How Can You Tell What A Champagne Is Like BEFORE You Buy It?

Let’s face it; buying a bottle of champagne is usually going to cost you more than buying a bottle of wine and if you don’t even enjoy the champagne after forking out at least £20/$30 and probably quite a bit more, that’s a bit of a disappointment – to put it mildly.

No one likes to waste their money, so how good would it be if there were a way to find out if you’re going to like the champagne before you buy it?

That way you wouldn’t have to keep going back to the same old brands whose name you know and which you may have tried before. The Moët & Chandons or the Veuve Clicquots of this world. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a disaster, but it’s not exactly adventurous either, especially if really you’d like to try something different.

Well, in fact there are four key things you need to know about a champagne before you buy it and if you know about those you’re well on your way to understanding what the champagne will be like when you open it and whether, or not, it will suit your taste.

In this short series of 4 articles I’ll let you into these secrets so you can discover what most champagne producers don’t explain and what many retailers don’t know.

Part 1

The blend of the grapes

When I do one of my champagne tastings the first questions I always ask people are

“ How do you choose a bottle of wine?”

“When you’re standing in front of a shelf full of wines – how do you decide which one to buy?”

Some people say they just buy on price; some say they look for a pretty label, but most people say that they start by looking at the type of grape/s used to make the wine. This is a simple and really helpful guide to tell us roughly what the wine is going to taste like. And fortunately on many, many wines these days, the grape variety is prominently displayed on the label.

But what do you do when it comes to champagne?

Most people don't know which grapes are used to make champagne and often there's no mention of this on the label, so that already makes champagne something of a mystery compared with wine.

In fact, as some of you may already know, in Champagne they use three grape varieties. (Actually you can use others. People rarely do these days but that’s a story for another article).

The 3 most common varieties today are

Chardonnay (White grape)

Pinot Noir (Black)

Pinot Meunier (Black)

When champagne makers are making their champagne they can blend together wines made from these three different grapes and they can do this in whatever proportions they want depending on the supplies they can obtain.

There are umpteen possible combinations and the “recipe” that the champagne maker decides upon has a crucial influence on the style and taste of the champagne when it’s finished. So, depending on what style of wine you prefer - light and more delicate at one end of the scale, to powerful and full-flavoured at the other, you need to look out for different combinations of grape varieties

Each grape variety brings different characteristics:

Chardonnay makes a champagne more crisp and light in style. It tends to have citrussy and floral aromas and tastes, plus it often has a slightly minerally, acidic edge to it ( nothing too sharp mind you, just enough to wake up those taste buds and that’s why a champagne with plenty of chardonnay in it makes a great aperitif before a meal).

As a hint, think of Chablis wine – it’s also made with chardonnay and I always think it’s very similar to chardonnay in Champagne

Wine gurus may use the terms feminine, elegant, and fresh to describe chardonnay-based champagne.

The ultimate chardonnay-based champagne is made with no black grapes at all – just chardonnay. These are called Blancs de Blancs, so if this is your preferred style, look for these words on the label. 

Pinot Noir grapes bring more power and depth to a champagne.

Typically the flavours and aromas tend to be of raspberies, strawberries, cherries and other red fruits, but what Pinot Noir really brings is a bit more oomph and weight to the champagne and a fuller, less delicate style. This quality is often referred to as 'structure'. These champagnes are fine before a meal, but can also go well with many foods too.

To give you a clue, Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger are heavy on black grapes, particularly Pinot Noir, so if  you prefer something with  a fair amount of body, then look for a champagne with a significant proportion of Pinot Noir in it.

You can buy champagne that is called Blanc de Noirs. If you see this on the label it means that only black grapes have been used so it will be an altogether different style to a Blanc de Blancs

The only slightly tricky thing about Blanc de Noirs is that as well as containing Pinot Noir it can also contain Pinot Meunier which is another black grape used to make champagne, so let's take a quick look at Pinot Meunier.

Pinot Meunier is the third grape variety.

It adds real fruitiness, typically of white fruit such as apples and pears and this makes a champagne easy-to-drink and very more-ish at any time and on any occasion.

Most champagnes are a blend of all three grape varieties, often around 1/3 of each variety. This is what I call a ‘classic blend’. If it’s well made this style of champagne will appeal to most people, offend very few and suit most occasions – a sort of ‘can’t go wrong’ champagne.

To take just two examples, I would put Moët & Chandon and Mumm into this category, but there are hundreds more.

Apart from the words Blanc de Blancs and Blancs de Noirs there’s often not much more on a champagne label that’s very helpful, as least not as far as the grapes are concerned.

Sometimes you may find the exact blend of grapes written on the back label and that's always a big help, but more often than not there’s some blurb that’s normally so vague as to be pretty useless. So you have to ask the retailer for more precise information about the blend of grapes. In my view the retailer should know this information and if he doesn’t then I’d seriously think of going to another one.

Hope that’s given you a few clues about buying the right champagne for the right occasion.

There are more tips coming up in the next 3 parts of this series and to make sure you don't miss out   - just click the RSS feed logo on this page

Stay Bubbly

Jiles Halling