Food & Wine Photo Credit: Veuve Clicquot; Alexey Fedorenko

Crash Course: Champagne 101

It turns out that the world’s priciest grape juice is most definitely worth all the fuss.

Full disclosure: I was late in life when I came into the bubbly embrace of Champagne. My path to wine geekdom was through Bordeaux, a region obsessed with classification and ranking. A great wine? It’s a first growth. An excellent one? A second growth, and so on. On top of this, in Bordeaux even the years are accorded scores, so one can take the quality of the wine on one axis and the quality of the year on the other and empirically determine the wine’s worth.

Champagne, on the other hand? Most of the time the top wines don’t even have a vintage. They’re blends of various years—not unlike wine that comes in a box, except 20 times more expensive. Moreover, not only are there no stately chateaux smack dab in the middle of the vineyards, a big portion of the time, the Champagne houses were in the towns of Reims or Épernay and didn’t even grow their own grapes. I mean, who were they fooling?

The problem was, every time I ran into someone who knew more about wine than I did, they couldn’t stop going on about Champagne. My anecdotal sample of the Masters of Wine I’ve met revealed that the bubbles were far and away their most cherished wines. Same with master sommeliers and pretty much anybody else who was serious about wine. So I began to pay more attention. Instead of throwing back a flute of bubbles in celebration, I began to imagine I had a Burgundy in my glass. I sniffed, swirled and eyeballed. It turns out: here I had been, ready to trip an old lady to get to a bottle of Chablis, and it had been in front of me the whole time—it was just obscured by the bubbles.

The Champagne-O-Meter

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The Perfect Day Trip from Paris

On those rare occasions when the French rail system isn’t on strike, a TGV train from Paris to Reims is 49 minutes, barely longer than the trip to packed-with-tourists Versailles. Once there, that no-chateau business is suddenly your ally, with the numerous houses (Pommery, Taittinger, Ruinart, Lanson) all within close proximity. But the standout is the immense underground caves of Veuve Clicquot—les crayères—that date from Roman times, sprawl for kilometres under the city, and house rack and after rack of the famed yellow label. And if you need to repent for drinking before noon, there’s Reims Cathedral, the 13th-century temple where the kings of France were crowned—if we’re being frank, it’s quite a bit more impressive than Paris’s Notre Dame (and a tenth as crowded).

Reims Cathedral, 800 years old and still going strong. (Photo: Natalia Bratslavsky)
Reims Cathedral, 800 years old and still going strong. (Photo: Natalia Bratslavsky)

The Cheapest Expensive Wine You Can Find

Making wine hasn’t changed that dramatically since ancient times. Pick grapes, extract juice, let juice ferment, et voilà! You can add wooden barrels, you can add extra aging, but generally Nero would recognize the basic elements of a modern winery. But Champagne is a different, much more expensive, beast. It starts as normal wine in a bottle, but then you add the liqueur de tirage—a mixture of reserve wine and sugar—and reseal the bottle. A second fermentation then occurs in the bottle (that’s where the bubbles come from) called tirage. The Champagne continues to age in the cellar for sometimes five or more years, and, as it nears its completion, every bottle is placed in a special holder that keeps its neck pointed down so that the sediment can gather. To facilitate this process, each bottle is turned a quarter-turn repeatedly until the wine is clear.

But we’re not done. Next, the neck of every bottle is frozen so the sediment can be removed, a dosage is added (a mixture similar to the liqueur de tirage, this determines how sweet the wine will be), and it’s finally ready for the final famous cork to be inserted. Phew!

Add to this some of the most expensive vineyards in the world, and you realize that entry-level Champagne is sort of a bargain.

The famous caves, or les crayeres, of Veuve Clicquot, deep under Reims. (Photo: Veuve Clicquot)
The famous caves, or les crayeres, of Veuve Clicquot, deep under Reims. (Photo: Veuve Clicquot)

What’s a “Grower” Champagne?

Most large Champagne houses—Moët, Mumm, et cetera—source their grapes from numerous growers throughout the region. A grower Champagne is one made more like a traditional wine, where the grape grower is also the winemaker, and uses grapes from his or her own land. Unlike the big houses, this, in theory, means the wine may more accurately reflect the terroir of a specific site. It also means the wines are apt to vary in quality and taste from year to year, something the large houses are able to remedy by blending multiple vintages to reflect their “house style.”

A further complicating factor: many grower champagnes also subscribe to the low- or zero-dosage theory, wherein very little or no extra liquid is added to the Champagne after the sediment has been removed. This makes for an exceptionally—and some claim excessively—dry style of bubbles.

medieval church and roofs of houses in Champagne, France
Outside of Reims, the majority of the region is dotted with ancient agrarian villages. (Photo: Grzegorz Kordus)

Flutes Are For Amateurs

Don’t shoot the messenger, but you know those lovely Champagne flutes Aunt Bertie gave you for your wedding? Ditch ’em. Here’s the problem: the slim, tapered design of the classic flute was created to concentrate the bubbles in a beautiful, constant stream, and it is excellent at doing this . . . but not at much else. In particular, the design sacrifices the ability to take in the wine’s distinct nose, or bouquet, which, on a bottle of wine that might be $300, is a travesty. Instead, source one of the new breed of glasses, like Riedel’s Veritas Champagne glass, which allows you to appreciate all aspects of the wine. And if you order a bottle at a restaurant and they have only flutes? Ask for white wine glasses while looking askance at the somm.

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Want more great wine content? Check out Neal’s wine picks! 

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