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Breaking Down the Bubbles: A Guide to Champagne

I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it— unless I’m thirsty.”-Lily Bollinger

I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate…and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

As the above remarks famously make clear, it’s never the wrong time for Champagne. But at this time of the year especially – that gluttonous interval between Christmas and New Year’s that we collectively term “the holidays” – bubbles become a requirement more than just an optional luxury.

So I hope, if only for one or two nights out of the year, we’ll push aside all the false heirs to Champagne’s bubbly throne (Prosecco and Cava, I’m looking at you!) in order to drink the real stuff: True Champagne grown within the hallowed borders of the French region bearing its name.

Of course, it isn’t absolutely necessary to know a great deal about the wine in order to enjoy it – like all of life’s unambiguous pleasures, Champagne’s virtues quickly become self-evident. But with so many corks now poised to pop, it couldn’t hurt to develop a better sense of the region’s wide range of types and styles, if only the better to appreciate what you’ll be lifting to your lips come midnight.

The Grapes: Champagne’s Holy Trinity

Three main grapes form Champagne’s Holy Trinity. When blended together, each contributes its own distinctive character, but exceptional wines can be produced from individual varieties as well.

Many of us fail to realize that Pinot Noir – yes, the very same dark-skinned variety we all know and love – plays a vital role in the production of Champagne. The skins are removed immediately after pressing, resulting in white juice that carries a little extra heft and spice. Grown primarily in the Montagne de Reims area, it brings a fleshy body and richness to the blend.

If Pinot Noir represents Champagne’s “leading man,” Chardonnay would be its glamorous heroine – the Bacall to Pinot’s Bogart. Contributing delicacy, freshness and a bright acidic cut, it thrives in the aptly named Côte des Blancs, encompassing such villages as Oger, Avize and Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger.

Less prestigious than its celebrity co-stars, the fruity, early-maturing Pinot Meunier plays the role of “best supporting actor.” Boasting more extroverted aromas and flavors, it functions (with a few notable exceptions) as a pleasantly plush base wine for entry-level blends meant to be enjoyed young. Think of it as the comic relief.

Turning French Wine on Its Head

Unlike most other French wine regions, whose wines exist as the singular expression of a specific geographical place within a sole vintage, Champagne takes a different approach to the notions of terroir and vintage.

Due to the exorbitant price of property, few growers own an amount of land sufficient to offset the cost of production. As a result, they’ve traditionally sold their grapes to large négociant houses – known to locals as the grandes marques – who purchase fruit from across the region, which they then vinify and bottle at their own facilities under their own brand name.

More curious than the practice of cross-regional blending, however, is the fact that most Champagne is labeled “NV” (“non-vintage”) – the product of combining smaller percentages of reserve wine from older vintages with base wine from the current year’s harvest. In this way, much of the art of Champagne takes place in the cellar, rather than in the vineyard: the cellar master, or chef de cave, literally assembles the finished product from the materials at hand. The objective should be maintaining a consistent “house style,” to which the entry-level NV blend typically serves as a solid introduction.

Only produced in exceptional years, vintage Champagne presents a much simpler set of circumstances: Produced entirely from the fruit of a single harvest, it represents some of the most luxurious and age-worthy fizz on the market, revealing more structure and complexity than the non-vintage wines. As such, Pinot Meunier is less likely to make an appearance in these most coveted and collectible cuvées.

Decoding the Sweetness

The sweetness of any bottle of Champagne is determined during dosage, the process whereby the winemaker injects a small amount of sugar into the bottle to create the secondary fermentation that lend the wines their sparkle. Here are the specific terms that designate the level of sweetness to be expected whenever you pop a cork:

Extra Brut (Brut Sauvage): Fully dry

Brut: Dry (most Champagne will fall under this category)

Extra Dry: Medium dry

Sec: Slightly sweet

Demi-Sec: Medium sweet

Doux: Sweet

Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé

As much as I adore the wines that are harmoniously blended from all three of Champagne’s grapes, the individual varietals are more than capable of standing alone, particularly in the case of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, some of the region’s top efforts accordingly fall into two different styles: Blanc de Noirs (nearly always 100 percent Pinot) and Blanc de Blancs (by definition, pure Chardonnay).

As you’d expect, Blanc de Noirs tend to be a bit deeper and more full-bodied, with broader fruit and earthier tones, whereas the ethereally elegant Blanc de Blancs enter their lives with an electric core of acidity that unfurls over time into sublime saline and nutty caramel flavors. I suggest drinking both examples side by side to compare – purely for scientific purposes, of course.

The rosé category, which ranges in quality from the miraculously good to the laughably bad, also warrants exploration, but not without the exercise of caution.

A New Paradigm: Grower Champagne

Although Champagne still remains under the influence of the grandes marques and their practice of blending fruit from dozens of vineyards, the region’s most exciting recent development has been the emergence of  “Grower Champagne.” Over the past few years, a handful of smaller, independent, family-run domaines have started making and bottling artisanal wines from their own vineyards, bringing a revolutionary new awareness of regionality and terroir to the area. What’s more, the best examples of this small-production “farmer fizz” regularly outperform the big brands at refreshingly competitive prices.

What Champagne will you be drinking this New Year’s Eve?

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