Most people at some time have tried Champagne; basically, a sparkling white wine with an expensive label.
Strictly speaking, only wine produced in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne, although this is only a French law - the Americans in particular sometimes call their sparkling wine Champagne. The Champagne region of France is situated north east of Paris.
The main part of this page concentrates on Champagne, but the buying guide includes sparkling wines in general. Also, check out the cocktail pages for recipies using Champagne.
Champagne is made by the "Methode Champenoise", which also qualifies a Champagne over a sparkling wine. The basic steps (don't try them at home...) are detailed below.
The grapes are harvested usually in late September.
Only two pressings of the grapes are allowed. The first is called the Cuvee, the second the Taille. Cuvee is used to meake the highest quality, vintage champagne.
The juice from the grapes is fermented in open vats to allow the carbon dioxide to escape, producing a still wine.
Wines from different vineyards and years may be blended. The varieties used must be Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
Liqueur de Tirage.
Liqueur de Tirage is a blend of sugar and yeast added after the blending to restart the fermentation process. The wine is decanted into its final bottle, but sealed only with a temporary cap.
This fermentation produces the bubbles - the carbon dioxide this time is kept in the bottle.
Bottles are kept for between one and six years with the bottle on its side.
Now the wines are slowly moved to an upside down position over a six to eight week period until the sediment is collected in the neck of the bottle.
The neck of the bottle is lowered into hyper chilled salt water. This freezes the sediment, and allows it to be removed without losing the bubbles from the wine.
A combination of wine and cane sugar is added to determine how dry the champagne is.
The bottles are now all sealed with a proper cork and kept for at least a year before selling.
Sweet / Dry.
Basically, the dryer the Champagne, the less sugar is in it. Champagnes (driest to sweetest) are: Brut; Extra Dry; Sec; Demi-sec. The most common style is Brut.
If the bottle has a date on it, it is a vintage. Hence a bottle with no date is not from a vintage year. Nonvintage is obviously cheaper, and usually a blend of more than one harvest. Vintage is from a particularly good harvest, and is declared by the producers. Recent vintage years for most producers were 1982, 1983, 1988, 1989, and 1990. The ultimate in Champagne quality (and price) is Prestige, which is produced from the best grapes, of the best harvest and only the first pressings. It is aged longer than average, and certainly costs more than average with prices rarely starting below 100 pounds a bottle. A well known example of a Prestige Champagne is Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon Brut 1988.
White / Rose.
Champagne is usually white unless it specifically says rose on the bottle. The pink hue of rose champagne comes from the skins of the Pinot Noir grapes, which in white champagne are pressed quickly so no colour is extracted.
If you see the words "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.)" on a label it indicates that the champagne was produced in the champagne region. The AOC is the French quality regulation.
Here are a few suggestions for a range of Champagnes and Sparkling wines when buying. (Courtesy of Epicurious.com.)
Krug Brut 1985.
Moet & Chandon cuvee Dom Perignon Brut 1988.
Bollinger Brut Grand Annee 1989.
Pol Roger Brut Rose 1988.
Veuve Clicquot Brut.
Moet & Chandon Demi-sec.
Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs 1990.
Schramsberg Reserve Napa Valley 1987.
Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut.
Korbel Brut Rose California Atlanta 1996.
Freixenet Brut Cordon Negro NV.
Codorniu Blanc de Blancs Penedes 1989.