Champagne: choosing a good bottle of bubbly
Do you know the difference between a fine bottle of bubbly Champagne and a bottle of sparkling wine?
The “king of wines” remains an essential companion for dinners and parties on New Year’s Eve and just about all moments in life that merit celebration. And didn’t someone once say that Champagne was the only wine which made women even more beautiful?
Champagne can also be enjoyed at mealtimes, and is especially great with a sumptuous dessert. A good choice then, as long as you don’t get it wrong. Under the same “Champagne” label, the finest Champagnes can be found along with other brews, more commonly known as sparkling wines.
Read on and learn how to tell a good bubbly from its poorer cousin.
The complex production of Champagne
Authentic Champagne is only produced in a strictly designated region in France, which includes 336 communities situated pretty much in the la Marne district. Some of the Champagne producers have been in business since the 1700’s, so they certainly know what they’re doing!
Champagne can come from three different, authorised grape varieties: pinot noir or pinot meunier (red grapes) and chardonnay (white grape).
Champagne starts life as a fermented blended “still” wine, without any bubbles, getting its effervescence during a second fermentation in the bottle, which leads to carbonic gas being released and the liquid foaming up.
After at least 15 months (minimum for authentic Champagne) of ageing in a wine cellar, the bottles are “shaken and turned” on a special rack: passing some time in a horizontal position and then vertically, upside down, during which a sediment (lees) collects in the neck of the bottle. This process in now largely automated, but a few traditional Champagne manufacturers still do this manually...
The following stage, the “disgorging”, involves evacuating the “lees” sediment, by freezing the necks of the bottles, forming the sediment into an icy plug, in order to lose the least possible amount of liquid.
The second fermentation, in which the Champagne’s bubbles are born, is induced by adding a “liqueur” made from yeast, rock sugar and old still champagne and/or a combination of other wines/liqueurs. Each brand has its own, jealously guarded secret recipe.
Producing exquisite champagne
The amount of sugar will determine the type of Champagne, from the “zero” with no sugar at all, barely sweet “brut” (around 6g of sugar per litre) to “demi-sec” (35 to 50g) or “sweet” (more than 50g)...
Each brand of Champagne possesses its own, unique personality. In order to guarantee continuity in flavour and bouquet, the head of each wine cellar will carefully develop their own original blend, made from an assembly of still wines from different regions and different years.
Even a dated Vintage Champagne, made from grapes from one year only, will generally come from different grape varieties (except for the “blanc de blancs” Champagne, which is made only from chardonnay). Quality champagne should have been kept for at least three years before being put on the market, but will more likely be between 6-8 years. Authentic Champagne producers will only make dated Vintage Champagne in the years that produce grapes of exceptional quality.
Champagne is sold “ready to drink”: it’s useless to buy it with an aim of further ageing it in your own cellar or wine rack to improve the flavour! Only great Vintage Champagnes can tolerate being conserved for 3 to 5 years extra without being damaged. Other Champagnes shouldn’t be left around!
Deciphering Champagne labels
It’s difficult to find your way through all the different brands of Champagne (and sparkling wines dressed up as champagne)! In order to work out who has really produced the Champagne you are buying, fix a critical eye firmly on the label.
Apart from the name of the Champagne house, and/or that of the grape grower, the type of champagne (brut, demi-sec...) and obviously the Vintage, there are other little clues to look out for.
- NM (producer-bottler) indicates a Champagne which is aged and produced by the big name Champagne houses.
- RM (harvester-bottler) indicates the wine producer who exclusively grows a unique variety of grape.
- You will also find names in the following categories CM (bottling cooperative), RC (harvesting cooperative), and finally, MA (the buyer’s mark) which appear Champagne bottles in shops, as trademarks, often in large retailers.
The art of serving and drinking Champagne
- Champagne is drunk “chilled” (at 8°C), but never icy cold.
- In order to get your Champagne to the right temperature, pop it in a champagne bucket for half an hour before de-corking with some icy water with ice cubes.
- Avoid drinking Champagne from wide glasses, which will disperse the aroma and bubbles too quickly, and will also make the champagne warm up too quickly. Champagne flutes really are the best.
- Finally, sip your Champagne (as with all wines in fact) to really appreciate its magic. If you want to guzzle your bubbles, don’t spend money on quality Champagne, go for sparkling wine instead.
- Some famous authentic French Champagne brands, with the year the brand was launched: Bollinger (1829), Moët & Chandon (1743), Mumm, (1827), Tattinger (1734).
Copyright © 2012 Doctissimo
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