Champagne: The Ins and Outs of the World’s Most Famous Celebratory Wine

ChampagneIt’s really no secret that this is the drink of choice when it comes to celebrations and luxurious experiences. The quickest way to make someone feel special is to break out a nice bottle of bubbly and pop the cork! Buying champagne can be overwhelming and sometimes downright intimidating. With such a wide range of choices lining the store shelves, you might find yourself completely confused about which Champagne to buy for your event. Do you choose the prettiest label? The priciest bottle? Or play a quick game of close-your-eyes-and-go-with-the-one-you-touch-first?

We’ve gathered a list of the best champagne brands for any budget to give you a head start on your selection process before you head to the store.

What is champagne?

Before you start your selection journey, it might help to know what champagne actually is. Many people choose champagne because of the familiarity and popularity, not necessarily for the taste or wine properties.

Champagne is a white sparkling wine that is made in the region of Champagne in France. Many wine companies use the word ‘champagne’ in their brands or product titles. However, according to the law in European countries, only those champagnes made in Champagne, France can have the word ‘champagne’ in the title. If it is not made in this specific region, it can not legally boast the word ‘champagne’ in the title.

Commonly, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes are used to create the bubbly, so many have come to know and love. Other champagne products may use smaller amounts of Petit Meslier, Arbane, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and grapes. To achieve the bubbly carbonation, secondary fermentation is done inside the bottle after it is packaged up.

Contrary to popular belief, champagne is not the same as all white sparkling wines. One of the biggest differences is the fact that champagne must come from Champagne, France in order to be deemed “true” champagne. It really boils down to the region of creation to determine whether it is truly champagne or not.

 

What are the different levels of sweetness a champagne can have?

This is a great question and one that many first-time champagne tasters may not know even to be aware of. All wines have different levels of sweetness. To achieve certain levels, winemakers add specific amounts of sugar to the secondary fermentation process (where the bubbly is created).

Here are the different levels of sweetness you will find in champagne:

  • If you want something that is super sweet (over 50 grams of sugar per liter), you will want a Doux, Sweet, or Dulce.
  • If you are looking for something semi-sweet, a Demi-Sec or Demi-Seco is your best choice. These champagnes will have about 30 to 50 grams of sugar per liter and will give you the sweetness without overload.
  • If sweetness is something you only want a little bit of, a Dry, Sec, or Seco is the best choice for you. With anywhere from 17 to 32 grams of sugar per liter, these champagnes will give you the perfect amount of sweetness.
  • If dry champagnes are more your speed, look for labels that say Brut, Extra Dry, Extra Sec, or Extra Seco. These champagnes contain 12 to 17 grams of sugar per liter (Brut only has up to 12 grams) and will give you the dry taste you are looking for.
  • If sweetness is not something you desire from your champagne for any reason, Brut Nature, and Extra Brut are two levels that will have little to no sugar added during the second fermentation process.

 

Which levels are best paired with certain foods?

Foodies and sommeliers agree that champagne is one of the most versatile wines when it comes to pairing with foods. Due to the high acidity and lower sugar levels than most wines, champagne complements food in ways that many wines can’t even begin to do.

Sweetness LevelDelectable Food PairingsTop Brands to Try
Brut Nature or Extra BrutCitrusy seafood or bitter saladsChampagne A. Margaine Extra Brut

André Jacquart, Mesnil Experience Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Brut Nature NV

Brut, Extra Dry, Extra Sec, or Extra SecoGrilled chicken breasts, or smoked salmonVeuve Clicquot Brut

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve

Dry, Sec, or SecoLobster, crab, tuna, fried pickles, or other high fatty foods (think deep fried anything)Champagne Collet Brut Art Deco
Demi-Sec or Demi-SecoAny yellow and white fruit, blue cheese, or even cinnamonMailly ‘Delice’ Demi-Sec Grand Cru
Doux, Sweet, or DulceFruit-based desserts like raspberry creme bruleeMartini Asti Spumante

 

 

The 5 Best Champagnes for Any Budget

Buying champagne doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, there are great brand choices that will allow you to enjoy the bubbly favorite at your next celebration while also keeping your wallet happy. Here are our recommendations for the 5 best champagnes for any budget:

  1. Easy on the Wallet

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava

This champagne will give you the right amount of bubbly without causing major stress on your wallet. You will also enjoy the benefits of a dryer wine that will leave you with less chance of developing a headache the day after.

  1. Taking It a Step Up

Chateau Gaudrelle Brut Crémant d’Loire

Looking for a stand-alone champagne that will be great for toasting or keeping your glass full throughout the night? This champagne goes great with desserts or appetizers.

  1. Life of the Party

Nicolas Feuillatte “Réserve” Brut

Ready to step it up? Need to show up at an event and be the talk of the party (in a good way)? This champagne will get you as close to top-level champagne as you can get without breaking the bank.

  1. Big League Champagne

Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut

Now you’re in the big leagues with these champagne choices. You are sure to find something that will take you a step above the crowd (maybe even 2 steps). This champagne is perfect for sharing with people that are special to you such as parents, spouses, family, etc…

  1. Luxury Champagnes

Dom Pérignon by Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut

These champagnes are for the best of the best occasions. These champagnes are typically rich, creamy, fruity, and nutty all wrapped into one (expensive) bottle! If you’re looking to experience luxury like you’ve never experienced before, something like Dom Pérignon is the perfect choice for you.

How to properly store Champagne.

Keep the bottles upright. We all know that corked wines are supposed to be stored flat so that the cork doesn’t dry out and cause problems. However, for short term storage, it is best to keep sparkling wines upright.

This makes sure that the bubbles and carbonation are settled before you open it and any yeast sediment is settled to the bottom of the bottle. Again, this is only for short term storage. For long term storage, like more than a month, lay the bottles flat and then a couple of weeks before opening you can bring them upright to settle the carbonation and sediment.

Keep the bottles out of direct sunlight. Just like other wines, keep the Champagne bottle out of direct sunlight, heat sources, and artificial light.

Keep at a consistent temperature. This summer has been brutal…don’t let your wines suffer. While you don’t need to have a special temperature-controlled wine cellar, keeping all your wines at a steady and consistent temperature is important so that they don’t go through any harmful changes from too cool or too hot of temperature fluctuations. Room temperature is fine for storing all of your favorite wines.

Serving temperature: When you are ready to finally open your favorite bottle of Moet & Chandon, stick the Champagne in the fridge for a few hours before serving and set it next to the table in an ice bucket after opening. Sparkling wine is best enjoyed chilled and crisp. Sparkling wine is often served slightly colder than you would serve white wines, but whatever temperature you have your fridge at will do just fine.

How to store Champagne after opening

Never let your favorite sparkling wines go to waste! Contrary to popular belief, you can save sparkling wines without losing those precious bubbles. I don’t often have leftover sparkling wine, especially after a celebration. But here are some tips and tricks anyways to keep your sparkling wine crisp and bubbly.

Do not use wine pumps or gases. Wine pumps and gases are a great way to preserve still wines for up to a week. However, wine pumps should never be used on sparkling wines because it pumps out all the bubbles with the rest of the air in the bottle. Gassing your sparkling wine will cause the gas to get inside of the fizz and give your wine an off smell and taste.

Stopper your wine. Invest in a wine stopper. Most wine stoppers will fit all standard size still and sparkling wine bottles. They are reusable and allow very little oxygen into the wines after opening. If you don’t have a wine stopper on hand, plastic wrap and a rubber band will do the trick. Typically, you can also stick the cork back into the bottle. However, this does not work with sparkling wines because the cork expands so wide that there is no way to put it back into the bottle.

How long will an open bottle of Champagne last?

The life of an open bottle of good-quality Champagne that is stored properly is up to a couple of days. After that, the carbonation will start to dwindle, leaving you with a bubble-less bubbly.

Do you need to store vintage Champagne differently than other sparkling wines? No. Vintage Champagne simply means that all of the grapes used were harvested during the same year. Non-vintage Champagnes are common. This can mean that the wine was blended with other vintages of wine that have already aged a bit. This adds to the complexity of the wine and makes it ready for release sooner than those that have to age.

However, if it is a Reserve Champagne or sparkling wine, be sure to store it properly.

Reserve Champagne and Reserve sparkling wines mean that the wine was stored for a couple of years prior to release. You can be confident that the wine was stored properly at the Champagne houses before release. However, if you plan on keeping it any longer, be sure to use proper wine storing techniques to ensure you have the best quality wine when you choose to open it.

The wines do not have to be at a constant temperature. However, keeping things consistent and avoiding extremes is important. A wine rack or other proper wine storage is also recommended. This keeps wine organized and on their sides.

Reserve sparkling wines are delicious and they often spend time aging on the cuvees (dead yeast and other sediment). This gives them extra yeasty and bready flavors.

TIP: What about storing half-bottles? Half-bottles of Champagne or Prosecco are common. If you have extra space on your wine rack, store the half-bottles across the rack. The bottle will take up a couple of spaces but it will be with the rest of your wines and laying on its side.

Sparkling wine and Champagne is not just for special occasions and holidays either. Sparkling wines are perfect for pairing with your favorite seafood dishes and desserts. Try pairing them with your next oyster dinner or cheesecake. Sparkling wine is starting to become more mainstream with everyday drinking wines. Affordable Proseccos and Cavas have helped to make this happen. And for good reason! Good quality sparkling wines can be very affordable and are so good with food!

Did you know that a delicious Spanish Cava is only around $10? Yes, a high-quality sparkling wine can be that affordable.

Not sure about you, but all this talk of sparkling wine makes me want to dust off my Champagne glasses. Cheers!

How is Champagne made?

These two types of winemaking methods are used consistently throughout the world, although the grapes used in the wines can vary greatly.

Tank “Charmat” Method

After regular fermentation is complete, additional yeast and sugar are added into the wine (tirage). As the yeast eat the sugars, they release carbon dioxide, which causes bubbles to form. This is all done in a sealed tank to ensure the carbon monoxide doesn’t escape.

The amount of sugar and yeast that are added for secondary fermentation depends on the sweetness level you want to end up with; brut (dry) or doux (sweet).

Common Charmat method sparkling wines you will see are Prosecco and Lambrusco.

Traditional Method

The traditional sparkling winemaking method (or Champagne method or methode champenoise) is a bit more complicated than the Charmat method and requires a few more steps.

The Cuvee, or base wine used for traditional method sparkling wines is a lot more tart because sugars will be added later after first fermentation is complete.

After the base wines are bottled, sugar and yeast are added to the bottles. This starts the second fermentation process. The closed environment of the bottle ensures that the carbon monoxide being released by the yeast has nowhere to escape and creates that perfect effervescence we all love.

Next, these bottles are aged upside down on the lees well after secondary fermentation is complete. The lees are the leftover debris after fermentation is complete. This consists mostly of dead yeast cells. This adds yeasty flavors of bread, popcorn, and biscuits.

As the bottle’s age on the lees, they are also riddled (Le Remuage). While traditionally done by hand, they now have machines that do it. Riddling is the process of slowly rotating the bottles so that it collects the lees or dead yeast into the neck of the bottle.

After the lees are collected into the bottle and aging is complete, the neck of the bottle is dipped into a liquid nitrogen bath. This freezes the lee and allows for it to be disgorged. Once the cap is popped off, the frozen lee comes out.

Next, the wine is topped off in a method called “dosage” or crown cap before corking, labeling, and processing for sale.

Base wine–Bottling–Secondary fermentation–Lees aging–Disgorgement–Dosage

This is the winemaking process for Champagne, Cava, and other regional sparkling wines around the world.

Conclusion

Whether you’re celebrating something like moving into a new home or a wedding, there is a champagne out there for you. Now you’re equipped with the knowledge to take the champagne world by storm and find the best champagne for your taste buds and wallet!