Champagne. Bubbles. Holidays, New Year's Eve, weddings, birthdays and other miscellaneous celebrations.
About sums it up, doesn't it? Well, no. Like any other region, Champagne turns out wines that are varied in style and nuance, and to typecast its signature creation as a celebration toast does not do it justice. So a warning is in order: This column will help you understand what you're buying in your occasional bottle, whether you are enjoying it at a favorite restaurant or at home with family and friends. If you have an adventurous palate, you might find your appetite whetted for a delicious and wallet-draining exploration of what Champagne has to offer.
Most champagne is a blend of three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Although the two pinots are red grapes, the wines are white because the juice is pressed immediately off the grape skins, where the color resides. There's no prescribed ratio, and different houses will emphasize one grape over another in their blends. That often is influenced by geography: pinot noir and pinot meunier are most prominent in the Montagne de Reims area of northern Champagne, around the city of Reims, while the Cotes des Blancs area to the south favors chardonnay (as its name implies). Champagne hounds learn the geography of the towns to pick up on these nuances. If you detect flavors of red fruits (currants and raspberries) and an angular, almost steely character, think pinot noir and pinot meunier. A fuller wine that tastes of peaches and other tree fruits is probably dominated by chardonnay.
Sometimes the label tells us the blend. A blanc de noirs is a white wine made from red grapes -- so, no chardonnay -- and will often have a pink tinge and racy red-fruit flavors. A blanc de blancs is just what it sounds like: all chardonnay. A rose may be any combination; in Champagne, typically some still red wine is blended in to give a rosy hue and an additional fruity lift to the flavor.
As traditional as it is, Champagne is not immune to trends. One is the competition between the major champagne houses, familiar names such as Moet et Chandon, Mumm, Ruinart, Pommery and Louis Roederer, and the "small growers." The large houses produce the vast majority of champagne, but they own a small fraction of the vineyards. For the past two decades, some of the growers that traditionally sold their grapes or wine to the large houses have been making champagne under their own labels.
Those wines can be deliciously distinctive and expressive of a particular vineyard or winemaker style, and they have become the darlings of the vinoscenti. (The consistently good quality of the major houses can be as boring as it is reliable.) Grower wines can be identified by a code that is often on the label in exceedingly tiny print: RM signifies a producer who grew his or her own grapes, while NM refers to a producer (such as a large brand) that bought at least some of the grapes. Champers fiends love the grower wines, but they won't decline a glass of champagne from a major house such as Veuve Clicquot when offered.
Some small growers challenge not only the dominance of the large houses but also the traditional practice of "dosage" (pronounced doe-SAHJ), adding a measure of sugar when the lees are disgorged after aging. Labeled "brut nature" or "extra brut," these searingly dry wines can be compelling. They are controversial, though: Seeking dryness for its own sake risks skewing the wine's balance. (The correct order from dry to sweet is brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra dry, demi-sec.)
Once you've become hooked on champagne and its nuances -- red grapes or white, growers vs. large houses, the extreme dry kick of a brut nature -- you might be spoiled for any other type of sparkling wine. Or maybe not. There are more that are well-worth exploring from other parts of France, Italy, California and even southern England.