Champagne Kisses

December 21, 2010 9:00 am - Posted by Jody in Drink

Champagne is one of the elegant extras in life.
– Charles Dickens

As we head into the holiday season a quote from Charles Dickens the author of the seasonal classic A Christmas Carol got me thinking about how celebrated Champagne is and yet how little most wine lovers know about this delightfully bubbly drink.

Champagne is to wine like Kleenex is to tissue or Jello is to gelatinous deserts. It is THE brand.  There are a lot of sparkling wines on the market but only wines from the Champagne region of France can be legally labeled as “Champagne”. All others are simply sparking wine. The Champagne region in Northern France pioneered the method of making bubbly and then through international courts and trademarks essentially protected the rights to the name. However true connoisseurs will tell you that it is the unique terroir of the region that makes true Champagne special, not the branding. This area has a cool climate and chalky soil which is ideally suited for growing the three grapes that can be used for Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.

Champagne as a French wine is detailed and complex and so you really have to read the label to fully understand the product. Champagne comes in several different styles, Blanc de blancs means that the wine was produced from all white grapes (Chardonnay) while  Blanc de noirs means that the Champagne was produced from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two.  The sweetness level of the wine is also important to know. Extra Brut is usually very dry champagne, Brut is dry and Extra-Sec and Sec are usually medium dry wines.Champagne is also divided into Vintage and Non Vintage wine. Non Vintage Champagnes can be made from grapes from up to 3 harvests while Vintage Champagnes come from years in which the winemaker determines that the harvest was uniquely special. And now here is the trick to really understanding Champagne that I like best. Pay attention and you’ll look like a hero this holiday.

Champagne is made by either large Champagne houses like Taittinger or Moët & Chandon which grow some of their own grapes and purchase the rest, or by smaller producers who grow and bottle their own product. This is called grower Champagne and often grower Champagne exceeds the quality of large house Champagne but with a smaller price tag. Again look to the bottle for guidance. On the bottom of the front label there will be a tiny number preceded by two letters. NM (Négociant-Manipulant) indicates a larger house that purchases many of their grapes, whereas RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) signifies that the winemaker grew the grapes.

Armed with this info you can confidently pick a wine that comes from a smaller producer at a smaller price that matches your tastes and your sweetness preference. Champagne is not a generic or homogenous product but it also doesn’t have to be mysterious or overly complex.  Like all wine, my suggestion is to simply try several styles and see what you like.


8 Responses to “Champagne Kisses”

  1. NancyS says:

    Jody this is the best overview of champagne I have ever read. I never understood the difference between the big houses and growers. And learning about how the dry scale works is awesome. Why do the French have to be so confusing?

    But I love this, am printing it out and taking it to Safeway today.

  2. JohnnyO says:

    Yes I totally agree. Champagne like all French wines is more complexly marketed than it needs to be. But I think that’s what gives French champagne an allure over US sparkling. I was interested to know the 3 grapes, now I get why I like the blanc de noirs bettter.

  3. Great post! I love champagne and want to learn more about it

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  5. Aaron says:

    The most important thing to learn about champagne is that the growers producers are ALWAYS better than the big houses. Cristal by Louis Roederer is pure marketing. Try a bottle of Champagne Lanson Pere & Fils, an ancient maker of champagne for far less. And it’s a much better bottle.

  6. French Kiss says:

    Jody you always have the best blogs, thanks for making my holiday shopping easy, you’re a genius

  7. Ben says:

    I especially enjoy the Veuve Clicquot with friends. Happy Christmas!

  8. I Love your website. I’m gonna post a link on my MySpace Page!