Champagne is one of the elegant extras in life.
– Charles Dickens
As we head into the holiday season a quote from Charles Dickens the author of the seasonal classic A Christmas Carol got me thinking about how celebrated Champagne is and yet how little most wine lovers know about this delightfully bubbly drink.
Champagne is to wine like Kleenex is to tissue or Jello is to gelatinous deserts. It is THE brand. There are a lot of sparkling wines on the market but only wines from the Champagne region of France can be legally labeled as “Champagne”. All others are simply sparking wine. The Champagne region in Northern France pioneered the method of making bubbly and then through international courts and trademarks essentially protected the rights to the name. However true connoisseurs will tell you that it is the unique terroir of the region that makes true Champagne special, not the branding. This area has a cool climate and chalky soil which is ideally suited for growing the three grapes that can be used for Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.
Champagne as a French wine is detailed and complex and so you really have to read the label to fully understand the product. Champagne comes in several different styles, Blanc de blancs means that the wine was produced from all white grapes (Chardonnay) while Blanc de noirs means that the Champagne was produced from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. The sweetness level of the wine is also important to know. Extra Brut is usually very dry champagne, Brut is dry and Extra-Sec and Sec are usually medium dry wines.Champagne is also divided into Vintage and Non Vintage wine. Non Vintage Champagnes can be made from grapes from up to 3 harvests while Vintage Champagnes come from years in which the winemaker determines that the harvest was uniquely special. And now here is the trick to really understanding Champagne that I like best. Pay attention and you’ll look like a hero this holiday.
Champagne is made by either large Champagne houses like Taittinger or Moët & Chandon which grow some of their own grapes and purchase the rest, or by smaller producers who grow and bottle their own product. This is called grower Champagne and often grower Champagne exceeds the quality of large house Champagne but with a smaller price tag. Again look to the bottle for guidance. On the bottom of the front label there will be a tiny number preceded by two letters. NM (Négociant-Manipulant) indicates a larger house that purchases many of their grapes, whereas RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) signifies that the winemaker grew the grapes.
Armed with this info you can confidently pick a wine that comes from a smaller producer at a smaller price that matches your tastes and your sweetness preference. Champagne is not a generic or homogenous product but it also doesn’t have to be mysterious or overly complex. Like all wine, my suggestion is to simply try several styles and see what you like.