Rappers pay homage to it. Marilyn Monroe was rumored to have bathed in it. And it’s probably what’s in your glass when you’re toasting the new year, your anniversary or any other special occasion.
Champagne has long been synonymous with luxury. Although it is a sparkling wine, make no mistake — not all sparkling wines are Champagne. The only wines that can bear the name are those produced in the Champagne region of France — an area particularly primed (thanks to cold weather and chalky soil) for creating the more earthy taste that Champagne is known for. (Other types of sparking wines tend to be fruity.) This, combined with a rigorous dual-fermentation process (called Méthode Champenoise) make drinking Champagne a more decadent experience than other sparkling wines, says Hervé Rousseau, owner of Flûte, a Champagne lounge in New York. “You can taste the difference,” he says. “Four doors, fancy headlights, leather seats. It’s a real luxury ride.”
Still, when it comes to choosing Champagne, you should be guided by your own personal taste and palate, says Rousseau. The good news is you can find a quality bottle for less than $50. Here are five factors to consider:
Cuvée. Most houses produce several blends or varieties, or “cuvées,” of Champagne:
Nonvintage. These blends epitomize the house’s signature style, with little variation over the years, says Natalie MacLean, a sommelier and author of Red, White and Drunk All Over. Although these bottles are the cheapest a house produces, they can be of exceptional quality. Creating the same taste year after year is no easy feat. Often, more than 100 different wines from different years are included in the blend.
Vintage. Wine connoisseurs look for dated, or vintage bottles, which are only produced when a season’s harvest is especially good. “You’re going to taste the difference the weather makes each year,” says MacLean. Which year is a vintage or a dated bottle is up to the house. “Not every house will create a vintage every year,” says Emanuelle Chiche, managing director of The Bubble Lounge, a sparkling wine and Champagne bar with locations in New York and San Francisco. Expect to spend double the price of a nonvintage blend — and more still for a truly strong growing year. If you’re set on a vintage bottle, conduct a little research on good growing years. Most recently, 1995, 1996, and 2002 were all considered exceptional years.
Prestige Cuvée. If you really want to live like a rock star (or rapper, as the case may be), seek out the house’s pride and joy, the so-called prestige cuvée. (Think Louis Roederer’s Cristal, or Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon.) These wines are, quite simply, the house’s best of the best in a vintage year, says Chiche. They are held to higher standards of production, made in limited quantities from the first pressing of the very best grapes. And you can bet the price reflects that. A 1996 Dom Perignon, for example, starts at $150.
Age. Generally speaking, the older the bottle the more developed and nuanced its flavor, says Eric Benn, co-owner of The Bubble Lounge. A nonvintage blend should be drunk within three years, while a vintage bottle can usually be kept for 10 to 15 years. But older isn’t always better, he cautions — you’ll need to have great faith in your supplier that the bottle has been transported carefully and stored properly over the years.
Grapes. Only three grapes can be used to produce Champagne, says MacLean: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Most use a blend of all three. You’ll also see rosés, which have a nonsparkling red wine added late in the process, and single-grape bottles. Blanc de Blancs use exclusively Chardonnay, while Blanc de Noir are solely Pinot grapes.
Base your pick on your regular wine choices — if you prefer reds, look for more Pinot grapes; whites, more Chardonnay. Fewer rosé and single-grape wines are produced, so expect to pay slightly more for these bottles.
Sweetness. Prefer dry wines? Don’t be fooled into picking up “extra dry” Champagne. From driest to sweetest, Champagnes are labeled as: super brut, extra brut, brut, extra dry (extra sec), sec (dry), demi-sec and doux.
Moët & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Perrier-Jouët — you don’t need to know much about Champagne to recognize these big-name winemakers. But there are actually more than 100 Champagne houses, each with its own unique style. “It’s amazing the palate differences you have house to house,” says Rousseau. Go beyond the names you know, he suggests. Smaller houses such as Henri Abele or Gosset produce excellent Champagne; they just don’t have the same marketing clout of the larger houses. Bonus: Boutique wines typically cost less.