Demystifying Champagne

How can one celebrate without Champagne?  Let’s bring out the soda pop–it’s just not the same.

Champagne is a protected name. Only sparkling wine from the Champagne region and made by the Traditional Method may have the name Champagne on the label.

There are three important grape varieties that are used in making Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.  Champagnes can be sold with a particular vintage or in most cases non-vintage. The Champagne houses typically produce a vintage Champagne only when the conditions in the vineyards have been excellent, such as in 1996.

One can buy a Champagne, vintage or non-vintage, called Blanc de Blancs, made only with Chardonnay. This category is made in smaller numbers and usually costs more than other Champagnes. Blanc de noirs Champagne is made entirely from red grapes and is not found everywhere. Rose Champagne is also sold as vintage and non-vintage. The pink color comes from the blend of using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. They tend to have more body than other types of Champagne and go well with dinner.

I thought about why Champagne is associated with celebrations and the apparent plethora of brands out there. How does one choose?  I arranged an appointment to see my friend Richard Ansah who works at Sherry-Lehman at 505 Park Ave. between 59th and 60th Streets.  Ansah is a loquacious guy with a wealth of knowledge on wine. He offered to help me demystify the selection process.

Champagne explosion

Ansah’s view on Champagne is that most of the time “the brand sells itself.” The average consumer comes into the store and asks for Dom Perignon, for example, because a friend recommended it. Or one comes into the store to buy champagne for a gift and the glitz of the packaging is important.

Advertising for Champagne appears in high-end magazines, newspapers, and billboards and emphasizes luxury. It is a luxury item with a price tag above what one pays for a bottle of decent wine.  While I was in the store, Ansah showed me two different types of packaging that really brought home the idea that selling Champagne is about high fashion. One, was a gold traveler’s case which contained a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and two Champagne glasses and the other was a bottle of Veuve Clicquot wrapped in an Emilio Pucci scarf.  Wow!  Talk about glitz and ritz.  The price tag on this last item was $199.95.

I asked Ansah for some recommendations with a budget between $75-$200. First, he asked me about my palate because it is a very personal decision. “Do you like Champagne that has floral notes?  Do you like acidity?  Have you ever tasted a creamy Champagne?  Do you prefer a sweeter, fruitier taste?”  For example, Gossett makes a Champagne that goes well with food because of its minerality.  Bollinger has a creamy taste.  If you like a slightly sweeter, fruitier flavor he would suggest Dom Ruinert.

For those who have no budget restrictions there are many Champagnes available.  Krug produces a Grand Cuvee NV which is a blend of its top vintages.  The price tag is about $145.00. It can be described as toasty, with a mineral character accompanied by bright acidity and evident fruit. Salon Le Mesnil 1995 comes from vineyard site that makes one cuvee.  This Champagne sells for about $200.  It can be described as intense and densely flavored with lime, honey and chanterelles in butter.

When you want to buy Champagne, remember it is a personal choice.  Think about what you like to taste, be specific. There are lots of choices for you.

And if you are going to celebrate a special occasion, why not learn about Sabrage to open your bottle of Champagne.  It is said that Napolean started this tradition of smashing open the bottle with a clean slice and served the bubbly to his infantry the night before a big battle.