A Guide to How to Enjoy Champagne
Learn how to enjoy Champagne, the sparkling white wine that so many people use to celebrate weddings and New Year’s Eve. Glasses of Champagne became synonymous with class and distinction in the later centuries of the French monarchy, when new French kings would be anointed with Champagne wines. Even today, the Champagne region of France is the only producer of the bubbly wines the region has become synonymous with.
This makes Champagne knowledge easier to master, because there are fewer Champagnes to learn about. So if you want to learn how to appreciate wine, Champagne is a good place to start learning about the winemaking. Learn about a few classic Champagne wines and start enjoying the experience of wine tasting.
Choose a Bottle of Wine – Naming Champagne
When choosing a bottle of Champagne, understand that Champagne is named for the wine houses that produce them – not the vineyards that most wines are named for. Also understand that true Champagne only comes from Champagne, though there are other bubbly wines on the market that claim to be champagnes.
Also, familiarize yourself with the concept of “marques”, which are the names given by specific wine houses to specific brands of Champagne. To English speakers, “marque” is roughly synonymous with “flavor” or “brand”. When selecting a Champagne to buy and drink, you’ll be selecting among marques.
There are a few marques to memorize, when you start to learn about Champagne. These are Bollinger Ay, Reims Moet et Chandon, Reims Krug, Charles Heidsieck, Epernay G.H. Mumm, Marne Ruinart, Reims Veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin, Reims Taittinger and Reims Joseph Perrier. Get an idea of each of these Champagne marks, associated with regions of Champagne.
Vintage is not as important with Champagne, as it is with many other wines on the market. This has to do with the need to consume Champagne relatively quickly, as well as the practice of blending Champagnes from a number of different years.
Weather is a major determining factor in the quality of the grape harvest used to produce wine, so knowing the vintage is a good idea of the quality of a champagne. Unlike many wines, champagne should be purchased and consumed only a few years out from the harvest.
Typically, the houses hold up Champagne for 5 years, then recommend drinking the wine within 2 years of purchase. This means that young wines are not considered gauche, as they are for many traditional wines. To be considered of a certain vintage, wine must have at least 80 percent grapes from a certain year.
Champagne, on the other hand, is often blended from a number of different years. With the best champagnes, the blends are from the greatest years of wine production. Vintage is less important, even in many fine champagnes. The level of quality among marques is quite similar.
Champagne Bottle Sizes
Choosing the proper bottle size for your Champagne is a little trickier. Below, I’ve included a list of Champagne sizes, along with the proper name for each.
- Quarter Bottle – 6.3 Fluid Ounces
- Half-Bottle – 12.7 Fluid Ounces
- Bottle – 25.4 Fluid Ounces
- Magnum – 50.8 Fluid Ounces
A half-bottle of Champagne pours out to a little over two full glasses of wine, so use this as a guide when ordering Champagne. One glass tends to be somewhere between 5 and 6 fluid ounces of wine.
Dryness of Champagne
Dryness in Champagne is produced in a slightly different way than most wines on the market. Because Champagne is further north than most winemaking regions, the grapes are harvested before maximum harvest. When yeast is added to wines with high sugar content, this converts the sugar into alcohol.
In Champagne wines, extra sugar must be added to the wine, so the added yeast has the necessary sugar to ferment. For this reason, Champagne vintners have the choice of how much sugar to add, determining how sweet or how dry the wine is going to be. This means the producers have a greater degree of control over the dryness of Champagne.
Here is a chart for the different levels of dryness and sweetness for Champagne. Keep in mind that Brut is the most popular Champagne, while Doux is the sweetest – so sweet, that it should only be used as a dessert wine.
- Doux – Beyond 5%
- Demi-Sec – 3.3% to 5%
- Sec – 1.7% to 3.3%
- Extra-Sec or Extra Dry – 1.2% to 2%
- Brut – 1.5%
- Brut Zero – 0.6%
“Brut Zero” is also known as Extra Brut, Ultra Brut, Brut Integral or Brut Sauvage. These are going to vary a little bit from one producer to the next, accounting for the discrepancy in listing the sugar content of extra dry and sec champagnes.
The History of Champagne Wines
I don’t normally do this, but if one is going to learn how to enjoy champagne fully, one should know a little bit about the history of Champagne wines and the region they come from. Below is the briefest of accounts about the Champagne region of France, its productions of sparkling white wine and the legend of Dom Perignon.
Champagne Region of France
800 years ago, Champagne was synonymous with trade, not sparkling white wine. In the High Middle Ages, the Champagne region of France was known for the “Champagne Fairs”. These fairs were an annual cycle of fairs held throughout the region, which were key in reviving the economic life of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. At these nerve centers of commercial activity, merchants from North Italy and the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium would meet, along with traders from all over Western Europe, to buy and sell spices, textiles, fur and leather.
Champagne was found along the ancient trade roads of the Roman Empire, and was a natural central location for commercial activities in the Middle Ages, too. The Champagne Fairs helped spur the creation of paper money, backed by the banking institutions of Genoa, which became the basis for the spread of commercial wealth and the much larger banking institutions of the Modern Age. The Counts of Champagne are known to have given special protections to merchants from Italy, even sometimes calling on the King of France to aid in protection of merchant caravans moving across the Alps and the bandit-ridden eastern France.
These Champagne Fairs were a great deal more than the fairs we know, as there were six of them throughout the year, each lasting more than 6 weeks apiece and bearing names like the May Fair, the Hot Fair and the Cold Fair. The fairs declined when Champagne was conquered by the King of France, which corresponded to the wars in the Italian states between city-states allied to the Emperor or the Pope, as well as the opening of direct sea transit between the two trading giants of Genoa and Venice with the textiles merchants of Flanders (Belgium).
Modern Champagne and Bubbly Wine
Today, champagne is a region of France about 100 miles east of Paris, and it takes up the cities of Troyes, Reims and Eparnay. Champagne takes up all or part of 4 regional departments of France, and comprises the administrative region of Champagne-Ardenne. Champagne is a regino of rolling hills, similar to the Campania region of Italy, which is where the name “Champagne” is borrowed from.
Wine was produced in the Champagne region as early as the late Roman Era (5th century). French kings were anointed in this sparkling wine, which helped to gain a reputation for excellence, and an association with royalty and nobility. The wine producers of Champagne struggled throughout the Middle Ages to produce wines equivalent to those of the southern Burgundy region, because colder climates meant the grapes did not ripen fully, producing higher levels of acidity and lower levels of sugar.
Benedictine Monks Produce Sparkling Wine
Who invented bubbling wine is a matter of conjecture, but the best guess is the Benedictine Monks at an abbey near Carcassone in 1531. These monks added sugar to the wine, which produced a second fermentation, due to the carbonation process modern people are so familiar with. It is well-documented that champagne had been invented before the famed Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon (died 1715), who is often credited with the invention of sparkling Champagne.
Dom Pierre Perignon did make contributions to the perfection of Champagne wine, though he worked against Pinot Noir grapes and the refermentation process. Subsequent generations of monks from Perignon’s abbey sought fame by telling stories of Dom Perignon that became legend in the 19th century, leading Moet & Chandon to name their most famous champagne “Dom Perignon”.
One of the misconceptions of Champagne is that it is only produced as a white wine. In fact, Pinot Noir, one of the most-used Champagne grapes, is a red grape. Pinot Noir’s interior looks similar to green grapes, so the juice extra looks similar to white wine. If Pinot Noir is allowed to sit with the stems and skins during maceration, the wine turn red; if not, the wine remains an amber color.
Learning how to enjoy Champagne is equal parts background knowledge and wine tasting. It’s hard to enjoy good Champagne, without knowing a little bit about prices and the process of winemaking and the history of the wine itself. It’s impossible to enjoy good bubbly wine without experiencing the various marques of Champagne, to see which marques you prefer. Only when you have tested each many times can you say that you have preferences.
Like any other subject, the best way to enjoy Champagne is to come at the subject with relish. While I’m not suggesting a bender on sparkling wine, I do suggest that you continue to read about Champagne, while tasting the various marques and vintages with joy and expectation in your mind. Champagne is a friendly wine, so learn how to enjoy Champagne as you would enjoy a new friendship. Consider giving bottles of Champagne as gifts too.
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