Have you ever wondered why Champagne is present at nearly every major event, celebration, or gathering? Have you ever wondered what is so compelling about this ultra-distinguished wine? Me too, and it took some years to figure it out so, if you haven’t yet discovered Champagne, you’re missing true greatness. Where I went wrong in my younger years was to try a few different bottles that resulted in the conclusion that they’re all the same – most definitely not so.
As France’s northernmost major wine AOC, Champagne, both as a wine and as a region, shows us one of the most beautiful examples in the world of what a grape (or a few grapes) can achieve. The intricate winemaking techniques that have been discovered, invented, or evolved over hundreds of years lay testament to the passion and dedication of Champagne aficionados everywhere in the world. It is at once, as unique as it is ubiquitous.
Here’s a quick primer on Champagne:
- Three grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (both reds of course), and Chardonnay all coalesce into a perfect bottle of Champagne, although sometimes not all three grapes are used. Two of my favorites are Blanc de Blancs Champagne, which is made from 100% Chardonnay and also, rosé Champagne that often adds extra dimensions and structure.
- Most Champagne is designated as non-vintage (no vintage is printed on the label), which simply means that it is blended from a number of vintages, as each producer holds some back each year to blend with future years’ production. This method represents what is known as a ‘house style’, whereas winemakers work to ensure relative consistency from year to year. There are many great non-vintage wines worth seeking out including those designated with the words, prestige cuvée or cuvée special.
- Vintage Champagne is often considered the ‘gold standard’, as it’s only produced in the best vintages. The quality is incomparable and older vintage Champagne, like mature wine from Bordeaux and Burgundy, offer up remarkable complexity along with an often ethereal and visceral drinking experience. Vintage Champagne has the ability to age for fifty years or more if properly stored.
- I have yet to discover a cuisine or food that doesn’t pair exquisitely with Champagne. With a deft balance of acidity and fruit, Champagne will not overwhelm delicate fare nor be engulfed by bolder food flavor profiles. Interestingly, Champagne is also perfect for preparing your palate by allowing your senses to become sharpened prior to tasting red wine, something no other wine accomplishes so completely.
- There are both Grand Cru and Premier Cru villages in the region that signify the quality of the vineyards in a way similar to Burgundy. Still, one cannot discount any of the ‘grower’ Champagne and many smaller producers that are creating compelling wine these days.
- There is a world of difference between sparkling wine and Champagne, not the least of which is the region’s terroir. Substantial chalk layers under the soil contribute to Champagne’s wonderful minerality and cannot be matched or approximated by any other region in the world. Also few producers of sparkling wine go to the trouble and expense of the traditional winemaking methods employed in Champagne. If it’s not from France’s Champagne region, it’s not Champagne.
- There are many different styles of Champagne available for every taste, from sweet to semi-dry, to dry (brut) to extra brut. The very best strategy I can recommend to become intimate with this storied region is to simply start buying and drinking it. Find what you like, experiment with everything including foods and various styles. Every connoisseur of Champagne has experienced an ‘ah-hah’ moment, a moment of discovery, where one realizes precisely why this wine is such an essential part of our fabric in life. I truly hope you find yours.
This post barely scratches the surface of what can be learned and experienced from Champagne. If I had two wishes to make, I would first wish for world peace and secondly, I would wish that there would be a bottle of Champagne on every table, every day. Then again, if there was a bottle on every table, I don’t think I’d have to wish for world peace. It would have already been accomplished.