What to look for when buying Champagne

It is a question I am asked on an almost daily basis. ‘What makes a good wine, or in this case Champagne?’

The answer to that very simple question is just a tad more complicated. In an effort to furnish our customers with a concise and informed answer I thought it only right and proper to visit the area of Champagne (come on, you would!)

So, on the 1st July this year I flew into Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, a Cathedral to 1960’s architecture, and was welcomed by a mini heatwave registering 42 degrees Celsius. A 90 mile drive east and I found myself in amongst the vines of the Cote des Blancs, the Montagne de Reims and the Vallee de la Marne, the 3 principal vineyard areas.

Bear in mind please at this point there are thousands of Champagne producers, and try as I might, I was not going to get around them all. My brief was to source good quality, well priced Champagne that would appeal to both the On Trade (Bars, Restaurants etc) and the Off Trade (Wine Merchants etc) and not forgetting our very loyal Biddle & Webb private customers.

So back to the all important question. ‘What makes good Champagne’, or in essence what should a buyer look for in a bottle of Champagne. For me, I break it down into 3 simple areas

1. For what occasion will it be opened?

2. Food or no food

3. Cost

If we take point 1 Occasion. Are you going to be opening a bottle or two for a party or perhaps a treat after a long week at work? Whatever you are thinking make sure you match the mood of the evening with the correct bottle of fizz. For party drinking and everyday sipping, a Chardonnay dominated blend often is the way to go. Slightly more acidity here, clean and expressive. The Feminine expression of Champagne.

Just an aside here that the majority of Champagnes are made up from 3 grape varities in varying percentages. Chardonnay (White grape), Pinot Noir (Black) and Pinot Meunier (Black). Chardonnay brings the grace and subtlety to a blend, whereas Pinot Noir brings the structure and backbone, much more a Masculine element and finally Pinot Meunier exhibits more grassy and herbal characteristics, the youthful element of the blend. Did you notice the grape family there?

Anyway back to point 2 Food. In my experience the most important area of all, food. Champagne is a fabulous partner all the way through a meal from the 1st course to the dessert. However caution needs to be excercised here. There are many articles written about matching Champagne with food, so I will defer to these. As a basic premise though, Chardonnay heavy blends or even Blanc des Blancs (100% Chardonnay) will be better suited to the beginning of the meal perhaps as an aperitif or with lighter flavoured food. Anything which is Pinot Noir dominated or even Blanc des Noirs (Champagne made only from the 2 black grapes) is better suited to foods with a bit more body. Bear in mind that Pinot Noir wines are mainly Red, so with a Pinot Noir or Meunier dominated blend, you are in fact drinking a Red wine without the Tannin* attached.

Vintage Champagne (All grapes come from the same year) is ideally served at not too cold a temperature. The whole idea with Vintage Champagne is that is a liquid expression of that particular year so will be different every time although still based on the house style. Don’t lose out on the nuances of these wines by over chilling. Think 9-11 degrees rather than 6-8 for NV (Non-Vintage)

3. Cost. For me this is easy. Don’t pay too much for Champagne. Apart from hand picking, hand sorting grapes and treating them like Gold every step of the way, what else can you do to them? In essence when you are buying big ticket Champagnes you are paying for the brand. In my experience the small grower Champagne’s are far superior to their big brand counterparts. Disagree? Buy a bottle of Moet NV for around £35 and then buy a bottle of Lysmann Premier Cru in the Biddle & Webb December 4th auction for around £15 and compare the 2 side by side. For me the Lysmann knocks the Moet into next week.

However what is always great about Champagne and wine in general is that it is all down to the taste of the end user………….YOU!

So back to my trip. After many successful vineyard visits and one or two not so successful, I returned back to the UK armed with what I consider to be the best quality Champagne for the best price in the UK.

However don’t take my word for it, find out for yourself on December 4th. There will be a selection of the best Champagne’s I found on my trip.

Next time I fancy Chainti Country!

James Baker

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