A Handy Guide to Festive Fizz

champagne glassesThough we’re fans of bubbles all year long, there’s something special about ringing in the new year with a glass of something festive and fizzy.

Unfortunately, because sparkling is usually reserved for celebrations, it’s a misunderstood category – what the heck does Grand Cru mean?  Is vintage better than non-vintage?  And how do you open the stuff without putting someone’s eye out?

Firstly, true Champagne can only come from the tiny region of Champagne in Northern France, and must be made in the traditional method and meet certain quality specifications.  Everything else is sparkling wine.  But being Champagne doesn’t automatically make a wine good, and being a mere ‘sparkling wine,’ doesn’t make a wine substandard.   It’s New Years, though, so let’s concentrate on Champagne.

Vintage or NV? The first distinction to make with Champagne is between vintage and non-vintage.  Non-vintage is the most common style, and usually the least expensive and most consistent.  That ubiquitous yellow bottle is an example of a non-vintage bottling.  Usually labeled with an ‘NV,’ non-vintage Champagne is a blend of a selection of base wines (still wine that hasn’t become fizzy yet) from several vintages.  The master blender at a given Champagne house uses his judgement and palate to create a consistent style from year to year, and this blending method helps him do this.

Vintage Champagne is Champagne made from a specific years’ harvest, just like most of the still wine we’re used to.  In Champagne, it’s usually made only in exceptional years and meant to showcase differences in vintage character, as opposed to the style-of-the-house like non-vintage bottlings.

“Grand Cru.” When you see a designation like “Grand Cru” on a bottle, like you would with some of these delicious grower Champagnes, that means that all of the grapes that went into the wine come from villages in Champagne with the highest quality ranking.  In Champagne, the villages are ranked, as opposed to, say, Bordeaux, where the producers are ranked, or Burgundy, where the vineyards are ranked.

And what do we mean by “grower?” Historically, grape growers in Champagne sold their grapes to big Champagne houses, usually under long-term contracts. These Champagne houses then made the Champagne, blending cuvees to produce their unique style of Champagne, year after year (and spending money marketing  that brand). Over the years, more and more growers are making their own Champagnes. These can be better deals, because this eliminates a level in the production chain, and often, the grower doesn’t spend as much on marketing and packaging.

How to Open a Bottle. Many people shy away from Champagne not only because of the expense, but because of stage fright when it comes to opening the bottle.  There are a few different methods to opening sparkling wine, but the two most important things to remember are to always point the wine away from people (and anything breakable!), and to make sure the wine is nice and cold.

And remember, the object is to keep as much of the fizz in the bottle as possible, so you want a quiet hiss as opposed to a loud pop.  Here’s a video on how to properly open sparkling wine. Wishing you wonderful celebrations for the New Year!

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