At this time of year, Champagne is your best friend! It helps you survive the office Christmas party, the tension fuelled family get-togethers and finally the chiming in of the New Year. Choosing the wrong Champagne, or indeed ‘sparkling wine’, could be a recipe for disaster – thankfully the Wine Wankers are here to set you straight!
- Champagne is from the region in France, north east of Paris. Everything else is ‘sparkling wine’. Unless you’re referring to Cava (a sparking wine region in Spain) or Proseco (region in Italy).
- Always buy sparkling wine from cooler climates. The flavours will be more refined.
- ‘Methode Traditionelle’ or ‘fermented in this bottle’ are label clues for quality – this means the wine is made in the French Champagne style. These wines have been matured on the wine’s dead yeast cells (called yeast lees), in the same bottle it’s sold in. This imparts a lovely toasty/creamy character to the wine.
- Look for the term, ‘matured on yeast lees for xx months’. Noticeable biscuit characters will be more pronounced after 18 month’s maturation. Plus, the bubbles will be tinier and longer lasting!
- Vintage wines are said to be better than non-vintage (NV) wines. These wines (label clue: there is a year printed on the front) are only produced in the very best years. NV wines are a blend of several ‘average to good’ years; these produce a balanced ‘house’ style.
- Chardonnay dominant wines (Blanc de Blanc) are fresh and bright with citrus elements, Pinot Noir dominated wines (Blanc de Noir) are fuller in flavour, with characters of berry fruits. These are great when paired with food.
- Non vintage Champagnes generally have a lot more Pinot Meunier grapes in the mix, rather than the more premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pinot Meunier is considered a filler grape variety. Pinot Meunier isn’t planted widely outside of Champagne (the region in France).
I recommend chilling non-vintage wines to 5°C, while vintage or prestige wines can be served slightly warmer at around 8°C. The reason for this; the base wine is expected to be a lot more flavourful and complex, the warmer temperature will heighten these aromas and flavours.
When opening a bottle of sparkling wine the object is not to aim the bottle at your least favourite friend in the room and yell, “RUN!” The secret to opening a bottle of sparkling wine is to actually try and stop the cork from coming out! Only then will a gentle sigh be heard instead of a litigious pop. Also, when removing the foil from around the muselet (wire-cage), be sure to leave the foil that sits around the shoulder of the body. If you’re drinking expensive fizz, this is where the wine’s name will be and of course you’ll want to show that off!
If you want to get the most from your sparkling wine, serve it in a long stemmed, ‘tulip’ shaped flute rather than a conventional wineglass. The flute’s long and narrow shape allow the bubbles to form and rise to the surface. This shape also helps to preserve the bubbles for longer. Vintage Champagne is a different kettle of fish however, it can be served in a red wine or oaked Chardonnay glass, as it pronounces the bold flavours better.
And always hold the glass by the stem, otherwise you will risk warming up the wine with the heat from your fingers.
To pour sparkling wine correctly, hold the base of the bottle in one hand and ‘charge’ everybody’s glass by first pouring a small amount of wine into each. Now wait for this to settle before doing the ‘rounds’ again, filling everybody’s glass to about two-thirds to three-quarters full.
Before you serve your friends you may wish to check the wine is not corked. Sparkling wines are also susceptible to this plight. A ‘bad’ cork can contaminate the wine with a type of mould that makes the wine smell like wet cardboard (in the most severe cases). A slightly corked wine will merely lessen the wine’s fruit aromas. Either way, if you find the sparkling wine is contaminated you should take it back and get an exchange. There is a five per cent chance of it occurring every time.
Visiting Champagne – where not to go
In September this year I visited Champagne for the first time in 23 years – a long time between drinks! I could’ve visited Moet et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot or Mumm, but you can drink these guys EVERYWHERE! When in Champagne, you need to harness your sense of adventure. Check out these hidden gems of Champagne.
Champagne Jacques Selosse – so rare, so delicious. One of the first winemakers in Champagne to adopt the winemaking techniques of White Burgundy (ie – barrel matured and fermented base wines). This is now my ultimate, go-to Champagne.
Champagne Bérêche et Fils – the current darling of the sommelier set, this grower Champenoise uses a solera system to produce it Champagne. This is where the base wine is made from perpetual blending. What the hell does that mean!? Each year, a portion of the current season’s base wine is added to a system of reserve wines that date back to 1985. Wine from this ‘solera system’ is drawn down and added to the lion-share of the current season’s base wine. This results in a Champagne of incredible depth and complexity, while still retaining the freshness of youth.
Champagne Mailly Grand Cru – Only 17 of Champagne’s 319 villages currently enjoy Grand Cru status. Mailly Grand Cru is the only Champagne House to source all of its wines from Grand Cru vineyards. What’s more, the Champagne house is a co-operative, meaning the growers of the village own the Champagne house and share in all the profits.
Champagne Tarlant – These guys respect tradition, but hate conservatism. While they make fantastic traditional Champagne, they are also championing the three rare grapes permitted to be grown in Champagne, Petit Meslier, Arbane and Pinot Blanc. Watch and learn.
Champagne Taittinger – technically yes, this is one of the larger Champagne houses, but it’s also home to one of my favourite prestige bottles of fizz. The Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc.
Champagne Alfred Gratien – by far the best value non-vintage Champagne I tried while in Champagne. Proudly ‘handcrafted’, this means they have the ability to oversee the production and the grapes being sourced. Many argue the largest Champagne houses cannot affor
d to be picky when sourcing grapes, and this results if a less than fine wine. The first fermentation of Alfred Gratien takes place entirely in small 228 litre oak casks, which imparts a vinous, flavoursome, balanced style. Alfred Gratien is one of the last remaining wine-makers to maintain this tradition.