The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Champagne 101

Posted on | December 28, 2011 | Written by Francesco Vigorito | 2 Comments

Champagne goes down easy—even to those of us who find its labels a bit inscrutable. Champagne has many words and phrases that can feel a little tricky, but everything is there for a reason. Once you grasp a couple of key definitions, you’ll see that it’s easy to be fluent in the language of Champagne. While there’s no need to be a sommelier to enjoy wine, having peripheral knowledge will allow you to appreciate what you are drinking and will also help you find value, choose your favorite styles and discover food pairings.

Firstly, let’s define Champagne. Champagne is the toponym of one of the most northerly wine producing regions in France. The reason why a sparkling wine is produced here is that it’s too cold to produce substantial still wines, although there is an AOC that encompasses still wine production. The cold weather barely ripens the grapes in most vintages and thereby preserves the grapes’ high acidity.  In order for the wine to gain more body and flavor, the still wine is made sparkling. This sparkling character adds complexity, body and deliciousness that would otherwise be reticent in a still wine made from the same grapes. (For a more in-depth look into how Champagne is made check here.)

Blank on Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noirs?

There are three main styles of Champagne, which can theoretically come from six varieties allowed by law; these styles are Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the three primary grapes associated with Champagne, although there are three more that rarely appear: Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, and Petit Meslier.

“Blanc de Blanc” is a term that you will see on a label and is really quite easy to understand. Blanc de Blanc, or “white of whites, “denotes a style of Champagne that is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. This type of wine will be very creamy, elegant, aromatic and slightly light in body.  Opposite of this style is Blanc de Noirs, or “white from blacks.” Though we associate red grapes and red wine, it is possible to make white wine from black grapes because all grape juice is essentially colorless; the color comes from the grape skins. Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are the two grapes allowed in this style.  These wines will tend to be more full bodied, richer and slightly less acidic. Rosé is also made by adding still red wine to the final blend or by the saigneé method, which is when the skins and pulp of the black grapes are left to macerate on the juice, thus tingeing the clear juice pink.

Champagne also comes in varying degrees of sweetness. After disgorgement, or the removal of the lees, a dosage is added to the wine. The dosage consists of a sugary liquid created by a specific recipe.

The varying degrees of sweetness:

What all of this information means to you, the wine drinker, is that you can choose the sweetness or dryness of your champagne within a really clear margin of error. If you know you want a very dry wine, you look for Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Nature. And if you want sweeter Champagne, you go to the other end of the spectrum.

A Perfect Pair

This spectrum of choice brings us to our next dilemma, which is what to pair with Champagne. The great thing about this wine is that it’s incredibly flexible and complements a wide variety of foods.  In fact, Champagne’s acidity, aromatics and effervescence allow it to be paired with just about anything.

Sushi and Blanc de Blancs is spectacular combination that melds the freshness and elegance in both items; this pair is one of my favorites.  Look to pair a Blanc de Noirs with mushroom crostini—mushrooms and Champagne are classic together. In general, the dry styles of Champagne (Brut Nature and Brut) pair wonderfully with simply prepared lake or ocean fish, shellfish, mollusks and cheese. Look to pair tangy goat cheese with a bright and crisp Champagne, and aged cheeses like gouda, cheddar and Parmigiano develop nutty and sweet flavors that parallel the nuances in aged Champagne; it’s especially stunning with Langres, a cow’s milk cheese that’s soft, creamy white and slightly crumbly.  Also, it’s worth noting that Champagne is one of the few wines that work well with eggs. There’s a reason why Champagne is served with brunch, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t serve it at night with a soufflé or a quiche.

While Champagne is fabulous with everything from endive soup to macadamia nuts, do be aware of its limitations. For example, don’t pair sweet items with dry styles of Champagne. The sugars of the food will occupy your sweet receptors, thereby killing any of the wine’s sweetness.  Indeed, the acid of the Champagne will take the front seat and be quite overwhelming. Also, the only foods that do not bode well for Champagne are red meats and anything too cold. Ice cream floats, for example, are best saved for root beer. Do enjoy Champagne’s sweet styles with basically any sugary substance that you can conjure up—fruit tarts, fresh fruit, and poached apples make angelic pairings.

Consider yourself a proud graduate of Champagne 101.

Now pick your favorite pairing, pop a cork and enjoy the magic!


2 Responses to “Champagne 101”

  1. Henrik Sandin
    December 28th, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    FYI, it’s Pinot Meunier

  2. Francesco
    December 29th, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Indeed it is Henrik! Can’t win them all!

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