Celebrate with Bubbly Wines
When people have a major milestone to celebrate, they choose sparkling wine to commemorate the moment. And when only the best will do, they choose Champagne. But why is that? Marc Supsic, DipWSET and partner wine expert, explains:
Bubbles are universally understood. Pop a cork and it’s a party in a bottle! Sparkling wines can be classy and luxurious, or laid back and fun. They’ll mingle with almost any crowd and pair with a variety of foods. Sparkling wine is the Swiss Army knife, or maybe, the little black dress, of wine.
Let’s talk about what makes Champagne the best and most famous sparkling wine in the world, the different types and styles available, and then we’ll talk about a few other high quality sparkling wines that are a great alternative to Champagne.
What Makes Champagne the Best?
These days, the term “Champagne” is used loosely to describe any wine with bubbles in it, but not all sparkling is Champagne. Technically, there is only one.
Not everyone knows what differentiates real Champagne from other Sparkling wines. There are two main factors: Geography, and history.
Champagne is a wine region in the north of France, just east of Paris. The climate is almost too cold to make wine, but this environment is actually the key to Champagne’s natural sparkle.
The soils are also one of a kind and the land used to be an ancient sea bed made of limestone and chalk, which gives the grapes qualities and flavors unlike anywhere else in the world.
The sheer amount of time the Champenois had to hone their craft is what gave the region a head start in the world of wine. Roman monks had been making wine here for centuries, and in 1690 we see the first mention of sparkling Champagne.
It was embraced by British nobility, used to celebrate French Royal coronations and was the house wine for the Russian Czars. This is what set the stage for Champagne as a luxury drink, fit for the most high of occasions.
Over centuries, pioneers of the region used science and technology to perfect Champagne and and with the advent of global shipping and marketing, major houses like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, and Pol Roger touted their wines worldwide, making it the most famous sparkling wine on the planet.
How Champagne is Made
Since the Middle Ages, just three grapes have been used in all Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. These three grapes are best suited to the climate and soils of the region.
Each type of grape plays a unique role in a blend, which is known as the cuvée in French. Chardonnay gives acidity, citrus and white fruit flavors to a Champagne. Pinot Noir gives it body, color, and red fruit flavors, and Pinot Meunière contributes floral aromas.
The magic that gives Champagne its bubbles is known as the Méthode Champenoise. The wine is actually fermented twice, once outside, and once inside the bottle
This highly controlled Second Fermentation seals carbon dioxide in the bottle and gives Champagne its super-fine, creamy mousse. By law, all Champagne must be sold in the same bottle it’s fermented in
Bottle Fermentation and Aging Requirements
Something else that distinguishes Champagne is Sur-lie aging. This is where the wine is allowed to rest with the yeast, still in the bottle. This gives the wine its signature toasty and nutty flavors. Some Champagnes can be aged sur-lie for up to ten years!
Different Styles of Champagne
There are a few main wine styles of Champagne and each Champagne house has its own recipe for crafting a signature style.
Nonvintage Champagne is the most popular, and it’s made with a blend of wines from different years. This approach allows the head winemaker, known as the Chef De Cave, to maintain a consistent style year after year.
Getting the right balance of flavors is truly an art form. Nonvintage Champagnes can be made with up to 60 different wines that span a decade or more in age.
Our wine recommendation: Julien Denby Brut Réserve Champagne NV
Vintage Champagnes are produced only in exceptional years and therefore are some of the best and most expensive. All wines in the cuvée (bled) must come from just one year’s harvest. They require at least three years of bottle maturing, which makes them very intense in flavor.
Vintage Champagnes can age for very long periods of time so these are the wines that collectors love to keep in their cellars.
Our wine recommendation: Philippe Fourrier Champagne Cuvée Millésime Brut 2014
Blanc de Noir
In the 1600s, Dom Pérignon perfected a technique for making a white wine from from red grapes. A white Champagne made from red grapes is known as a Blanc de Noir. Literally, a white of blacks. The flavor profile tends to be more full-bodied, lightly perfumed and has whispers of red fruits on the palate, thanks to those red grapes.
Our wine recommendation: Champagne Delfour Brut Champagne NV
Blanc de Blancs
In similar fashion, a Blanc de blanc is a white of whites. Meaning, it’s made from just Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs are usually very crisp, acidic and citrusy, often with hints of lime, green apples and pears on the palate.
Our wine recommendation: 93 Pt. Le Brun de Neuville Champagne NV Côte Blanche Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay
Rosé Champagnes get their color from extended contact with one or both of the two red grapes and is typically more intense with its red fruit and berries on the flavor profile.
Our wine recommendation: 92 Pt. Le Brun de Neuville Au Bout du Chemin Rosé Extra-Brut Champagne NV
Champagne Alternatives: Different Types of Sparkling Wines
Made to Similar Standards
So all of these fine nuances, take experience, time and labor and they’re what makes Champagne the absolute best. But other parts of the world have perfected their own versions, and often the quality is as good as Champagne, for a fraction of the price. If you love a great value, or just want to try something different, here are a few to check out:
In 1531 Benedictine Monks in the South of France created a bubbly wine of their own. This is Crémant, France’s other sparkling wine.
Crémant is made in eight different major French wine regions, and the term translates to mean, “creamy,” referring to the bubbles. As with Champagne – it’s bottle fermented and aged on the yeast – but the grapes vary depending on the region. This one here uses Pinot Blanc and this one here uses a grape called Chenin Blanc.
Our wine recommendation: Montgermont Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Noirs Brut NN
Cava was invented in the 1870s and was Spain’s homage to fine Champagne. It’s also bottle fermented and aged sur-lie, typically made with grape varieties that are indigenous to Catalonia.
Because Cava is fairly easy to find, and about one quarter the price of a fine Champagne, this is my go-to for everyday bubbles.
On brunch tables around the world, you’ll find Prosecco, northern Italy’s contribution to sparkling wine.
Prosecco is made from an Italian grape called Glera. Unlike the others, it is not fermented in the bottle, nor is it bottle aged, so it’s typically light, fruity and less complex. This is what makes it much more affordable and so ubiquitous.
Our wine recommendation: Luca Paretti Prosecco DOC NV
No matter the occasion, whether you’re celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime milestone, or a simple Sunday brunch, there’s a sparkling wine type for that!
If you want the best in the world, tap into history and savor the creamy mousse of France’s original sparkler, Champagne. For something more accessible or to try something different, grab a Crémant, Cava or Prosecco.
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