With New Year’s Eve just days away, we conclude our Tasting Tour of French Wine with the region of Champagne to get you ready for a bubbly celebration. Today Cortney Roudebush shares all about the region, what differentiates Champagne from sparking wine, and tells us how to read a Champagne label.
Later this week Steve Gross will share his thoughts on a few Champagnes he tried. (For a sneak peek, here’s a shot of one Champagne we tried together with an unconventional pairing we enjoyed.) Between the two posts, you’ll be ready to toast in the new year in style…
A Tasting Tour of French Wine: Champagne
by VineSleuth California Correspondent, Cortney Roudebush
The next time you plan a trip to France, be sure to set aside a day or two to explore the beautiful countryside of Champagne. This famous winegrowing region, located northeast of Paris, is particularly beautiful and offers many unique wine-tasting opportunities.
Reims, the former capital of Champagne (pronounced rahhnse and loosely rhymes with “wants”), is teeming with medieval architecture and world renown Champagne houses.
A little more than an hour’s train ride from Paris, Reims is the ideal destination for a day trip. You can stroll the historic city’s cobblestone streets, admire the eponymous cathedral, and taste the wines of well-known producers like Mumm, Veuve Cliquot, and Tattinger.
If a trip to France isn’t on your to do list this winter, you can still get into the holiday spirit with a bottle of Champagne. Nothing says “celebration” like popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly. Here’s what to consider before investing in a nice bottle of bubbles:
The distinction between Champagne and sparkling wine
Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne. To be considered as such, the wine must be produced in the region of Champagne.
Other types of French sparkling wine are called cremant, which is the word used for sparkling wine made in France outside of the Champagne region. For example, Cremant de Bourgogne is sparkling wine made in Burgundy. Prosecco is what Italians call their bubbly and Cava is what the Spanish call their version. If you’re referring to anything produced outside of France, call it “sparkling wine” just to be safe.
The only three grape varieties allowed in Champagne production are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The first two are varieties I would bet you’re familiar with, but Pinot Meunier doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight. Like Pinot Noir, it is a red grape. It ripens earlier than most varieties, which can be beneficial in the cooler regions of Champagne. In a wine blend, it adds fruity flavors and aromatics.
How to read the label
NV stands for non-vintage. This means that the grapes used to make the wine were not all harvested from the same year. To be more specific, wines made from different vintages are blended together to create a uniform, “house” style year-to-year. A non-vintage sparkler is designed to be enjoyed upon purchasing. Vintage-dated Champagnes are more expensive and can withstand cellaring.
Brut (rhymes with boot) means the wine is dry and is the most common, food-friendly style.
Extra-dry actually means it is slightly sweet, but not technically considered a sweet wine. This style is great paired with rich, salty cheeses after dinner.
Demi-sec is sweet and best with dessert or in lieu of dessert.
Blanc de Blancs translates as “white of whites,” which means the wine is made completely of Chardonnay. This type of sparkling wine will have bright apple or citrus notes with lively acidity and may have yeasty or toasty notes. Try the Lancelot-Pienne Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($34.99, klwines.com).
Blanc de Noirs translates as “white of blacks,” and tells us that the wine is 100% Pinot Noir. Sparklers made from Pinot Noir often have soft, red fruity notes. The juice and pulp inside every grape is clear and doesn’t have any color to it, regardless of the color of its skin. A white wine made from red grapes tells us that the juice was pressed from the grapes and didn’t have any contact with the skins.
Rosé Champagne is made the same way still rosé wine is made; the pressed juice is allowed contact with the skins and absorbs enough color to make the wine pink. Canard-Duchene Authentic Brut Rosé is a delicious pink bubbly ($39.99, wine.com).
Cuvée is another word for blend. A Cuvée de Prestige is a premium Champagne with or without a vintage date. Think of it as the best a producer has to offer, like Dom Perignon from Moet et Chandon, Cristal from Louis Roederer, or La Grande Dame from Veuve Cliquot. These types of Champagne come with a significantly higher price tag. The Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée is fantastic without the exorbitantly high price tag ($61, fpwm.com).
There are many amazing Champagnes out there in the $30-$50 price range. If you’re looking to spend $15-$30, opt for something sparkling from Spain, Italy, or California (Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa Valley are always a great values). Cheers!
Cortney Roudebush is a writer, wine lover, and social media specialist. She is the creator of the website, Sip Swirl Savor, and she enjoys wine of all varieties, cooking and gardening, travel (especially to wine country destinations), and tennis.