True champagne comes from the Champagne region in the northeastern part of France, which jealously protects the name “champagne” worldwide. That’s why the phrases “sparkling wine,” “champagne-style” and “méthode champenoise” appear on a lot of non-French labels.
Champagne doesn’t taste sour. Bad champagne does. However, even good sparkling wine can have quite a range from tart to sweet.
The most common style is brut – there is an extra or ultra brut, but you’ll rarely see it, especially in the United States.
Brut has 0 to 15 grams of sugar per liter. Then comes extra sec with 12-20 grams, sec at 17-35, demi-sec at 35-50, doux at more than 50 and also extremely rare. In the United States, you’re usually dealing with brut, a versatile wine for meals, desserts or just quaffing.
Champagne prices range all over the place, such as $15-$22 for a palatable low-end wine to $30-$60 for the better ones without having to sell your first-born to pay for even more expensive ones. If you’re on a budget, look for cava (from Spain) or prosecco (Italy).
What should determine the price is what’s in the bottle. A non-vintage wine, usually denoted by the letters NV on the label instead of a vintage year, is a blend from several different years. Vintage wines are produced from a single year.
Most champagne houses will designate a vintage only if they think the grape crop from that year was special. Otherwise, they blend their product to meet a certain standard. Vintages are more expensive.
Champagnes do not have to be golden, as the movies would have you believe. They range in color from nearly white to deep gold to rose or bright pink.
Champagne is best served as cold as you can get it without putting it in the freezer. That helps maintain the bubbles after opening. One of the fastest ways to chill champagne and keep it chilled after opening is to place it in a bucket with a mixture of ice and water. Make sure the ice water is deep enough to come a least a little of the way up the neck.
Speaking of opening, a bad job of doing that can ruin the whole thing. Just keep a few things in mind:
• Remove the wire cage and foil covering the cork.
• Point the bottle away from everyone, including yourself. It is under tremendous pressure, so the cork can be a dangerous missile.
• Put a dish towel over the top of the bottle. With your hand under the towel, grasp the cork firmly.
• Hold the cork steady and turn the bottle – not the cork. It should barely make a tiny pop.
• When the cork comes out, keep the towel over the bottle opening for a moment to preserve the gas and the champagne.