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The ultimate guide to champagne

Everything you need to know: how to buy, how to serve, how to store, and how to enjoy champagne

The UK is the biggest export market for champagne, but how much do we really know about it? If you’ve ever been baffled by lables or intimidated by the sheer variety, Francoise Peretti, Director at Champagne Bureau UK, is here to set the record straight, telling you everything you need to know about buying, storing and serving champagne.

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What is champagne?

Champagne is the pinnacle of sparkling wines. The Champagne region in France where it is produced, the terroir and the people of champagne make it what it is, and have been doing so for several centuries.


How is Champagne made?

Champagne is produced in the Champagne Region, 90 miles northeast of Paris and is made under stringent regulations using the utmost care. It starts in the vineyards that are sustainably grown, then in September the harvest of the three grapes grown in Champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier) is done exclusively by hand. The grapes are swiftly taken to the nearby press houses to ensure grapes are in pristine condition when pressed.

The third step sees the golden must – all still wines are golden as the colour of the grapes is in the skin – undergoing a first fermentation in tanks. The still wines will then be tasted and blended in February/March. Once blended, the winemaker has added some yeast and sugar which will spark effervescence, and they’re bottled. The wines are stored and aged between 15 months and 10 years depending in style, then the sediments are taken off from the bottle (this is termed disgorged) and re-corked before the bottles are released onto market.


What is the ‘traditional method’?

The methode champenoise definition is a wine from the Champagne region that undergoes a second fermentation within the bottle it will be sold.


What grape varieties can be used?

The three predominant grapes used in the production  of champagne are chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier


There are so many different styles of champagne – what are the differences in taste?

Champagne wines come in a diversity of styles from non-vintage to vintage to prestige cuveé; from rosé to blanc de noirs to blanc de blancs; to sweeter styles. Each wine has a different style which is what we call the house style. Non-vintage is a blend of still wines from different years. Up to 30-40 wines are blended in a bottle of NV. By law NV is aged for a minimum of 15 months. Vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from the same harvest.

They must be aged for a minimum of three years. blanc de blancs are made from 100% chardonnay grape, while blanc de noirs from 100% black grapes. Rosé is produced either by leaving the skin of black grapes in contact with the golden must, or by adding a small amount of red still wine from the region to the golden must. Extra brut and brut champagnes are the driest styles available, whereas demi-sec is the ideal dessert champagne as it’s sweeter. Finally, prestige cuveés are the top of the line champagne. Bottled in exceptional years they are aged up to 10 years.


What is the difference between champagne, prosecco, cava and crémant?

Champagne is the pinnacle of sparkling wines and is exclusively produced in the Champagne region in France. It’s produced under stringent regulations which ensure premium quality, finesse, elegance and complexity. Each champagne house has its own house style which leads to a wide array of tastes and aromatic flavours. Champagne’s unique depth, complexity and freshness are achieved via a multitude of features unique to champagne and especially the use of reserve wines which are large collections of still wines from older years. This is unique to champagne.


What should you be looking for on the label?

Look for the word champagne to ensure you’re drinking the real thing. As there are blends of several years, non-vintage champagne has no year date in the bottle. They account for 80% of all champagne produced and therefore consumed. Vintage champagne shows a year in the label; same for blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, sec or demi-sec which will show on the label.


So what to choose for the festive season?

NV is the most versatile of styles, suitable for everything from aperitif to having with the meal or at the end of the day for a final celebration. Blanc de blancs will be the perfect accompaniment to your Christmas or January 1st breakfasts as well as a perfect match to white fish or shellfish dishes.

Blanc de noirs are robust and will pair well with turkey, capon or even venison. Rosé will bring fun to your aperitif and is an excellent match to goat or ewes cheeses. If you’re serving cow cheese, think Comté. Finall,y sec and demi-sec sweeter styles of Champagne will match your desserts from traditional christmas puddings to refreshing iced strawberry pavlovas.


What makes a good champagne?

Champagne is a seal of quality in itself. It guarantees the wine’s origin and the method.


Is vintage better than NV?

Vintage is a champagne produced with wines from the same harvest year. It is a brilliant style to pair with food due to its complexity and depth.


How should you store Champagne?

Champagne should always be stored in a cool, dry space at constant temperature, or even better somewhere temperature controlled.


What temperature should you serve Champagne at?

Champagne is best served between 8 and 10 degrees C.


How do you open Champagne (step-by-step)

There are 2 important steps to remember when opening champagne:

1. Always keep your thumb firmly on the cork once the wire cage (‘muselet’) is off

2. Always turn the bottle not the cork. The pressure within the bottle will then ease the cork off without any effort.


Why is Champagne served in a flute?

Serving Champagne in a flute is a tradition. It shows the wine and the bubbles and has a festive look.


Is it better to serve it in a flute than a coupe?

The coupé or saucer was very popular in the 1920’s, probably because it’s a very stable glass to carry in large numbers on a tray. Toda,y it’s reminiscent of flapper girls and the roaring 20s, but sadly the large rim accelerates bubble dissipation.

It’s a bit of a shame not to enjoy champagne’s lovely, tiny, elegant bubbles which take between 15 months and 10 years to create, so I’d always advise serving champagne in a flute.


Does bottle size affect taste?

It’s usual to say that a magnum is the ideal size due to ratio liquid/surface but at the end of the day, champagne is aged in the producers’cellars prior to shipping and therefore is ready to be consumed when it’s released.


How can you keep it fizzy once opened?

You can keep an open bottle of champagne for up to 24 hours as long as you use a champagne stopper to keep the effervescence in. There’s a myth that slotting a silver spoon in an open bottle of champagne will keep the fizz in. Lovely idea, but sadly it doesn’t work!


How do you taste Champagne?

It’s best to just enjoy champagne, but if you feel like ‘tasting’ it, first look at the wine, its colour, the lovely bubbles rising to the surface; then smell the delicate aromas prior to finally enjoy the wine on the palate.


Is there any Champagne etiquette you should know?

The best etiquette is to enjoy champagne often!


What is the best little known fact about champagne?

That there are over 1000 kms of cellars in Champagneand that there are currently 1.2 billions bottles of champagne slowly ageing in the producers’ cellars. And that’s a good thing!


Are there any easy champagne cocktails you can recommend for Christmas entertaining?

This Christmas, I recommend drinking champagne on its own, because it’s delicious and doesn’t need anything added to it. If you do want to try it in a cocktail, try a French 75.


What should you serve with champagne?

Champagne is a versatile wine which goes with a wide range of festive food: smoked salmon, oysters, Dublin Bay prawns, lobster, capon, chicken, turkey, any delicate white fish such as turbot, seam-bream, scallops, crab. For the aperitif, serve champagne with parmesan crisps and Marcona almonds.

In the mood to experiment something new? Pair champagne with goat’s or ewe’s cheese. Prefer cow cheese? Go for comté, fruity young or nutty aged. Christmas desserts? Think sec or demi-sec, the slighter sweeter yet fresh champagne style.

If you want to know more about champagne, download the free Champagne Campus app Champagne Campus. 


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