SPARKLE & POP’S ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SELECTING LUXURY CHAMPAGNE
Choosing champagne can be a bit of a minefield - when there is so much choice, how do we make sure we’re choosing the best bottle for our tastes and budget? And the decision becomes even more important when it’s for a special occasion - the perfect bottle can be the icing on the cake of a wonderful evening, whether that’s a housewarming party, a garden party on a sultry summer’s evening, a new year’s eve celebration or even a dinner party with close friends.
A delicious champagne can lift an occasion from great to wonderful, from fun to memorable. It is also of course an incredibly special present to mark an achievement or milestone such as a wedding, the birth of a baby or a new job, and is a gesture of how much the recipient means to you.
Champagne - what separates it from the rest?
The first thing to understand is how champagne differs to other sparkling wines. Champagne, the most famous of them all, is made exclusively in the Champagne region of France, east of Paris, and has a heritage going back hundreds of years. Legend has it that a monk, Dom Perignon, created the bubbles accidentally and exclaimed ‘Come quickly, I am drinking stars!’ when he tasted it. Champagne is made according to strict regulations which dictate the types of grape and how they are picked and pressed. Other parts of France and the world produce some delicious sparkling wines - well-known examples include Prosecco, Cava and Cremante, but the complex and delicious flavours of champagne make it the unassailable king, the go-to when you want to be ‘drinking stars’ at your special occasion.
The Ultimate Champagne Glossary - Helping understand the esoteric terminology
There are myriad terms to understand when choosing champagne, and you would be forgiven for thinking that a mastery of French is a requirement. What exactly does Brut mean? And Demi-sec? What about Blanc de Blancs - not forgetting Blanc de Noirs? Many refer to how dry or sweet the champagne is, or the types of grapes that were used.
The three most common grapes used in champagne are Chardonnay, which is a white grape and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are black grapes. Some champagnes are made with other grape types, but these are rare. Blanc de Blancs is normally made using 100% Chardonnay grapes for a light, delicate champagne - perfect for a summer party in your garden. Rosé tends to blend all three grapes, giving a fruitier taste, while Blanc de Noirs champagnes have a more robust and complex flavour thanks to the use of one or both of the black grapes (although it will still be white in colour, of course), more suited to your wintery New Year’s Eve celebration, perhaps.
The next aspect to consider when choosing your bottle is the dryness - and this is indicated with the words (in order of increasing sweetness) Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-sec, Doux. Brut Nature and Extra Brut are ‘bone dry’, and contain almost no sugar - these are ideal choices to accompany a salty starter at a dinner party such as caviar, as the acid balances the salt. Brut, the most common choice, is sweet enough to add body to the champagne, but is still refreshingly dry. Extra Dry is fruitier, while Dry, Demi-sec and Doux are increasingly sweet: the last two are normally served with dessert and would be an excellent alternative to dessert wine at your dinner party.
The word ‘vintage’, when applied to champagne, means that the bottle contains grapes from a single harvest. Vintage champagnes are not produced every year, but only when the grower deems the harvest to be particularly good; non-vintage champagnes are made from a blend of harvests from different years for a consistent house style. A lot of time and effort goes into creating vintage champagnes, which is reflected in the pricing. They are aged for at least 36 months (compared to 15 months for non-vintage ones); this enables the development of intense aromatics which gives them more body and more complex flavours. Because of this complexity, if you are serving vintage champagne at a dinner party, it’s normally best to pair them with simpler dishes. Vintage champagnes do have a certain cachet and will certainly impress your guests!
If you are planning a housewarming party to christen your new home, then a nice touch would be to serve ‘Grower Champagne’. These champagnes are produced by the same estate that owns the vineyards where the grapes are grown (rather than a large label that buys up wine from various estates). They offer a unique ‘farm to table’ charm, with agricultural accountability and the love and nurture of a single estate, providing delicious champagne from their home to your new home! They can be identified by the letters RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) on the label.
How to Serve the Ultimate Glass of Champagne
Now you’ve carefully selected your champagne to match your occasion and the food you are serving - how do you serve it?
Elegant glassware is critical to the enjoyment of your champagne - there’s a reason it’s never drunk out of a mug... The obvious choice is of course the elegant flute, which has a lot going for it: the bubbles quickly rise to the top of the glass, which looks beautiful and delivers aroma and flavour. An alternative is the tulip, which is a little less elegant than the flute but is often the sommelier’s first choice as it amplifies the qualities of the champagne: the wider bowl allows for more aeration of the aromas, and the wider aperture means that the bubbles hit your tongue, not your nose! Finally, the coupe or ‘champagne saucer’ is a quirkier option. Often associated with the 1920s - think Great Gatsby - it’s certainly beautiful but its shape means that that both the bubbles and aromas dissipate quickly. We recommend whichever you feels matches the look and feel of your event.
As important as the glassware is the temperature of the champagne itself. Our founder Jasvir Kaur explains that a common mistake is to just pop the bottle in the fridge a few hours before consumption, but that can adversely affect the flavour. Jasvir has spoken to sommeliers and champagne houses on the topic and they unanimously agree that to achieve the optimum temperature and flavour, the room temperature bottle should be put in an ice bucket for about 15 minutes before opening.
We believe that the key to choosing champagne - no matter what the occasion - is to buy something you love, and something a little different, that you can’t find at the supermarket. In this way, they become a talking point and will help make your event or gift even more memorable. At SparkleandPop.com, we strive to source champagnes and sparkling wines that are rare and special. We work directly with champagne houses and estates that supply delicious, high-quality champagnes that we think you will love. We would of course be delighted to help you make your choice:- don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or would like to discuss your decision.
An in-depth conversation about champagne with Mark Perlaki from New Generation McKinley, importers of fine wines & spirits.
In this interview, Mark is able to apply his extensive knowledge, passion & expertise gleaned from over eight years as Head Sommelier at Hotel du Vin & Malmaison. With questions on the quality of supermarket varieties and advice on common mistakes made by regular buyers of champagne - this is your opportunity to get informed by a true expert!