Nothing quite says Christmas like a glass of effervescent fizz. But with so many styles on offer, it’s hard to know which to pick. We take you through the key styles, and pick out a selection that should make the cut on your Christmas order list.
Tunnelled beneath the handsome architectural façades of Reims and Epernay is a subterranean world of work. Kilometre after kilometre of branching cellars, lined with millions of bottles stacked by hand and layered on top of one another, like logs in a woodpile. The still wine that enters these vaults is soon to become starred with bubbles, but the transformation that gives its nutritious, yeasty, dough-like aroma only emerges after years of cellaring.
Harvest comes to Champagne in September, just as summer begins to fade into Autumn. For three hectic weeks, Champagne’s population swells by 60,000 as legions of students, travelling workers, executives and cellar workers bear the strain of bringing in the grapes. At night, this transient workforce – full of food, wine, music and fatigue – loudly occupies the streets, creating the impression of a newly-formed, fecund, nocturnal world.
Champagne is synonymous with luxury, but the soft warmth of the joie de vivre of these late summer nights also reminds us why it has become such a spirited monument to good French living.
Rosé is the ultimate test of the blender’s art. Try and blend too much red wine into Champagne, or macerate the grapes for too long, and the elements never really combine, as with oil being dripped into water. At Jacquart, small additions of still Pinot Noir add extra dimensions of colour and flavour, without ever compromising the gentle impact of the underlying blend.
Les Apéritifs – Lighter Styles
Champagne’s gentle, glimmering apéritif wines marvellously invert the region’s dour backdrop of hard rock and sullen light, like a photographic negative blazoned onto celluloid. Laurent-Perrier NV epitomises this style: delicate yet flavourful, its fine textural weave vigorously unspooling into filaments of tiny, brilliant bubbles.
Blanc de Blancs – 100% Chardonnay Wines
The east-facing slopes of the Côtes des Blancs are Chardonnay’s home, and the source of the region’s prized and elegant Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. Chardonnay is the variety most sensitive to the return of light and warmth to the vineyards in spring, fattening its buds from early March. Without the easterly aspect, the new growth might perish to frost, but the gentle incline helps gather in the warmth of the morning sun and protects the emerging shoots as they tiptoe their way leaf by leaf into each new season.
Customarily, blends of grape varieties dutifully pull together, like suburban couples; but Champagne’s licit ménage à trois of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier is a much more combustible affair. Bollinger, Roederer and Taittinger are all familiar names, but each illustrates the extraordinary boost and energy of combination that blending brings to Champagne.
Vintage and Luxury Cuveés
Although the majority of vintage wines are blended, it is the grandeur of Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims that persuades most producers to bottle cuveés from individual years. Wines from the mid to late 90s are now starting to peak, though a few such as Henriot’s Cuveé des Enchanteleurs and Bollinger’s Grande Année seemingly come with the gift of perpetual life.
As for the strength of luxury brands such as Cristal and Dom Pérignon, consistency is everything, coupled with the ability to create and satisfy our appetite for luxury. For those looking for greater individuality, Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle is full of surprises and subtleties, and Henriot’s 9-year matured Cuvée des Enchanteleurs is truly exceptional.
Of course, if you’re after festive fizz, Champagne is not your only option – there’s a whole wide world of sparkling alternatives beyond the borders of Champagne from which to choose. With differing emphasis on fruitiness, bubble size and methods, each country is home to a distinct version of its own. Interestingly, the UK is the largest importer of all sparkling wines in the world – two of the most popular effervescent alternatives being Prosecco and Cava. These sparkling wines have filled a gap in the market – where Champagne was seen as too luxurious or unaffordable, Prosecco is now an option for those wanting to drink bubbles without the hefty price tag.
Prosecco is made differently to Champagne and, because of this, the bubbles are lighter and less persistent. The taste of Prosecco comes from the local Glera grape, which gives the wine perfumed aromas of white peach, meyer lemon, honeysuckle, and creamy vanilla.
Cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne. Most Cava comes from Catalonia in Northern Spain where the local grapes of Macabeo, Paralleda and Xarello are blended together using the same winemaking method as its French counterpart. The result is a dry, elegant and fruity sparkling wine with an attractive price point.