More than any other wine champagne is ordered by name. Who knows the difference between a blanc de blancs or a blanc de noirs, between the Côte de Blancs and the Aube or even whether it is vintage or non-vintage? Just like well-known spirits, we fall on the big names gratefully, reassured that our colleagues and friends will recognise them, too.
Yet, champagne is much more varied in style than it’s generally given credit for, a fact that’s being increasingly recognised in fashionable restaurants and bars like Bubbledogs, which serves hot dogs with a selection of so-called growers’ champagnes.
These are champagnes made by the men (or women) who grow the grapes, rather than blended from vineyards all over the region, as is the norm with the big houses (grand marques). Most champagne is made to a ‘house style’ that is designed to be consistent from one bottle to another. Taittinger and Laurent-Perrier, for example, are light and fresh, champagnes like Bollinger and Roederer much richer, toastier and more full-bodied.
The term non-vintage is not an indication of quality—or the lack of it—but of the fact that champagne is blended from a number of different years’ harvests. Most good champagnes will be aged for three years at least.
Vintage champagnes are the product of a single outstanding year—or outstanding for the producer in question as the champagne region stretches from the Marne Valley in the north to the warmer Aube region some 100km to the south. They tend to be aged longer than non-vintage fizz, the most common vintages on the market currently being 2008, 2006 and 2004, though look out for the very good 2002s, designed to be served with food.
Most champagne is based on three grapes—chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier—the latter two dark-skinned which might surprise you but they are pressed so gently the colour doesn’t come through. If a champagne is made from chardonnay alone it’s called a blanc de blancs. If it’s made from pinot noir and meunier a blanc de noirs—literally a white wine made from black grapes.
Rosé champagnes are generally made by blending red wine that is made in the region with the white juice—a technique that is tricky to get right, but, which doesn’t quite account for the hefty premium that rosé champagnes can command, especially prestige cuvees like Dom Pérignon, which fetches around £300 a bottle.
Nevertheless, like other top cuvées, it tends to be snapped up as soon as it hits the market. Champagne is now considered a worthwhile investment.
The most interesting development for champagnewatchers though is how much champagne is changing with many growers switching to organic and biodynamic viticulture. Natural yeasts, lower levels of sulphur and a lower dosage (the sweet wine solution that is added on bottling), resulting in more individual, characterful cuvées. So next time you buy a bottle of champagne you may need to think about what style you want and what you want it for, not just whether it’s a name you’ve heard of.
For more information about champagne and food visit Fiona’s website: www.matchingfoodandwine.com
1. Moët et Chandon Brut Imperial NV
You may be surprised at seeing this household name on the list, but the quality of Moët has improved out of sight since dashing ‘chef de cave’ Benoit Gouez, formerly assistant winemaker at Dom Pérignon, took over a few years ago. Available from Selfridges, £41.99.
2. Ayala Brut Majeur
Founded back in 1880 and now owned by Bollinger, Ayala is a long-established house, less well-known in the UK than it is in France, but producing a characterful yet elegant champagne with a fine mousse. From independents from £22.95, including Hennings Wine Merchants, Tanners and slurp.co.uk. A good choice for a wedding.
3. Fortnum & MASON’s Vintage Champagne 2006
Fortnum & Mason’s fizz is made for them by top champagne house Louis Roederer and this already nine-year-old vintage is a steal at £37.50. A champagne to drink with food like scallops, lobster and even roast chicken. Also available in magnums for £66.67.
4. NV Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Champagne Montgueux
This gorgeously rich, honeyed champagne is one of a number of top ‘growers’ champagnes imported by specialists Vine Trail (who only sell by the case, though it can be mixed). One to persuade you that champagne is not just for celebrations but a great wine in its own right. £29.70.
5. Billecart-Salmon Rosé
With its lovely chunky bottle and delicate taste of wild strawberries, this sommeliers’ favourite can be found in many top restaurants. At £60 it’s not cheap (available at Berry Bros. & Rudd). Rosé champagnes command a premium, but it’s perfect for any romantic occasion. Half bottles—also widely available—are more affordable at around £30. One to drink in the bath.
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Illustration by Joy Gosney