New Year's is long gone, rung in with glasses of champagne and resolutions that probably haven't stuck up to this point. So, instead of waiting until the end of December to find the type of champagne perfect for the midnight toast, make it your resolution to try more champagnes throughout the year.
Champagne is perfectly married to special occasions, including New Year's, weddings, engagement parties, birthdays and dinner parties.
"It's relatively expensive, which is why champagne is reserved for celebrations," explains Jamie Wolff, owner of
Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan. "However, prices for champagne are near the same as a good bottle of wine. Champagne is great with food, as the tart aspect goes well with rich dishes."
Le Method Champenois
While the French monk Dom Perignon certainly contributed to advances in champagne's production, he is mistakenly credited with inventing the beverage. No one is quite sure who first discovered the drink (some uphold that it was created by accident), though its first appearance was around 1535 in Languedoc, a former province of France.
The name Champagne was legally protected under the Treaty of Madrid in 1891 to signify only sparkling wine produced in its namesake region, a mild northern province in France. This right was even reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles following World War I.
Other bubbly wines not from the Champagne region sometimes use the term "sparkling wine" on their label. Some producers even use the term
, meaning "champagne method." But regardless of whether they use Chardonnay, Meunier or Pinot Noir grapes, these wines cannot be called champagne unless those grapes were grown in the Champagne region and processed in the traditional method.
Only this region can produce the wine because the grapes used for Champagne need to be grown in an area where climate conditions favor a short growing season. The grapes can therefore be picked earlier, when sugar levels are lower and acid levels higher, yielding the unique flavor profile.
The fermentation of the grapes follows the same path as any other wine. First, carbon dioxide resulting from the transformation of sugar into alcohol is allowed to escape. This is when the blend, or cuvee, is assembled, using wines from various years to create a consistent product.
"A blend of different years is necessary because it permits the producer to maintain a consistent style," Wolff says. "If you buy a bottle tomorrow, it will taste the same as one you tasted two years ago."
The blended wine is then put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar and finally, corked.
Champagne's effervescent quality is born out of the secondary fermentation, during which the bottles are stored horizontally in a wine cellar. The carbon dioxide formed in this process becomes trapped inside the bottle, keeping it dissolved in the wine. The amount of added sugar will determine the amount of pressure inside the bottle.
The champagne is then aged for a span of a year and a half to three years, after which the bottles are rotated a small amount each day and gradually moved toward a vertical position in a process called riddling.
To view Sandy Brown's interview with Mario Rinaldi, distributor of Paul Goerg Champagne, click here
Some smaller companies take pride in doing this process by hand (which can become quite tedious), while large producers have machines that can duplicate the process with more bottles in a much shorter amount of time.
During this period, sediment gathers in the necks of the bottles. This is removed in a process called disgorging: The producer will freeze a small amount in the bottle's neck and then remove the small amount of ice containing the sediment and recork the bottle.
Champagnes are aged in cellars for three years or more before disgorgement, but most top producers exceed this minimum requirement, holding bottles for six to eight years before disgorgement. After riddling and disgorging, doses of wine and sugar are added, helping to determine the sweetness of the champagne. A final cork is then inserted, topped with a wire cage to secure it in place.
Paying the Prix
Prices of each bottle can range from several dollars to several hundred, so choose a label that will work best for what you need. However, it should be noted that any bottle of Champagne that isn't at least $18 isn't of worthwhile quality, according to Wolff.
However, "you don't get better quality with price necessarily," Wolff says. "The differences aren't that quantifiable. You can pay double the price, but that won't mean double the quality."
And keep in mind where the bottle hails from. "Small producers, or the mom-and-pop ones, are more conscientious," Wolff points out. "You tend to get a better value, on an artisan level. The care is lavished. It's more personal."
Ready to tickle your tongue? Try one of our expert picks below.
And if you can't find these champagnes at your local liquor store, try looking online at
WineAccess.com. Not only can you browse through an immense collection, there are also helpful notes on each to guide you in your selection process. Cheers!
This inexpensive selection has fruit aromas layered with the scents of almonds and toast. Don't let the price fool you on the Brigandat; it's an excellent value.
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rose Premier Cru
This pink champagne has great complexity and layers of flavor. "We love this one for its berry notes balanced with the aroma of freshly baked bread," Wolff says.
Pierre Gimonnet Cuvee Gastronome
The citrus notes and acidity act as a perfect compliment to many hors d'oeuvres, making it an excellent choice for a small party or gathering.
Pierre Peters Cuvee Reserve
This choice is a more complex champagne, with layered aromas and flavors. "You can taste a range, which keeps it more interesting," said Wolff. "It's not a static, monolithic taste."
While a little pricey, this selection has the perfect balance of baked bread, lemon and fruit notes in the bubbles and aroma.
Considered to be a great (albeit pricey) champagne, it gives a rich, complex, beautiful balance that is still intense. "It's a high-quality champagne by all the parameters," explains Wolff.