The pop of the cork. The hiss of the bubbles. The whoosh of the pour. The sound of Champagne is unmistakable. After that, however, things can get a little murkier. Brut vs. extra dry. Vintage vs. non-vintage. Affordable vs. astronomical. The most important rule of thumb: While all Champagnes are sparkling wines, only sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France can be considered Champagne. “Champagne is the best wine on Earth, hands down,” says Mollie Casey, director of food and beverage for the Sands Hotel and Spa in Indian Wells. “And there are all these factors that go into making Champagne taste the way it does and also cost what it does.”
So, is Champagne worth the splurge? And how are you supposed to know which sparklers will be worth it and which will fall flat? Before you fill your flute at your next holiday soirée, familiarize yourself with all the bubbly basics.
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Go for the real deal …
That would be Champagne, which not only must be made with grapes from the region that sits less than 100 miles east of Paris, but also follow strict rules and regulations set by the appellation. That covers everything from planting practices to alcohol content to labeling to the winemaking process, including fermentation, when yeast converts sugar to alcohol and transforms grape juice into wine. Most notably, Champagne must go through a second fermentation inside the sealed bottle that creates carbonation along with a complexity and characteristics that make Champagne, well, that fancy stuff people drink on yachts and in rap videos. “There’s a very, very particular mouthfeel and flavor as a result of that second fermentation, the process of imparting more bubbles and alcohol and this yeasty bready flavor into a wine. And there’s a particular size and feel of the bubbles — tiny pinpricks on your tongue,” Casey says. “Descriptions like brioche and croissant and bakery-style flavors, that’s really only going to happen in the Champagne method of making sparkling wine.”
… Or opt for something close
You can discover solid alternatives from outside the region — from Spanish Cava to California sparkling but will have to do a little more homework. Because most Champagnes are made primarily with chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes, sparkling wines created from those same grapes often make good substitutes, according to Scott Halterlein, a certified sommelier and Coachella Valley sales representative with distributor Wine Warehouse. “Those three grapes give everything you want in a beautiful Champagne. They use chardonnay for the acidity and minerality. Pinot noir gives it some body and weight, and pinot meunier will give it fruit. So when people mimic that with the right grapes, they’re really spot on, and chances are you’re going to get a great sparkling wine in that same category but for half the price.” (Champagne rarely retails for less than $40.) Here’s the tricky part: Grape varieties aren’t necessarily listed on bottles, so you’ll likely need to ask your wine shop staffer, server, or sommelier.
Cremant, wine made in the Champagne method in one of seven regions of France outside of
Champagne, can also be an excellent affordable option, Casey says, adding the Cremant from Laguedoc-Rousillon offered at Sands’ restaurant, Pink Cabana, is the venue’s top seller. “To me, in a blind taste test, it would taste very similar to a Champagne, but you’ll get it for a fraction of the price.”
“It’s great to have a wine that lets the food shine. And bubbles do that.”
— Mollie Casey
PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES
Don’t wait for a celebration
Weddings. Anniversaries. New Year’s Eve. They’re all worthy occasions for breaking open a bottle of bubbly, but you know what else is? A Tuesday night. “It’s sort of sad that, in America, Champagne is just a celebratory beverage,” Halterlein says. “It’s one of the best wines to pair with food because of its inherent acidity and minerality. It can go well with anything and always adds a beautiful component to a meal.” And he means any meal. “I could have Champagne with my Cheerios,” he laughs. Given that most of us don’t spend our evenings creating multicourse meals with individual wine pairings, Champagne can be the catchall that complements a variety of dishes. “What bubbles do in general is clean your palate, lift whatever is on it, and carry it away so each bite can be experienced with something fresh,” Casey explains. “It’s great to have a wine that lets the food shine. And bubbles do that.”
The blush hue of Champagne rosé can be eye-catching, but there’s more to poppy pink bubbly than its pretty face. Think of it as having all of the beloved components of Champagne, but with more levels of flavor. “With a rosé, you start adding all these cool layers of straw and cassis. Immediately, with the color and aromatics, it draws you in a bit more,” Casey says of the wine that gets its color from the inclusion of grape skins in the winemaking process. “That’s why rosé Champagne is my preferred one. You get croissant, but now you’re getting strawberry croissant.”
Practice makes perfect
Champagne vocabulary can be dizzying with terms like brut, extra dry, and demi-sec used to describe the amount of sugar added. While brut, which is on the drier end of the spectrum (drier than extra dry, just to confuse things a little more), is usually a good bet, bottles within the brut category can vary wildly. “There’s still a broad range of sugar they’re allowed to add and still call it brut, so it’s all about method,” Casey says. “Brut is safe, but you also want to find a producer that balances sugar with acidity.”
You could study all things bubbly from now until Valentine’s Day, but reading about what booze tastes like doesn’t get the job done quite like tasting the stuff and figuring out your favorites (aka the fun part). “Experiment, especially with larger brands,” Casey adds. “Get a bunch of half bottles. That’s a nice way to bring the price point down and try some great stuff at home and find the Champagne that’s appealing to you.” And because most Champagnes are nonvintage, meaning producers use grapes from multiple harvests, you’re unlikely to run into the old “it was a bad year” issue as you might with other wines. “The best Champagne houses will take the best fruit of that year’s vintage and others and blend it to make a house style and perfect a consistency that you can always bet on, no matter what the year is,” Halterlein says. “Find the house style you like. That’s usually you’re go-to and you can move up from there.”
Consider the cocktail
Sure, everyone’s had a mimosa, but there are lots of other Champagne-based cocktails that can be perfect for a party and not require an ultra-high-end bubbly or all that many ingredients. Two top picks: The of-the-moment Aperol spritz is a blend of the Italian aperitif Aperol, prosecco, and soda, and the Kir Royale is gorgeousness in a glass with garnet-colored liqueur Crème de Cassis topped with sparkling wine. Indeed, the possibilities are as endless as a bottomless Champagne brunch, but if you want to impress, Halterlein offers two words of advice: Think big. “Champagne is great, but Champagne in a magnum is the best. If you’ve got a big group and a big bottle, that makes the party go a little better, a little stronger, and a little longer.”
Four sparklers to pop at your holiday party
Henriot Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne, France) $60
An all-chardonnay Champagne with bakery flavors and good minerality.
Billecart Salmon Champagne Brut Reserve (Champagne, France) $55
With nearly equal parts pinot meunier, pinot noir, and chardonnay, it’s got a straw-yellow color with flavors of fruit and a dry finish.
J Vineyards Brut Rose Sparkling (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) $45
Made with almost 70 percent pinot noir grapes, the bubbly has a pale pink hue and notes of strawberry and blood orange.
Lucien Albrecht Brut Sparkling Cremant d’Alsace (Alsace, France) $17
A 100-percent pinot blanc sparkler from a winemaker who pioneered Crémant d’Alsace production in the 1970s. Expect a golden color and floral nose.