Drinks News

The best Champagne bottles and different Champagne styles

It’s time to pop a cork for party season. But not all bubbles are created equal, explains Champagne champion SAMANTHA PAYNE. Here’s what you need to know.

By Samantha Payne
From left: NV Agrapart & Fils Terroirs Blanc de Blancs, Avize, Champagne; 2004 Dom Pérignon Plénitude 2, Épernay, Champagne; NV Mumm Blanc de Noirs, Central Otago, NZ.

Vintage Brut Champagne

Vintage Champagne is the embodiment of "this does what it says on the label" thanks to the strict appellation controls (or AOC) of Champagne. One hundred per cent of the grapes must come from the same vintage and be aged for at least three years in bottle before release. We often see hype around certain vintages with the most recent one being the 2008 vintage, which was heralded as good as 1928 (another outstanding year). While we've already seen most of the 2008 vintages come and go, don't be disheartened. According to Champagne Bollinger's commercial director Guy de Rivoire, "Historically in Champagne, every 20 years you have one vintage that is a standout because of certain attributes."
In the meantime, Vintage Champagne is about striking a delicate balance between capturing a snapshot in time of a certain vintage as well as emulating a "house" style. The fun part is trying them all to find your own personal "standout vintage".
Best Champagne Vintage to try: 2012 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Reims, Champagne, $450

Non-Vintage/Multi-Vintage Champagne

There used to be the perception that non-vintage Champagne was the "cheap" stuff, a bit more mass-produced, made in a specific style that never deviates. But with the increase of "Reserve Wine" programs across various Champagne houses, non-vintage Champagnes (also being labelled as multi-vintage) are showing more depth and complexity in the bottle than ever before. The same rules still apply that the wine must be aged for a minimum of 15 months in bottle before release but where we used to see a larger mixture of vintages make up the blend, now there can be upwards of 70 per cent of a single year base wine in these NVs and MVs. Moral of the story: you're getting incredible value for money.
Best Champagne Non-Vintage/Multi-Vintage to try: NV Paul Bara Brut Réserve, Bouzy, Champagne, $100 and MV Jacquesson No. 746, Dizy, Champagne, $192

Blanc de Blancs/Blanc de Noirs Champagne

Diversity of Champagne styles doesn't just occur from house to house and region to region, we also see it in the types of grapes used. While there are up to eight accepted grapes that can be used to make Champagne, the "holy trinity" is pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Sometimes, to showcase the power and prestige of one particular character, a blanc de blancs (100 per cent chardonnay) or blanc de noirs (either 100 per cent pinot noir or meunier) is produced. In sparkling wine or not, these three grapes have always been an incredible conduit of terroir, which is seen inherently in the bottle. Blanc de noirs styles tend to show off a complexity and finesse that makes them an ideal choice for the beginning of a meal. Blanc de blancs tends to be more structured and, similar to drinking still chardonnay, will come alive when paired with a long lunch.
Best Champagne Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs to try: NV Agrapart & Fils Terroirs Blanc de Blancs, Avize, Champagne, $150 and NV Bollinger PN AYC18 Blanc de Noirs, Aÿ, Champagne, $230

Disgorgement Champagne

Probably one of the most overlooked factors when finding a Champagne style best suited to your tastes is the length of time the sparkling wine spends on its lees before disgorgement, as well as when the wine was disgorged. Let's take a step into the cool Champagne caves for a moment; when the wine is ageing in bottle after undergoing secondary fermentation, the juice is in contact with "lees" (dead yeast), which gives the wine a deliciously nutty, brioche-bread-and-cheese-rind character (we call those aldehydes). The longer the wine stays on its lees, the increased savoury flavours the Champagne will carry post-disgorgement. Most Champagne experts agree that the prime drinking window for the wine post-disgorgement is two years, as the process gives the aged vintage wine a little "kick" of vibrancy and energy that starts to fade after that point.

Dosage/Brut Nature Champagne

Fun fact: the Champagne coupe glass (which is often incorrectly attributed to a part of Marie Antoinette's anatomy) existed primarily because early Champagne was so sugary and syrupy that you couldn't even swirl it – thus the need for a short glass for sipping. It shows how far we've come when bottle shops and wine lists are peppered with wines with zero dosage (no added sugar) known as "Brut Nature". These lighter and fresher wines are the perfect choices for those who prefer to drink Champagne throughout a meal. They typically have a residual sugar of less than 3 grams per litre, achieved by topping up with a dry wine post-disgorgement. The delicate and pristine acidity that shines through these wines makes them a perfect pairing for fattier cuts of meat.

The non-Champagne Sparklings

Agriculturally, we've seen the ravages of climate change across our own country and how our winemakers are choosing to adapt. Unfortunately, because of France's strict appellation controls, Champagne's grape growers have less freedom to counter the increasing weather extremes that threaten their harvests. Grape yields are in flux as demand for Champagne continues to grow. Over the past five years, in acknowledgement of the outstanding chardonnay and pinot noir produced in regions such as Tasmania, New Zealand and even across the UK, some of the big names in Champagne are venturing further afield, bringing centuries-old techniques and knowledge to New World wine regions. We've seen this in particular with GH Mumm, whose latest release celebrates pinot noir from Central Otago in New Zealand, famous for its refined complexity.
Best non-Champagne Sparkling to try: NV Mumm Blanc de Noirs, Central Otago, NZ, $60
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  • undefined: Samantha Payne