The most festive of wines, champagne overflows with exuberance. Across the globe, fizzy flutes are raised in celebratory toasts, marking special occasions of promise and accomplishment. A luxurious indulgence, champagne is also an obligatory holiday beverage of choice as its effervescence glitters the world over, ringing in the New Year with a commemorative pop of the cork.
A bit daunting at first, selecting the ideal sparkling vintage to complement an event or meal may be challenging to the uninitiated. Learning the basics will give any inexperienced imbiber the opportunity to impress fellow partygoers with the perfect bottle…or two…of bubbly.
Although the word champagne is often used to describe all sparkling wine, strictly speaking, champagne refers to French champagne, which is a sparkling wine created by a specific process, from certain grape varietals (pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier) that hail from a particular area of France -- the Champagne region, of course! All other bubbly vintages are simply called…sparkling wine.
But neophytes be forewarned. Even with these strict regulations, several countries, including the United States, allow sparkling wine to be labeled as champagne, despite the grapes being harvested elsewhere. This unique challenge, referred to as ‘label confusion’ can be perplexing, and has been a major on-going issue for the champagne industry.
Selecting the perfect bubbly
Wine experts agree that champagne is versatile and can be paired with a variety of foods, and even sipped throughout an entire meal, as this elegant beverage features delicate flavors, high acidity and a moderate alcohol content. In addition, the fizz serves a palate-cleansing purpose as well.
Grape varieties play a major role as well. Blanc de blanc champagne is made exclusively with chardonnay grapes, while blanc de noir is made with the red grape varieties of pinot noir and pinot meunier, creating a full-bodied wine. And the distinctive color of rosé champagne is achieved by adding a still red wine to the base.
Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau USA trade association explains, “Champagnes come in a variety of classifying styles that are used to refer to the wine’s sweetness. Most commonly, there are five levels of sweetness: brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec and doux, which is the sweetest. So one should remain mindful of what taste they are seeking when they are selecting a bottle of champagne.”
French wine specialist and owner of Wine Wise Consulting, Megan Wiig offers a few pairing suggestions to keep in mind when making a purchase. She explains, “The blanc de blanc champagne’s chardonnay grapes are lemony, bright and light-feeling in your mouth. They match well with delicate foods like quiche or cured salmon that won't overpower the subtlety of the wine. The Blanc de Noir is more robust, powerful and demands richer sauces, and foods like roasted poultry or filet mignon. Regular brut non-vintage is made from blending the white and red grapes for a style that is quite versatile and great with foods like sushi.”
When choosing a bottle of champagne, there is no need to break to the bank, as the variety of price points allow you to purchase sparklers to suit any budget.
When selecting a sparkling wine, there are many options and there is no 'right' or 'wrong' choice. Familiarize yourself by category (not by brand). For example, the lighter, sweeter sparkling wines, like Moscato, are awesome for brunch or after dinner. The softer, fruitier styles, such as Prosecco, are great for Mimosas or when you need to buy a larger quantity.
Of course, there is great quality champagne from Champagne, ranging from $25 to $100 dollars per bottle, which will be tart, mouthwatering and bold. Finally, there are sparkling wines from the US, Spain (Cava) and France (Cremant). These mimic Champagne at a lower cost.”
Choosing the right glass
To add to the sparkling beverage’s overall mystique, the champagne glass has been a controversial topic in the wine world for years. According to legend, the first coupe, or saucer-shaped glass, was modeled after Marie Antoinette’s left breast...This shape has been frequently criticized, as it allows the aromas and effervescence to escape too quickly.
Over the years, the streamlined flute and tulip-shaped glasses have become popular among sparkling wine drinkers. Today, the flute is accepted as the ideal glass for sipping champagne in US, although the tulip-shaped glass is still common throughout France.
Experts say that when serving champagne, stick with the flute glass, which is tall and narrow. These hold the bubbles best and provide a lovely canvas for viewing the elixir.
Heitner added, “What surprises many wine drinkers is that it can be paired throughout the meal and enjoyed well beyond celebratory events. While many might think that champagne can only be served at a New Year’s party or to toast a wedding, champagne perfectly pairs with life’s more simple moments, like celebrating a new job offer, welcoming relatives for the weekend or even just enjoying a night at home with your significant other. No matter the day of the week or the season you are in, you can find a champagne that complements and embodies each day of your life.”