Champagne brands – How to choose one from another
Isn’t champagne wonderful? It truly does bring a sparkle to any party, and yet when it comes to choosing between one brand or another, most of us haven’t a clue where to start. Here’s a quick- start guide on how you can begin to understand what makes all champagne brands different which will help you discover all kinds of new possibilities.
When buying champagne we tend to do one of three things:
• Stick with the brand we tried and liked before.
• Opt for a recommendation from a friend
• Buy what the waiter or barman suggests
If you always drink the same brand you will probably never be disappointed, but you might well be missing out on something new and different.
If you try what someone else suggests you may, or may not, be pleasantly surprised but don’t forget that we all have different tastes so a champagne brand that your friend thinks is the most wonderful thing they’ve ever tasted may just not be what you like.
Unfortunately when we take whatever is on the wine list we’re letting someone else make the choice for us. That’s how a lot of the big brands get to be so big. They’re available everywhere and so, if we as consumers don’t make a deliberate choice, they get to sell a heck of a lot of bottles!
There is another way and all it takes is to learn a few of the basics about champagne. Here’s the first one – ask what grapes have been used in the champagne production.
Sounds obvious doesn’t it. After all, when we buy a bottle of wine we’d usually want to know which grape varietal was used, wouldn’t we? It’s how we’ve come to buy our wine nowadays.
Well we can and should do the same with champagne.
Champagne is made from three grape varieties: Chardonnay, a white grape, and from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – two black grapes. (Actually there are others but let’s keep it simple. If you know these three that will cover 99% of all champagne that is made.)
You may be wondering how you can make white champagne from black grapes, but don’t forget that when the grape is pressed, the juice is always colourless, even if the grape skin is black.
As wine lovers, we know that different grape varieties have different characteristics and produce wine with different tastes and flavours; and champagne is no exception.
A champagne maker can blend the juice from the three grapes in whatever proportions he/she wants just so long as they get the final taste they are looking for. So we can see that the possible combinations are virtually infinite and it’s this blending of the three different grape varieties that is one of the key things that makes one champagne brand different from the next one.
Chardonnay brings flavours and aromas that are often described as like citrus fruit. When wine gurus talk of elegance, freshness and finesse, they are usually talking about Chardonnay. We could compare the flavours to music and say that Chardonnay provides the ' Treble' notes.
So, chardonnay-based champagnes tend to be light, refreshing, clean and often quite dry. They are great as an aperitif and with delicate food such as sushi and shellfish.
Pinot Noir on the other hand brings fullness, power and body to the champagne. Typical aromas associated with Pinot Noir are red fruits such as strawberries and blackcurrants.
Champagnes with a high proportion of Pinot Noir are a good match with fairly full-flavoured, gutsy food. If we use the same musical analogy as above, Pinot Noir provides the ' Bass ' notes in the composition.
The third grape variety allowed in the production of champagne is Pinot Meunier and whilst the other two are well-known outside the Champagne region, Pinot Meunier is peculiar to champagne.
Used in a champagne Pinot Meunier can bring intense fruitiness with aromas of white-fleshed fruit such as apples or pears. It’s easy to drink and difficult to dislike.
So before you buy your next bottle of champagne ask the retailer, or waiter, which grapes have been used, and that will give you a good idea of the style. If you really want to impress then ask to know what the ‘assemblage‘ is ( pronounced assomblarge). That’s the French word for blend.
If you’re thinking that this is not a fool-proof method, then you’re right. This is a generalisation and the whole story is much more complicated, but I hope it’s a useful start for you. Plus you don’t have to be a champagne expert to use this tip.
Whatever you choose, enjoy!