Champagne has long been associated with celebrations, and even luxury–yet always, as with many fines wines but with something like Champagne, in particular, there seems to be a drive to discover how to find the very best.
For others, the wine itself evokes a culinary and cultural experience. Champagne, France is home to over two hundred and fifty Champagne houses, which have come to define the region. While tourists travel from village to village, sampling the finest Champagne (or at least a wide variety on offer), they also enjoy other local treats, such as fewer biscuits roses de Reims, simply but beloved sugar cookies known for their signature crunch. In fact, these cookies are meant to be quite literally dunked in flutes of Champagne.
Since the reign of Charlemagne during the ninth century, Champagne has been prized for a history of rich agriculture, culture, and cuisine. But the impact of Champagne wine itself continues to be profound.
Just as to a degree Argentina has been prized for Malbec, Champagne has come to symbolize French culture, national pride, and tradition.
The problem? Many do not understand much about Champagne, as well known and beloved as it may be. From misconceptions as to what Champagne actually is, to simply not knowing how to find the best Champagne, or becoming overwhelmed with the sheer number of choices, sometimes it’s helpful to know what to look for.
Consider this article your guide to the best Champagne, how to select, and everything else you need to know to enjoy your next bubbly to the fullest.
Is Champagne the same as sparkling wine?
Yes and no. A common mistake many people make is assuming the term sparkling wine is interchangeable with Champagne, but in fact, it is not. Colloquially many many calls any bubbly Champagne, but there’s an important distinction.
While Champagne is a form of sparkling wine, not all sparkling wines are Champagne. In fact, Champagne accounts for just a portion of all sparkling wines.
What are the different kinds of sparkling wine?
Since Champagne accounts for just some of the global market for sparkling wine, what other kinds of sparkling wine are there? You can din sparkling wine produced around the world, more of the dry than sweet:
- Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine that comes mostly from Veneto, and is more affordable, and has a similar taste to Champagne but softer carbonation, due to being produced with a tank method. Prosecco is a white sparkling wine and tastes sweeter than its actual sugar content, with notes such as apple, melon, pear, and honeydew.
- Cava comes from Spain and is either white or rose, and like Champagne, is produced using a traditional method. Cava is made from Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel·lo grape varieties, but the same grapes used for Champagne are also sometimes added. Floral and citrus notes are common.
- Lambrusco is another Italian sparkling wine but is a red wine, exhibiting a deeper purple hue with bold acidity and highly fruity flavors such as blackberry, cherry, and touches of flowers. It comes dry and semi-sweet and tends to be fairly inexpensive.
- Moscato is a sweet, white sparkling wine from Northern Italy that is known for its signature citrus flavors of Meyer lemons, mandarin oranges, blossoms, and honeysuckle. The level of sugar is prominent and bubbles are softer and subdued.
- Riesling: This German sparkling white wine comes from the Rhine region and presents with highly perfumed notes, high acidity, and can come dry, semi-dry and even sweet.
- Other varieties include, but are not limited to Cremant (any French sparkling wine outside of Champagne); Franciacorta (Italian, full and ripe but expensive and low acidity); and American sparkling wines, which technically can include any grape varieties.
What makes a sparkling wine Champagne?
To be classified as Champagne, the wine must be produced in the Champagne growing region of France. In fact, there are even further restrictions in terms of labeling.
All Champagne must be made of the following grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Any sparkling wine that does not come from Champagne and contains any other grape varieties cannot be considered true Champagne.
Are there different varieties of Champagne?
Yes. Champagne comes in primarily one of three varieties, depending on the grape varieties selected. The term cuvée refers to the base of grapes used to make the Champagne:
- Blanc de noirs: Blanc de noirs translates as white of blacks and is made using Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
- Rosé wines, or Pink Champagne: Pink Champagne adds just a touch of Pinot Noir or allowing dark juices to macerate to produce a rosy hue.
- Blanc de Blancs: Blanc de Blancs means white of whites and can be made only with Chardonnay grapes.
How is Champagne made?
Champagne is also distinguished from a number of sparkling wines due to its method of production. The production of Champagne is rather painstaking, ad adheres to rather stringent standards.
- First, the cuvée must be selected, and the subsequent grapes harvested.
- Next, still, white wines are blended together to form a base. This process is sometimes referred to as “assemblage”.
- Champagne must undergo two fermentation processes–which is what distinguishes what is termed a ‘traditional’ process. The first fermentation occurs either in a cask or in a tank with the base, still white wine. For the second fermentation, sugar and yeast are added, which forms the tirage. The wine is tightly sealed in a glass bottle and stored in a cool, dark place.
- Aging is prized for Champagne, and while much of the Champagne is aged in oak, it is not always. Aging typically occurs for at least several months, but several years, at least five is more preferred.
- During Riddling, residual yeast that is no longer active is removed. In order to ensure all excess yeast is removed, bottles are held at a sharp angle. One step not everyone may be aware of is disgorging, which requires the bottle to be placed into an ice bath.
- Dosage is added in order to add sweetness, as desired. Finally, the Champagne is corked.
What does Champagne pair with?
Another excellent feature of Champagne is that it pairs beautifully with a wide variety of foods. Here are just a few great food pairings:
- Creamy foods, such as luxurious cheese like Brie; mascarpone; cream-based sauces; and, for less dry Champagne, even buttery cookies like shortbread. Best Champagne for these foods and some meats are Blanc de Noirs.
- Fruit and light fruit desserts, including fresh fruit salad, tartes, and crepes. A Pink Champagne with a bit of sweetness is best.
- Light seafood including shrimp, delicate white fish, lobster, and other shellfish. Occasionally it is paired with smoked salmon. Best Champagne for this is Blanc de Blancs.
How do I find the best Champagne?
Finding the best Champagne can be a subjective process, but there are some factors that can tip you off to better versions. Let’s take a look:
How do I make sure it’s true Champagne?
Although we’ve mentioned this earlier, this point merits repeating. Champagne only comes from the French region of Champagne; all others are sparkling wines. So make sure the wine’s description not only mentions France as the country of origin, but that it is verified Champagne.
Does acidity matter?
Acidity actually matters a great deal when it comes to Champagne. The best Champagne is prized for crisp, firm carbonation. The signature bubbles is partially what distinguishes Champagne from other sparkling wines, and higher levels of acidity is what gives that crisp, tart and defined characteristic in part. Higher levels of acidity are achieved by grapes that are harvested early in the season. Of course, not all Champagne may note this, but it’s an added bonus. Also keep in mind that Champagne, depending on the level of sweetness you select, may actually still not come across as highly acidic. However, do keep in mind that aging softens acidity–so while you want initially high levels, it should be noticeably softer by the time it’s ready to be purchased.
Is there any other way I can make sure I have the best bubbles?
Yes. Besides noting acidity, you can tell how refined the carbonation is by the Champagne’s appearance. The bubbles should actually appear quite small.
What do I need to know about sugar levels?
Here’s where it gets a bit tricky, and arguably rather subjective. Champagne is classified generally in one of seven different levels of sweetness:
- Brut Nature and Extra Brut are the most dry versions of Champagne you can find. At the driest, there are no residual sugars at all, up through six grams per liter. This type of Champagne was be especially strong, tart and crisp. While this may be your best option if you care most about clean, crisp carbonation, for many it can come off as a bit strong, and you do get a bit less of those richer elements some prize in Champagne (more on this in a moment)
- Brut, Extra Dry and Dry are the three next categories, all of which are still dry but noticeable less strong. In fact, these might be among your best bet in terms of balance. Adding sugar softens the sensation of acidity, but too sweet and you start to lose that crisp refreshing finish. Brut Champagne can contain up to twelve grams of sugar per liter, and dry can contain up the thirty two grams per liter.
- Demi Sec and Doux are the sweetest you can select. While these versions may be more inviting for anyone not accustomed to Champagne, they may not be the best option in terms of enjoying all the best characteristics of Champagne. Even if you are going for a more creamy vs crisp rendition of Champagne, a dry Champagne does a nicer job of providing some balance and keeping a prominent note on crisp bubbles.
What’s the deal with vintage vs non-vintage Champagne?
Vintage Champagne indicates that you’re getting a wine that’s been aged for a longer period of time, and it should have a darker hue, while younger, non-vintage Champagne will be light in appearance. All vintage Champagne must legally be aged at least thirty-six months or fifteen months for non-vintage. Vintage will be more expensive, so is it necessary? In fact, non-vintage is generally a blend of grapes from the new harvest and older ones. Vintage wines account for as little as five percent of all Champagne production.
- If you want a truly refined and unique Champagne, vintage is preferred. But the bottom line is that vintages are hard to find, quite expensive, and not even always preferred.
- If you want a familiar and classic experience, a regular Champagne should suit you just fine.
Is aging necessary?
For the best Champagne, yes. In fact, by law, all Champagne must be aged for a minimum of fifteen months (thirty-six, as we have mentioned, for a vintage). Since Champagne requires initially high levels of acidity, aging helps soften it and make the Champagne more complex, round and rich. Aging in oak will add toasted, buttery and vanilla notes. The longer Champagne is aged, the richer and more complex; the less time you have a lighter, more bright Champagne.
If you want the very best Champagne has to offer, look for a Champagne that has aged a little longer than fifteen months, but not many years. That’s because while Champagne that has been aged for many years may have richer flavors and a richer hue, it loses the brightness to its carbonation. Too little aging, however, does not bring flavors to full fruition and acidity might be too sharp, especially if you’re opting for a brut variety.
How do I select from different varieties?
As we mentioned earlier, Champagne comes in one of three main varieties: Blanc de Blancs; Blancs de Noires, and Pink Champagne. This matter comes down not to what is best so much as a matter of personal preference.
- Blanc de Blancs is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes and presents with fresh lemon flavor notes, as well as touches of apple.
- Pink Champagne has a rosy hue and is a brighter, more acidic variety, featuring light red fruit such as strawberries and raspberries. Because of these qualities, shy away from extra brut and opt for dry or off-dry.
- Blanc de Noires is made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, or only one of these and has white and red raspberry notes but is less acidic.
What about specific regions?
Does it matter? Champagne is also labeled based upon its region. On the bottle who should see one of three distinctions: Premier Cru, Grand Cru, or Cru. You may also see Autre Cru or other Cru. Many are linked to not only the producer themselves, but also the overall quality of soil and land, which can impact overall flavors, quality, and health of the grapes being produced.
- Premier Cru is the highest rating possible and accounts for just forty-two vineyards. It is the highest distinguishment possible, reserved for the very most venerated producers in the nation. These, many might say, are the very best Champagne bottles available, but they also happen to be the most expensive and rarer.
- Grand Cru and Cru are the next levels of distinction down, and still highly favored. These are all considered quality Champagne, and while not as esteemed technically as top tier Premier Cru, they tend to be more reasonable in price point.
- Try to avoid Autre Cru. That isn’t to say there aren’t decent Champagne bottles, but if you want the best, and you haven’t selected Champagne much in the past, your safest bet is to stick with one of the other three classifications.
Can you recommend any specific Champagne?
Finally, let’s take a look at some Champagne you might consider trying. Keep in mind that we’re sticking to relatively affordable bottles–all of our choices will be under a hundred dollars–so you can find very fine Champagne at higher price points.
- Perrier-Jouet Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, Champagne, France: This non-vintage Champagne presents with bright, lively bubbles and lemon notes with a few wildflowers. Described as effervescent but also full, this is a great value at under a hundred dollars and some of the best qualities of a Brut Champagne.
- Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial: Looking for Pink Champagne instead? This bottle is crisp, bright and presents pronounced carbonation. Although fresh, it also feels well rounded and complex enough, and is a great option for serving with appetizers and is produced by one of the most prominent makers of Champagne.
- Champagne Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve: An excellent choice for a pleasing and balanced Champagne, with both bright acidity and richer, buttery notes. Citrus and pear flavor notes are accompanied by hazelnut, buttery notes, melon, and yellow apple.
- Bollinger Brut Special Cuvee: Fine carbonation, ripe flavors, and nuanced complexity are some of the first characteristics you’ll notice. Peaches, apple, and a blend of roasted, slightly spicy and ripe fruit notes make it a natural pairing with sushi, shellfish, lobster and even creamy parmesan.