The Art of Living: A Guide to Sparkling Wines

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady

Is any beverage so redolent with allure and mystery as Champagne? Surely, no drink is as reliably expensive, nor can we think of one more loaded with joy when the cork pops. Bottles worth a vintage designation come around only every few years, while brand names like Taittinger, Nicolas Feuillatte and Perrier-Jouet ease off the tongue with imposing style.

I only drink Champagne on two occasions—when I’m in love and when I’m not.
— Coco Chanel

No wonder many of us are intimidated when it comes time to buy bubbly for a special occasion like a wedding reception. But while you can spend a lot on a bottle of Champagne, you might just spend a few dollars on a sparkling wine. So, beyond the price tag, what’s the difference?

Behind the Label
Champagne’s mystique is all about terroir, the term that describes France’s wine appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) system. It implies that the land on which grapes are grown imparts specific qualities to its wines. That’s why true Champagne wine can only come from the Champagne region, just east of Paris.

While the region is notable for its uniquely chalky soil and cool climate, Champagne didn’t become the planet’s classiest beverage simply thanks to a quirk of geography. The appellation is also a signpost for legally mandated quality control. Just three grape varietals are allowed in Champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. There are strict viticulture rules, and only the traditional methode Champenoise may be used in its production.

Every few years, when a harvest is of above average quality, that year’s grapes might be used to craft a vintage year Champagne. Otherwise, NV on the label indicates non-vintage wine—a bottle blending harvest of multiple years, closely adhering to the same house style year after year. But quality is still high: even NV Champagne cannot be sold until it has aged in the bottle for at least 15 months.

Because Champagne production is so well-regulated, it’s almost impossible to find a bad one. A $25 bottle—roughly the baseline price—will be very drinkable. But the cost goes much higher for a premier cru, and higher still for a bottle from the 17 highest-rated vineyards, classified as grand cru.

Champagne has become a particularly alluring trademark. The name has been co-opted to describe sparkling wine from just about anywhere. When you’re departing on a cruise and the captain invites you to the obligatory Champagne toast—it’s sparkling wine, not Champagne. The same goes for all but the most expensive weddings.

It’s what some call “the cheap stuff” foisted upon unsuspecting sippers that has contributed to the impression many of us have, that Champagne is—by nature—sweet. While it was once true, today’s Champagnes are quite a bit more dry and sophisticated.

Too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Alternative Sparkling Wines
While the sparkling wine produced in Champagne is widely regulated as the ne plus ultra, bubbly doesn’t have to be produced in Champagne to be good. Even in France, grapes grown a few miles outside the region cannot be called Champagne even though the bottles may contain almost all the qualities that make for great drinking.

A French sparkling wine made outside Champagne is called Cremant, and these bottles often offer incredible value. Burgundy is next door to Champagne, and a Cremant de Bourgogne will be made with the same philosophy but carries a much lower sticker price.

Prosecco is an increasingly popular fizzy Italian wine that’s regulated with a rating system similar to France’s OAC. It won’t last for years like a quality Champagne will and it’s not as suited for food pairing. But Prosecco offers excellent value and is widely available, making it a fine option for parties and toasts.

Also from Italy are Franciacorta, made using the traditional method in Lombardy; Lambrusco, a sweeter sparkling red from Emilia-Romagna; and Asti, a wine produced with moscato grapes.

From Spain comes Cava, which is subject to Spain’s DO rating. But regulations aren’t nearly as strict as in France, allowing for a less expensive final product.

Espumante is the term for sparkling wine from Portugal, while Sekt denotes bubbly from Germany or Austria, usually made with Riesling grapes.

Australia’s Sparkling Shiraz has a softer acidity and is effervescent crimson wine that has emerged as a popular option for Christmas and New Year’s.

In the U.S. sparkling wine comes predominantly from California, which produces more than is imported into the U.S. from all other countries combined. It offers real quality at the higher end, and good value may be found in bottles in the $20 to $30 range. Schramsberg, Iron Horse, and J Vineyards are among the local heroes, while Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Domaine Chandon (Moet & Chandon), Mumm Napa (G.H. Mumm) and Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer) are French Champagne houses growing and bottling in California.


Best Champagnes for your Wedding on any Budget
When planning your wedding, every detail matters—from the types and colors of flowers you choose to the Champagne you drink during the toasts.

The clinking of glasses and proposing of toasts by your loved ones is an extremely emotional and memorable part of your wedding. Your budget will, of course, determine what type of Champagne you’ll be drinking. Just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice taste and quality. Note: The prices below are approximate.

The Proper Champagne Glass
Trade your coupe for a flute. For sparkling wines, a fluted tulip glass is ideal. More importantly, because the fizz originates at the bottom of the glass, a tulip shape actually limits the production of bubbles, meaning it takes longer for your bubbly to go flat. Also, fancier Champagne flutes often have a nearly invisible etching at the bottom of the flute—that rough spot further concentrates the flow of bubbles.

Best Champagne Under $25
While it’s difficult to find French Champagnes for less than $25, it’s rather simple to find a delicious bubbly from somewhere in the U.S. or even Spain.

Two favorites include Roederer Estate Brut, $20 and Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut, $12.

Best Champagne Under $50
If you have a little more to spend on Champagne, consider the following Champagnes: Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, $50, a crowd-pleaser from France or Avala Brut Majeur, $43.

Best Champagne Under $100
Perhaps you’re having an elegant wedding serving guests with sophisticated palates. If so, the following Champagnes are sure to delight: Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial, $65 or Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, $60.

Best Champagne Over $100
If you’re willing to splurge on the best Champagne out there—after all, it is your wedding day—consider Bollinger Grande Annee Brut, $129 (so prestigious it is only produced when the best harvests occur) and Dom Perignon 2003, $160. It is the Champagne of Champagnes, and you really can’t go wrong with this classic!

Terms to Know
Here are a few essential terms to keep in mind when shopping for Champagne:

Methode Champenoise: The traditional method of making Champagne, with a second fermentation taking place in the bottle. This method produces the most complex and rewarding flavors. Ironically, the term is most commonly seen on bottles produced outside France; bottles produced in Champagne usually carry the term methode traditionnelle or method classique.

Cuvee: The house blend. Ideally, it tastes the same, year after year. This is helpful when you find a Champagne you particularly enjoy.

Prestige cuvee: Top-of-the-line from a particular house. For example, Dom Perignon from Moet & Chandon or Louis Roederer’s Cristal.

Blanc de Blancs: Literally, the “white of whites.” These light sparklers are made exclusively from chardonnay grapes.

Blanc de Noirs: A “white of blacks” wine made exclusively from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier and usually more full-bodied.

Rose: A pink hued Champagne attained in France by leaving the black grape skins in the vat with the juice (which is otherwise almost colorless) for a few days, staining the wine. Contrary to American blush wines, rose Champagnes are not sweet, though hints of fruit flavors are not uncommon.

Brut: Dry, less than 12 grams of sugar per liter.

Sec: Sweeter, as much as 32 grams of sugar per liter, but not a dessert wine, which is usually referred to as Demi-Sec or Doux.

For more information, check out Epicurious, which offers a fine primer on Champagne’s history and production.