Champagne. A short guide for beginners.

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Champagne or sparkling wine – what’s the difference?

A champagne is very often associated with celebrating special occasions, as well as with glamour and luxury. Not surprisingly, since it is an unique and high quality product. Its name is usually misused and expanded, including its cheap equivalents. How to select a real, good champagne and how to choose it well according to the occasion?

Not everybody is a connoisseur of high-class alcohols. Most of us usually have to find a compromise between the quality and affordability. While searching the shelves with sparkling wines we definitely more often reach for cheaper beverages of the unknown provenance rather than original, French champagne. No wonder that when the special occasion comes and we are ready for a little splurge, we are not really sure what should we be guided by while making the choice.
The tradition of producing and drinking champagne had its beginnings in 17th century. That is when a French benedict monk Dom Pierre Pérignon has standardized rules of manufacturing it, that include specific selection of grapes, harvesting by hand, thickening the bottles as well as closing them with oak corks. In Louis’s XIV times (second half of 18th century) champagne was called “holy beverage”. In that times this noble alcohol has gained popularity not only in France but also in other countries. Especially English people enjoyed it.
A real champagne is the one coming from French Champagne – that is where it has its name from. This region has an exclusive right to use the name “champagne”. If this name appears on the label you can assume that the beverage you buy is original.

The next step is identification of the champagne’s code, which is written with a small letters on the label. This code defines the quality and the provenance of the drink.

NM – Négociant Manipulant, responsible the majority of champagne produced (various qualities),
RM – Récoltant Manipulant, a grower who makes champagne out of their own grapes (high quality),
CM – Coopérative Manipulant, a co-operative of growers who blend the product of their collective vineyards and sell it under one or more brands (usually the quality is average, but there are exceptions, such as Jacquart or Beaumont Crayeres),
RC – Récoltant Coopérateur, a wine from a single grower but made entirely for him by a winemaking facility.
Champagne occurs in many differed kinds. Its character depends on few factors, i.e. sugar content. There are champagnes that are sweet or dry, flowery or fruit, delicate or strong. Names that can be found on the bottles’ labels include:
- Extra brut, zero brut, brut integral – entirely dry champagne; unsweetened, only for connoisseurs; it is tangy.
- Brut – a classic dry champagne; usually unsweetened.
- Extra-sec – a little bit sweeter than the dry one, but still not as sweet as Sec; sugar content is about 1-2 %.
- Sec – a semi-dry champagne; with a sugar content about 2-4%.
- Demi-sec – a semi-sweet champagne; with a sugar content about 4-7%.
- Doux – very rare sweet champagne; it contains about 8-12 % of sugar.

As it is easy noticeable, the majority of champagnes are more or less dry ones. What determines the kind of champagne is addition of liqueur d’expedition – wine mixed with sugar.

What is more, the type of beverage also depends on mixing, so the selection of grape variant. According to that factor champagnes can be divided into:
Mixed champagnes (cuvée) – they are made as a result of a traditional combination of different types of grapes. The missing takes place annually, in order to gain the best taste possible. It is performed by special, paid keepers. Each year the blend is modified, many champagne houses treat the information about it like a trade secret and in that way they prevent their ideas from being stolen by the competition. Champagnes that are made with the traditional mixing method has a “cuvée” note on the label. As a result of traditional mixing you can get a pink champagne. The color comes from partially fermented dark grapes. Thanks to the fermentation the grapes’ flesh becomes delicately dyed by their skin and the beverage gets its pink color.
Blanc de Blancs - made entirely from white Chardonnay grapes. It is elegant, quite delicate and subtle in taste and aroma, great for pairing it with food.
Blanc de noirs – a champagne made from dark grapes like Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. It has more intensive taste and aroma than Blanc de blancs.

What is also very important is choosing the champagne accordingly to the occasion when it will be served. Older champagnes will go perfectly with meat dishes. With appetizers it is better to serve dry champagne – Extra brut. Brut and Extra-sec are most suitable for fish, meats, salads and seafood. The kinds that go best with fruit and desserts are: Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux.

Less experienced tasters will appreciate popular and well-known brands while connoisseurs will be more eager to try new and less popular ones, from unknown producer.