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A wine lover's guide to champagne

A wine lover's guide to champagne

The pop of the cork, the foaming first glass, the elegant bubbles – there’s something instantly celebratory about a bottle of fizz. Here’s how to choose, store and serve the best champagnes.

So what makes champagne special?

Quite simply, it’s the benchmark for all sparkling wines. Whereas some traditional French wine styles have been imitated – improved, arguably – in other parts of the world, champagne remains the standard. The term can only be used to describe wines that come from one region, situated east of Paris. It’s the most northerly of France’s wine-growing areas, and the chalky soil there is key to the distinctive character of the most famous of all sparkling wines.

Three grapes are used for champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, often as a blend. There are two main exceptions to this. 'Blanc de blancs' uses only Chardonnay grapes to create a lovely, creamy champagne with pineapple and lemon flavours that makes an especially good Christmas apéritif. And ‘Blanc de Noirs’ uses only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier: these are both red grapes, and although they produce a white champagne, they give it an aromatic, full-bodied flavour that lends itself beautifully to drinking with canapés or light party food.

Understanding the label

What does NV mean?
It stands for non vintage; most champagnes fall into this category. An NV bottle includes a blend of grapes from several vintages to give a consistent house style for each winemaker. Vintage champagnes, on the other hand, are made from a single year’s crop. Not every year is declared a vintage year – which means a vintage champagne usually costs considerably more – and one vintage can taste very different from another, even if produced from the same vines. Non-vintage champagne is ready to drink more or less immediately, whereas a vintage bottle is best matured.

What does brut mean?
It refers to sweetness. Brut champagne has a low concentration of natural sugars, which results in a slightly drier taste. Demi sec is much sweeter, making it ideal to serve with desserts.

What does grand cru mean?
The wine is made using grapes from a region’s very best vineyards.

What does cuvée de prestige mean?
This is the top of an individual producer’s range, and usually applies to vintage champagne.

What about other sparkling wines?

Champagne may be thought of as a breed apart, but there are other excellent sparkling wines around, too. Italy’s Prosecco, for example – made from the grape of the same name, in the northern Veneto region of Italy – is dry and refreshing, making it the perfect party drink. Or try a Spanish cava; made from a blend of up to seven different grapes, it goes well with a range of flavours.

There are also good sparkling wines from Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa. These often use the same techniques as traditional champagne (the ‘méthode champenoise’ or ‘traditionnelle’) and are even sometimes made by subsidiaries of the French champagne producers.

In New Zealand, Brancott Estate is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc but its Sparkling Brut Cuvée NV is a great-value sparkler made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. It has lemon-sorbet flavours and a very refreshing finish. Also from New Zealand, Lindauer Special Reserve Brut Cuvée NV has ripe fresh fruit and flavours of wild strawberries overlaid with a delicate note of patisserie, and a hint of pink from the black-skinned Pinot Noir gives it an attractive blush. And from the Western Cape of South Africa, Graham Beck Brut NV is another excellent sparkling wine produced according to the traditional champagne method. It has light, yeasty aromas and is deliciously creamy.

English fizz

Closer to home, our very own sparkling wines have been winning awards left, right and centre. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée can certainly hold its own against French fizz. Made in West Sussex, where the climate and soil are similar to the Champagne region, it was crowned Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines 2010 – and took a gold medal, ahead of 13 French champagnes.

Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury, also from West Sussex, is excellent too. Just across the county border, the non-vintage Reserve Brut from Chapel Down in Kent is wonderfully soft and fruity. Camel Valley Brut from Cornwall, is delicate and refreshing, while Breaky Bottom Brut Cuvée John Inglis Hall from East Sussex has a crisp-apple freshness. Or try Surrey’s Denbies Greenfields Cuvée, a superb sparkling wine that’s round and elegant with stone-fruit flavours and biscuity aromas.

In the pink

Once rather frowned upon, rosé champagne has become fashionable again – there’s been a huge growth in sales in the UK over the past few years. It has delicious toasty, strawberry flavours and makes a great apéritif for Chritmas gatherings: the colour alone is guaranteed to put everyone in a party mood. It’s also worth looking out for our home-grown rosé, as England now produces good, refreshing pink fizz. Try Somborne Valley Sparkling Rosé from Hampshire, bursting with strawberries-and-cream flavour.

Or why not surprise your guests with a sparkling red? Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Shiraz is perfect with cold meats and buffet food. It’s good with dark chocolate cake too. Serve it nicely chilled.

Perfect pouring

To ensure the wine goes into your champagne flutes rather than spraying, Formula 1-style, all over your guests, follow our step-by-step guide.

  1. Remove the foil from the cork.
  2. Untwist the wire (without removing it), keeping a thumb over the end of the cork.
  3. Wrap the cork and the neck of the bottle in a clean tea towel.
  4. Angle the bottle away from you (and away from everyone else).
  5. Turn the bottle (not the cork) through the towel and gently untwist until you hear a pop.
  6. Tilt each glass and pour slowly into the side of the glass, until about three-quarters full.
A wine lover's guide to champagne

Storing champagne

  • If you’re buying your fizz in advance, don’t put it in the fridge more than a couple of days before you’re going to open it.
  • Keep champagne somewhere cool and dark, where the temperature won’t fluctuate too much.
  • Store bottles upright rather than on their side, so there’s less chance of the cork flying out when they’re opened.
  • If you have any fizz left in the bottle after your celebrations, don’t use a standard wine stopper, as it may pop out in the fridge. A baton of scrunched-up kitchen towel pushed into the neck of the bottle does the job perfectly, and will help keep the sparkle for a day or two.
  • If you’re given a bottle of champagne you want to save for another occasion, non-vintage usually stores well for three or four years, and vintage for up to 10 years.