There’s likely no alcoholic beverage more closely associated with celebration than Champagne. It’s part of wedding receptions, boat launches, regatta wins and New Year’s celebrations the world over. “People love bubbles,” says Thomas Hilts, an Asheville-based freelance bartender who also works with Cordial & Craft event planners.
Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon started making wine in 1668. In northeast France, the delightful bubbles that characterize Champagne were initially considered a defect. According to a history at intowine.com, winegrowers were trying to make a white wine as good as the red varieties produced in Burgundy. But the cold winters in Champagne caused fermentation to stop prematurely. Thinking the wine had finished its fermentation stage, winemakers bottled the liquid. Soon the dormant yeast cells reawakened and continued doing their job. At worst, the result was overpressurized, shattered bottles.
At best, the wine featured tiny effervescent bubbles. And according to legend, Pérignon exclaimed, “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!”
Happily, French nobility developed a taste for the sparkling wine unique to the Champagne region. But by the 20th century — and owing to the United States’ intransigence regarding the Treaty of Versailles — American winemakers were producing sparkling wine with the word “Champagne” prominently displayed on their bottles. A comparatively insignificant part of that treaty (it signaled the end of World War I, after all) established the identification of Champagne as a strictly French product.
But as Joshua Malin explains in an essay for vinepair.com, “although the United States signed the treaty, the Senate never ratified the treaty.” So today consumers in the U.S. can visit a grocery store and buy a bottle of bottom-shelf “Champagne” for as little as $3.99.
Yet that stuff — like Gallo’s André brand, the No. 1-selling sparkling wine in America — isn’t true Champagne. The real thing is made using Pérignon’s method (today known as methode Champenoise) and must come from that province bordering Belgium. And as Gwen Collins, “Queen of Bubbles” at wholesale vendor Mutual Distribution, explains, price tends to be a reliable indicator of quality. If the price seems too good to be true, she says, “it’s going to taste like it.”
Collins says there are some genuine nonvintage Champagnes from smaller growers, like Champagne Jacquart, “coming out below $50 retail, and they’re amazing.” We also like owner-grower Champagne Voirin-Jumel’s Tradition, a Brut available locally for around $42.
When it comes to wine grapes, there really is something special about the Champagne region. “The more cold and austere the climate, the better quality wine in the long run,” Collins says. She recommends 2002 vintage and notes that for Champagne, “2008 has been declared the vintage of the century.”
Champagne is available in a sweetness range from bone-dry brut nature to very sweet demi-sec. There’s also a style called extra dry; confusingly, it’s sweeter than brut. The drier varieties are by far the most popular, Collins says.
Once a bottle is opened, Champagne begins to lose its trademark effervescence. That may not matter to some drinkers. “If you’re talking about me, it’s going to be gone in an hour,” says Collins, perhaps only half in jest. “The ones that have the tiniest bubbles when you first pour are going to be the ones that die the fastest.”
And size matters: Smaller bubbles are one visible indicator of quality. Collins emphasizes that agitation destroys the bubbles faster. “The least amount of movement once the bottle is open, the longer those bubbles will stay,” she says.
Today, Champagne is more popular than ever; a report from Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (the drink’s official organization) backs that up. Although Champagne accounts for less than 0.5% of the world’s vineyards, in 2018 some 301.9 million bottles were shipped. Around 51% of that was exported, which suggests that the French drink a lot of the bubbly. But so do we: Nearly 24% of that exported sparkling wine ended up in the United States.
And Champagne doesn’t have to be enjoyed on its own. “It’s a fun way to spice up and round out a cocktail, too,” says Hilts. With its dry character, Champagne can balance out the sweet note of other cocktail ingredients, as well as adding in those wonderful tiny bubbles. Hilts says that Champagne is quite versatile, too. “It can go with anything,” he says. “I use it with gin, vodka and even tequila cocktails.”
Hilts says when used as an ingredient, “you can’t go wrong with an inexpensive middle-of-the-road Champagne. If somebody wants a sweeter cocktail, add less Champagne. If you want a drier version, you just add a little more.” It can work in almost any medium, he says. “You just have to know how to balance the drink.”
But when Champagne is being consumed straight — after you’ve walked down the aisle, won that yachting regatta or rung in the new year with loved ones — the good stuff is worth the money. “There are [sparkling] wines coming out of our country that are great,” Collins says. “They’re done in the methode Champenoise, they’re done with the same grapes, they’re done in a cooler area of California.”
Yet they’re not Champagne, she insists. “The soils are completely different, so you lose a lot of minerality. I don’t feel like there’s any place that can recreate the real thing. I’d rather pay the extra money and get a bottle of Champagne.”