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Champagne is made in a range of styles, so you’ll always find one to suit your taste. Julie Sheppard explains the basics to help you find the perfect fit
Champagne is just fizzy wine – right? To a certain extent, yes it is, but important differences in how it’s made and what it’s made from mean that it can come in a whole range of styles. Just like when you’re choosing which clothes to wear, you’ll prefer some styles to others; and certain types will be better suited to particular occasions. After all, you wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to do your weekly shop; nor would you go for a country hike in your Jimmy Choos. But how do you work out which style is the right one for you?
As any style guru will tell you, it all comes down to having a bit of insider knowledge and knowing what suits you as an individual. If you like the finer things in life, and a little luxury, try on a vintage fizz for size, with its richness and finesse. Or if you’re a romantic at heart, opt for a dreamy pink rosé, fruity and captivating. Whatever your personality and mood, there’s a Champagne to match it, as our guide below explains. Learn the basics and feel free to experiment – at the very least, you’ll have fun finding out what suits you. And unlike that tie-dyed T-shirt you bought, at least you know Champagne will never go out of fashion…
Like a classic black jacket, brut is a staple style that’s versatile enough to suit most tastes and occasions. In Champagne terms, ‘brut’ means ‘dry’, and most Champagne houses make a basic brut to show off their signature style. They do this by fermenting grapes to create a still (base) wine, then blending different base wines together according to the house preference. The end result is then poured into bottles, along with a mixture of sugar and yeast, which causes a second fermentation and creates those all-important bubbles.
When the base wines come from grapes harvested in different years (or vintages), the resulting Champagne is labelled non-vintage brut. However, the exact mixture of the base wines will determine how dry each Champagne house’s brut is. And it’s this varying degree of dryness that makes brut such a versatile style. Whether you like your Champagne perfectly arid or a little bit fruity, brut can deliver. You just need to work out which Champagne house makes the brut that you like best.
The good news is that shopping around for different bruts is a lot less exhausting than finding your perfect black jacket. Simply pop the cork and get tasting. To start with, try Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial NV (Tesco, Waitrose), a well-balanced and crowd-pleasing brut, with a rounded palate and a fresh, crisp finish. For a lighter and more lively style of brut, go for Pommery Brut Royal (Jeroboams).
If ‘brut’ is ‘dry’, then it doesn’t take too much brain-strain to work out that extra brut is bone dry. Think of it as your classic black jacket, but tailor-made rather than off-the-peg, so that it looks just that little bit sharper.
Extra brut is made in the same way as brut, up until the end of the process. After the second fermentation, brut Champagnes are disgorged to remove the dead yeast cells and topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar syrup – known as the dosage. This doesn’t make the Champagne sweeter (brut means dry, remember), it simply balances out the natural acidity. Extra brut Champagnes are topped up with still wine, rather than the sugar syrup mix, and are also known as non-dosage Champagnes. This explains why they are drier than bruts – and also lower in calories.
Bone-dry Champagnes make the ultimate aperitif wines, but they also go brilliantly with sushi and seafood, as the Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut (The Whisky Exchange) proves. Famed for making ultra brut Champagnes in the 19th century, Laurent-Perrier is a master of this style – the equivalent of a Savile Row tailor, if you like. Ayala’s Brut Nature (slurp.co.uk) is also a safe bet.
In some years, a harvest is so good that Champagne houses can make a fizz that will perfectly express their house style without having to add any other base wines to it. In those years, a vintage Champagne is made, and the label will show the year of the vintage. Like vintage clothes, these Champagnes are something a bit special and tend to be harder to find.
Vintage Champagnes are aged carefully by the house for a minimum of three years, and aren’t usually released until at least seven years after the vintage. They will be ready for drinking at that stage, but the best ones will continue to develop and improve if you decide to keep them for longer.
Just like a vintage designer dress, older fizzes are full of unique character. The current vintage release from Louis Roederer is a case in point. Rich and full-bodied, with toasty notes of candied fruit, marzipan and caramel, 2004 Louis Roederer Brut Vintage (Fine & Rare Wines) is well worth a taste. For even more velvety richness, seek out 2002 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rich (The Whisky Exchange).
Chardonnay (a white grape) and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both black grapes) are the main grape varieties used to make Champagne. Chardonnay provides a refreshing elegance, Pinot Noir adds structure and power, while Pinot Meunier offers body and balance.
Most Champagne is made from a mixture of all three grapes – like putting together shirt, tie and suit to create your complete look. But some Champagnes like to do things a little differently. Blanc de blancs is a style that’s made entirely from white Chardonnay, making it rather finer and more feminine. While blanc de noirs is made only with black grapes, to produce a more masculine, richer and full-bodied fizz.
One for the ladies, Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (Berry Bros & Rudd) is like a summer dress. Pale and bright with delicate bubbles, its exotic fruit nose with pretty floral hints leads to a clean palate of citrus and white fruit. Meanwhile, the impressive 2002 Bollinger Vielles Vignes Françaises (Fine & Rare Wines) is a pricey, prestige cuvée that sets the benchmark for Blanc de Noirs Champagnes.
Finally, on the subject of colours, what about rosé Champagne? Fun, glamorous and lovely to look at, it’s like your favourite party clothes. But that’s not to say rosé is at all frivolous, as it can be very tricky to produce (which explains its often higher prices).
The simplest way to make rosé is by blending in a little still red wine (made from Pinots Noir and Meunier) before bottling. Alternatively, winemakers will keep the skins of the black grapes in contact with the white juice when the grapes are being pressed – just long enough to allow the red colour to seep out into the wine.
With a rich character and red-fruit flavours, rosé is one of the best Champagnes to match with food. Young NV rosés are great with fruity desserts, while vintage rosés can stand up to heartier fare such as tuna steak and even pink spring lamb.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (Lea & Sandeman) is a chiffon scarf of a wine: a delicate and delightful pale-pink fizz, with light red-fruit flavours. Or for a touch of silk, try the golden pink Krug Rosé (Berry Bros & Rudd), with sensual notes of spice on its elegant palate.
This feature was published in the summer 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.