What is Champagne?

The simple answer is that Champagne is both a wine and a wine producing region around 90 miles east of Paris, in France. A more complicated answer might be:

Champagne - the Wine: An almost magical wine with subtle charme that is created using the methode traditionnelle or traditional method that involves both experience and the favor of God. Champagne is a hand-made wine created using the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes either alone or in blends of two or all three. There are different types of Champagne, each distinct in both its ingrediants and its quality.

Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne: Made from a blending of grapes, and can include grapes blended from a number of years or grapes of the three types blended together in particular measures. This is the most often consumed Champagne because it is blended to be consumed right away, its taste the product of the vintners art and understanding of the grapes and method.

Vintage Champagne: Created using grapes from one specific year, and in many cases from one specific vineyard, vintage champagne is more an investment of time and patience than it is a bottle you would consume right away. When a vintage is released to the sellers it is usually already five or more years old having been aged in the cellars of its creator, but contrary to all of the many casual experts, it is not ready to drink, rather it is ready to go into your own cellar where it will need to age in the bottle for a few more years to even decades.

Prestige Cuvée: Champagne created using grapes from one specific year, from the first pressing, and that has aged for a longer period of time. Make no mistake, when you purchase this sort you are making an investment that will not really pay off for decades. Make room for this in your cellar, and treat it as if it were a baby born on the day you bought it that needs to be at least 21 years old before you consider drinking it. That is if you want to experience the full measure of its potential...

The difference between the three types is vast in quality and taste, and often considerable in price, but choosing the type is more a question of why the wine is being consumed than it is a question of what is best.

The more famous of the Houses of Champagne also happen to produce the largest percentage of Champagne sold each year, though the competition is not as fierce as you might imagine mostly because there are specific differences in the types of wine they create. The primary Houses of Champagne, their locations, and signature wines are:
  • Bollinger (Ay) - La Grande Annee, R.D (Récemment Dégorgé), Vieilles Vignes Francaises.
  • Cattier (Chigny-les-Roses) - Clos du Moulin
  • Charles de Cazanove (Reims) - Stradivarius
  • Charles Heidsieck (Reims) - Blanc des Millénaires, Brut Reserve and Vintage, Vintage Rose.
  • De Castellane (Épernay) - Commodore
  • G.H. Mumm (Reims) - Mumm de Cramant, Cuvee R. Lalou, Cordon Rouge
  • Heidsieck & Co Monopole (Épernay) - Diamant Bleu
  • Joseph Perrier (Marne) - Cuvee Josephine, Cuvee Royale Brute
  • Krug (Reims) - Clos du Mesnil, Grand Cuvee, Cuvee Rose
  • Laurent-Perrier (Tours-sur-Marne) - Grand Siècle
  • Louis Roederer (Reims) - Cristal de Rœderer
  • Moet et Chandon (Épernay) - White Star, Dom Pérignon
  • Perrier-Jouet (Épernay) - Cuvee Fleur de Champagne, Blason Rose, Belle Époque
  • Ruinart (Reims) - Ruinart blanc-de-blancs, Dom Ruinart
  • Taittinger (Reims) - Comtes de Champagne
  • Veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin (Reims) - La Grande Dame, Clicquot Rich Reserve, Carte Jaune
  • Vilmart (Rilly-la-Montagne) - Coeur de Cuvée

This list only presents a handful of the prestige Houses of Champagne. There are many more, some large and some very small indeed, who provide to their customers the highest quality Champagne by invitation only and so are among the most sought after.

The Myths - One at a Time
  • Champagne is meant to be consumed as soon as you buy it.
    • FALSE - Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne can be consumed as soon as you buy it, because it is a blended product that is intended to be. When you are considering a champagne for an event - a wedding or an anniverasry - NV Champagne should be the wine you choose.

      Vintage Champagne and Prestige Cuvee on the other hand are not intended to be ready to drink as soon as they are released. There is a logic to this - and a reason that serious wine enthusiasts purchase the later two by the case. Prestige Cuvee and Vintage Champagne does indeed age in the bottle, in fact most of the experts and practically all of the makers will tell you that these types of wine only really begin to reach their true potential after decades in the bottle if cellared correctly - which is why when you want to drink one and you did not cellar it decades ago you pay a premium for a properly aged bottle!

      Believe it or not the Champagne Houses hold back a percentage of each vintage, in the bottle, in their cellars so that they can release it to market when it is ready to be consumed - at a higher price of course. Opening a bottle of a Vintage or Prestige Cuvee when it is young is a waste of good wine, pure and simple.  Don't do it.

  • Champagne is meant to be consumed with food.
    • TRUE - though not a strict rule.

      Like most wines Champagne will compliment a meal, and the food you eat while drinking Champagne can compliment it, but this is not an absolute. A nice glass of Champagne can be a blessing all by itself!

  • Champagne does not age in the bottle.
    • FALSE! Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne does age in the bottle, but only has a useful lifespan of about two to three years, because it was created to drink right away. Vintage and Prestige Cuvee on the other hand, if properly stored in your cellar, will only get better with age. The taste and the elements that represent its true potential get better and better as it ages!

  • Champagne is only good if it is expensive.
    • FALSE! The price of a bottle of wine is no sure indicator that the wine inside is good, great, or fantastic. In fact the most expensive bottle of wine may taste very bad to you if it happens to be a type that is not suited to your tastes. Judging wine by its cost only makes sense if money is what you think is important.

      Many Non-Vintage wines are superior to Vintage wines of much greater price because the Vintage wine is not ready to drink yet. Price is relative to two aspects - the quality of the wine and its rarity. The reason that Vintage wines become increasingly more valuable as they age is because they start to be consumed once they reach a stage where they are ready to drink, and thus become more rare as they are consumed. Good aged Vintage wine, like land, is expensive because they can't make any more of it!

  • Champagne that is not Vintage is not Good.
    • FALSE. No matter what type and quality that you have, the question of whether or not it is good is largely one of personal taste assuming that the wine is actually ready to drink. I have attended tastings where flights of vintage wine were offered and where I found a glass to be nirvana and the bloke next to me declared it sewage.

      The only way to know for sure what is good for you is to try try try! Go to tastings, take classes, buy bottles and drink them! Make notes, find what you like, and then drink that!

  • Champagne has a limited life and goes bad if you don't drink it soon enough
    • TRUE and FALSE: Non-Vintage Champagne has a limited life span this is true. It will peak at around three years and go downhill from there, but that is more an aspect of how it is made and the fact that it is a wine blended to taste good now.

      Vintage Champagne and Prestige Cuvee on the other hand is really not good when it is consumed young. The taste of it is raw in comparison to a good NV blend, and its true potential will not appear for often decades. Putting down a case or cases of a Vintage from a good year is not just a good idea, it is an investment because the bottles you bought at $55 will, a few decades later, be considerably more valuable. Of course that is not why you cellar it, you don't want to sell it, you want to drink it!

End Notes

This is something of a work in progress - I will be adding to it as thoughts strike me, so check it every now and then.

I do want to stress that wine - and Champagne is a wine - is supposed to taste good to you. Will taste good when you discover what your type is.