the best years; luxuriously presented they usually cost 5 times more than a basic Brut.

The perfect champagne for every occasion:

For consumers looking for a fresh and fun bottle of bubbly I recommend a Pol Roger Brut, Delamotte Brut or a Taittinger Brut. These are perfect for appetizers.

The Henri Abelé is another good option which is slightly less aromatically complex, but more affordable.

To accompany a meal, the best champagnes to go for are the most common of the Brut variety, the so-called Classics. The Veuve Clicquot and the Bollinger, are two very vinous champagnes with quite a full body. A less expensive option is the Pommery Brut Royal. For something slightly fresher try a Billecart Salmon Brut, Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Gosset Brut Excellence or a Charles Heidsieck.

Over the past few years rosé champagnes have become more and more popular, two very trendy and very high quality examples are the Laurent Perrier Brut Rosé and the Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé. There are cheaper options but rosés vary greatly in quality.

Within every type of champagne we encounter a great many different styles and one must try several different ones before settling on one they really like. Be daring and try lots of different champagnes, you will be surprised by the differences, even within bottles of the same quality and price range. Usually once people have found one they love, they become very loyal to a particular champagne winery, and rarely drink any other.

Written by Patrick Paulen – Sommelier