"Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right," said Mark Twain, and he was bang-on. Champagne is our go-to drink for celebrations, during the festive season and at New Year's Eve. But how much do you really know about what you're tasting, what to expect in terms of flavour and food matching, and how to serve it? We debunk some myths and give some top tips to better drinking.
We're assuming you know how to work the cork out of a champagne bottle, but for a more impressive demonstration what better way to ring in the new year than skilfully slicing the top off a bottle of champagne, using the traditional art of sabrage? Check out our video, with the capable Simone Caporale, from Artesian bar at the Langham hotel, London, demonstrating that you don't even need a sword.
Is the champagne you're tasting from the Marne Valley or the Montagne de Reims? Is it from an area of Champagne with soil rich in chalk or clay? The geographic origin of the grapes will certainly have an effect on the taste as the soil and sub-soil in which the vines thrive contribute directly to flavour profile.
The aptly-named Côtes des Blancs (White Slopes) is an escarpment with distinctly high levels of chalk in its soils, producing some of the finest chardonnay grapes used in the production of champagne wines. Wines from this area tend to be brutally linear, sharp and wonderfully palate-whetting. This is in direct contrast to wines from the Montagne de Reims; whose chalky soils are mixed with sub-soils of clay and limestone, giving extremely favourable growing conditions to Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are grown here as well, but in relatively smaller quantities.
Naturally, each of the four sub-regions (Vallee de la Marne, Côtes des Blancs, Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar) takes pride in the 319 wine-growing communes (or cru, pronounced 'kroo') they share between them. 17 of these have been designated Grand Cru, 42 Premier Cru and most consumers of Champagne give little thought to these villages; mainly due to the fact that Champagne marketing obsessively focuses on brand name rather than locality.
In fact, the famous wines of Bollinger and Ayala however, would be nothing without the vineyards of Aÿ - one of the Marne Valley's Grand Cru villages. Mesnil-sur-Oger is a Grand Cru village situated in the Côtes des Blancs. If it sounds familiar, it might be because it plays home to Clos du Mesnil - a famous vineyard for the house of Krug. The mythically fabulous Salon also has its vineyards in Mesnil, producing wines that reflect some of the most profound and delicate expressions of chardonnay.
As with most wines, even non-vintage champagne will benefit from some extra time in bottle, so next time you buy a couple of bottles or a case of non-vintage champagne, try keeping them in the cellar for a year - it will be worth the wait.
According to French appellation rules, champagne must be aged in bottle for a minimum of 15 months, 12 of which should be spent on lees, in order for its flavor to develop fully. Vintage champagne must be aged for at least three years before being released, although many producers choose to prolong this period.
The interaction with the lees is crucial, composed as they are, mainly of residual yeasts that have formed a deposit in the bottle once the 'prise de mousse' has taken place following the second fermentation. Even though the bottles are under crown caps at this point, an infinitesimal amount of oxygen will be seeping through the closure and interacting with the molecules of the wine, slowly transforming the taste.
This combination of absorption of yeast, maturation on the lees and slow oxygenation of the wine contributes massively to the tertiary notes of champagne; showing floral and fruity in young wines and ripe, cooked and dried fruit in more mature wines.
Grape variety is key when tasting champagne. Chardonnay vines constitute 28 per cent of the total planted and offer delicate floral notes as well as citrus and minerality; chardonnay also has excellent structure for ageing. If the champagne you're drinking has a biscuity, lemony, brioche character, chances are it's chardonnay-dominant.
Pinot Meunier constitutes 33 per cent of vines planted and is a hardy, slow-ripening grape variety. It is the least-championed of Champagne's contributors but is essential for supple and rounded flavours. Pinot Noir brings power and complexity to champagne - on its own it displays subtle notes of red fruit - berries, cherry and plums. Blended, it can bring a raciness and an edge to these wines that matches them very well with food.
Residual sugar contributes massively to flavour. The general consensus is that champagnes with a lower percentage of sugar are preferable to drink before dining as sugar has a tendency to coat the palate. Why not try a young, extra-brut champagne next time you're drinking champagne before dinner?
Most of us tend to drink Brut champagnes and these should carry less than 12 grams of sugar per litre. There has been a trend recently for extra brut (anything between 0-6 grams) and zero dosage (between 0-3 grams). Try a brut with starters such as smoked salmon or Parma ham. Champagnes with a higher dosage work better in richer dishes, with creamy sauces, say. And there's nothing wrong with a little demi-sec 'dessert' style champagne and a tasty crème brûlée.
Temperature when tasting champagne is absolutely crucial. Too warm and the acidity will rise to the surface and the bubble will start to dissipate. Too cold and the entire character of the wine will be masked.
The ideal serving temperature for champagne is anywhere between 7-10°C. Drier styles benefit from being slightly colder and richer from being slightly warmer. That being said, personal preference trumps standard serving suggestions, so if you want to drink your champagne ice cold, go ahead. We'll just be judging you from afar...
If you're not up to performing sabrage, then follow these simple rules, and bear this in mind: a German scientist has registered the speed of a cork leaving a vigorously shaken bottle of champagne at 40 kilometres per hour, and theorized that corks could reach higher speeds if exposed to heat.
Whether you've shaken the bottle or now, your hand should be on the cork at all times. Remove the foil. Place your hand over the metal cage that covers the cork and extends down over the neck of the bottle. Keeping your hand firmly on top of the cage, undo the metal clasp.
Once the cage has been opened, hold the bottom of the bottle with one hand and twist slowly, still holding the cage over the cork with the other hand. You should be twisting the bottle rather than the cork. No need to remove the cage. You won't be able to prevent the cork from shooting out of the bottle, but you will at least be able to feel it happening, whilst advising anyone else in the room to duck and cover.
Flutes, coupes or wine glasses? Traditionally, champagne is served up in long, slender flutes. The idea behind these is to trap the effervescence of the wine in the neck of the glass, as well as the delicate aromas. This does work in most instances, but it doesn't really cater for fuller-bodied or richer champagnes.
You may prefer to drink champagne in small, tulip-shaped glasses as they allow a bit more air into the wine. There are of course, the old-fashioned coupes that seem very glamourous in an old-fashioned sort of way. Sadly, they don't do much for the champagne as the sparkle evaporates far too quickly. However, if you're a quick drinker and you're feeling a little like Cary Grant or Marylin Monroe then why the hell not.
For superb and old vintages, they can even benefit from being decanted prior to serving. I once had the great fortune of tasting Bruno Paillard's Nec Plus Ultra 1990 at a time when it was already 15 years old. It was served by the extremely talented David Ripetti in the lovely Mirande hotel in Avignon and I initially watched in horror as he decanted it into a carafe. As it turned out, it was a great call - the wine needed a little aeration and the exposure did not kill the bubbles.
Lily Bollinger drank champagne only when she was happy, or sad, or hungry, or when eating, but mostly when she was thirsty. Too often, champagne is set aside for special occasions or that 'perfect moment' when nothing other than champagne seems appropriate.
This is possibly in part, to do with the price associated with champagne, but think of the quality of wine you're drinking for the price, the expression of terroir, the centuries of craftsmanship and the wonderful myth of an 'accident' that brought stars to the eyes of a certain monk named Pérignon. If you're wondering whether it's the right time to open a bottle of champagne, perhaps the luxury of drinking champagne should be occasion enough.
Most of us are more than familiar with big name brands but here are five others to try:
- Bruno Paillard Brut - soft, subtle, good sugar dosage - perfect on its own
- Duval-Leroy, cuvée Paris NV - impressive looking bottle at brut pricing. Tastes like fresh shortbread with a hint of lemon posset
- Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV - a fresh, buttery champagne that goes surprisingly well with smoked salmon
- Delamotte Brut NV - sister champagne to Salon at a price that mortals can afford. This is dry as a bone, fresh as a daisy and perfect with seafood
- Ayala Brut NV - made with grapes from the Grand Cru village of Aÿ, Ayala shares a fence with Bollinger. Delicious with strawberries.