Beyond the Bubbles: Five Tips on Understanding Champagne Better

This is an article that I am posting at Geoff’s request. It’s a little longer than an average blog post, but I hope that you find it worthwhile. Thanks to Geoff for the invitation to participate here.

Magnums of Avize chardonnay in Bollinger's cellars, to be used as reserve wines

Champagne is arguably the most famous wine in the world, yet while few people dislike drinking it, it often happens that even experienced tasters have difficulties analyzing it critically. Beyond binary distinctions—“I like this,” or, “I don’t like this”—there is generally much less critical discussion about champagne among wine professionals and connoisseurs than there is about still wines.

One contributing factor could be that in the modern day we tend to think of wine in terms of fruit, and the fruit flavors in champagne are not always as straightforward as they tend to be in other wines, unfolding slowly over a long period of time rather than being forward and generous in their youth. To complicate the matter further, the process of extended lees aging has the effect of toning down the primary fruit flavors as well, bringing out more subtle and less obviously definable aromas.

Perhaps the most basic explanation, though, is that we simply don’t pay as much attention to champagne as we do to still wines. To begin with, most of us taste many more still wines than we do champagnes. Furthermore, champagne is generally consumed in relaxed and convivial circumstances, when we’re not really in the mood for working. Let’s face it: champagne is delicious. It’s refreshing. It goes down easily. When we open a bottle of champagne, we tend to drink, not think.

As with all wines, though, champagne becomes even more rewarding when we reflect upon it, and delving further into champagne reveals it to be a wine of remarkable diversity, complexity and expression. Here are five tips towards achieving a more complete picture of champagne:

1. Champagne is all about balance.
All wines require a certain harmony of components to be deemed worthwhile, yet perhaps because of its intrinsic delicacy and finesse, champagne seems to place an even higher emphasis on balance. Acidity, alcohol, sugar and depth of flavor must all be in accord with one another, and furthermore, there is an extra element to negotiate in the bubbles. When you taste a champagne, focus on how these components interact with each other. Do they all align in a well-proportioned harmony, or does one of them dominate at the expense of another?

For many people, this idea translates into a preference for lighter, more elegant champagnes—it’s no accident that blanc de blancs, based on the intrinsic finesse and refinement of chardonnay, is a widely popular style. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that good champagne has to be light in body. Egly-Ouriet’s powerful Blanc de Noirs, for example, is not at all a light wine, but it balances its rich, old-vine depth with an intense minerality and impeccable structure. Another example might be Anselme Selosse, who is a master at successfully pushing the boundaries—his 1999, for example, finished at 14.2 degrees of alcohol, which would normally result in disaster. That wine has instead turned out to be excellent, but woe to those who try to imitate it.

2. Dosage is important in achieving balance, and drier is not always better.
The dosage plays a critical role in a finished champagne. In the traditional style of champagne it not only balances acidity, but also helps the fruit flavors to be more fully expressive. Contrary to what many people think, its function is not only to make a wine sweeter or drier. Every champagne has a particular point of balance, an optimal level of dosage at which the wine feels at its most harmonious and complete. That point is different for all champagnes, depending on the character of the base material: some wines will achieve a balance at ten grams per liter, others at six, a few at three. There are even some champagnes that are sufficiently balanced and complete without any dosage at all, although this is much more rare than many people would like to believe.

Tasting trial versions of the 2002 Coeur de Cuvée at different dosage levels with Laurent Champs of Vilmart & Cie.

It’s the job of the winemaker to find this balancing point, and oftentimes when it's found (assuming sufficient age after disgorgement), the dosage seems to disappear into the wine, enhancing and enlivening the other elements while melding itself into them. If the dosage is too high or too low, the sugar tends to stick out more awkwardly, and the rest of the wine fails to achieve harmony.

Due to this, judging dosage purely by numeric value is hazardous at best, and most often, simply foolish. With the rise of zero-dosage and low-dosage champagnes, it is becoming increasingly fashionable to embrace ever-lower levels of dosage and sneer at higher ones, yet it’s erroneous to talk about numbers in isolation without putting them into the context of the actual wine. Five grams is not automatically better than nine grams, it’s simply less. It’s as ludicrous as saying that a vin jaune from the Jura is better than a white Burgundy because it comes in a 620-ml bottle instead of a 750-ml one.

The problem with this trend is that some producers are reacting by lowering their dosages without regard to the overall balance of the wine, resulting in champagnes that are obviously unharmonious. For example, with its recent release of Cuvée No. 734, Jacquesson initially dosed the wine at five grams per liter, which is well within extra brut levels and cannot be considered excessive by any educated and reasonable standards. The wine is beautifully expressive, showing a floral fruitiness on the nose and long, elegantly detailed flavors on the palate. However, in the following disgorgement the house chose to lower the dosage to 3.5 g/l, which has produced a wine that is markedly inferior. The nose is much less complex in feel, and so un-aromatic compared to the first disgorgement that it seems almost mute. On the finish the wine is stunted and compressed, appearing short, steely and aggressive instead of ample and fragrant. Don’t be fooled by fashion—the best dosage is one that brings the wine into balance, not the one that is simply the lowest.

3. For some questions, there are multiple right answers.
Champagne is consumed largely at celebrations or as an aperitif, and due to this, many people have a relatively fixed idea of what champagne ought to be like. In reality, though, champagne is made in a wide range of styles, and it’s becoming even more diverse as producers are exploring new ideas in both the cellars and the vineyards.

To begin with, the fundamental influence of terroir is often overlooked. Chardonnay that is grown in the Côte des Blancs, for example, will generally be crisply acidic, intensely chalky and relatively light in body. The same grape grown across the river in the Vallée de la Marne, however, will produce a wine that’s broader in feel and slightly more ample, expressing the influence of the greater clay content in the soil and a situation closer to the Marne River. Compare these to chardonnay grown down in the Aube—the warm, south-facing slopes of Montgueux, perhaps, or the Kimmeridgian soils of the Côte des Bar—and they can feel as if they came from a completely different appellation. You might prefer the wines from one area to those of another, just as you might prefer Chambolle-Musigny to Gevrey-Chambertin or the Rheingau to the Pfalz. But beyond personal preference, the significant issue is that distinctions between terroirs really do exist in Champagne, and the more you familiarize yourself with these, the more exciting the region becomes.

Chardonnay vines on the Butte de Saran in Cramant

Grape variety also plays an important role in determining the character of a champagne. Chardonnay creates champagnes of great finesse, but pinot-based champagnes can also be compelling for their fruit expression. At some point the wines can be so different in character that they become difficult to compare. Aside from the fact that they both have bubbles, the difference between a pure chardonnay from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and a meunier from St-Thierry can be surprisingly vast.

Of course, the style of the producer probably has the greatest impact of all. The choices made in both viticulture and vinification, the results obtained by blending and the amount of time spent on the lees before disgorgement are just a few of the factors that influence the final wine, and obviously these vary tremendously from one producer to another. In addition, while champagne has traditionally focused heavily on practices in the cellar, there has been a considerable shift in attitudes toward the vineyards in the past couple of decades, resulting in radically new styles of wine. What this means is that champagne is more diverse today than ever before, making this a time of extraordinary opportunity for the consumer.

Diversity makes the world of wine richer. I love wines from the Loire Valley and I love wines from Barolo, but I drink them with different things and in different circumstances. By the same token, why restrict yourself to one style of champagne? A youthful, fruity champagne fulfills a completely different function than a mature, complex one does, and while there are times that are perfect for a racy, mineral-drenched blanc de blancs by Diebolt-Vallois, there are other times when the occasion calls for a rich, opulent champagne from Louis Roederer or Krug. I am sure that in your cellar there is a wide array of different types of still wines—young and old, delicate and rich, dry and sweet, profound and easy-drinking. I would encourage you to think of champagne in a similar fashion, not as a single and uniform entity but as a diverse and multi-faceted world waiting to be explored.

4. Champagne deserves an appropriate glass.

It’s virtually accepted as a given nowadays that the type of glassware you use will have a pronounced impact on the way that wine smells and tastes. In my opinion, the choice of glass has an even greater impact on champagne than it does on still wines, not only in terms of its effect on the bubbles, but also in the way that it affects the aromas and flavors of the wine.

Today, some progressively-minded people choose to serve champagne in white wine glasses rather than in flutes, and this does work well in certain circumstances. But that’s not to say that a decent champagne glass is always inadequate. Granted, if you’re drinking out of the thick, three-inch-tall “flutes” that you find in a typical French bar, then yes, even upgrading to a tumbler might be beneficial. But a standard champagne glass of the sort that you’d find in a good restaurant, such as those made by Riedel, Spiegelau, Schott Zweisel, Ravenscroft or others, is typically a good choice, particularly for the classic, traditional style of champagne. In general, the most important feature to consider in a champagne glass is that it’s not too narrow.

The type of champagne that tends to do well in a larger white wine glass, though, is one that has a lot of vinosity and fruity depth. The avant-garde styles of grower champagne that are made from naturally-oriented viticulture, picked unusually ripe and released young with little or no dosage, such as those by Cédric Bouchard, Jacques Lassaigne, Jérôme Prévost or Vouette et Sorbée, for example, generally demand a larger glass to show their best. But classically-styled wines like Pol Roger or Taittinger may feel a little imbalanced in a regular wine glass. As with still wines, different types of champagnes show better or worse in different glasses, and it’s worthwhile to experiment with several of your favorite glasses to see how the wines respond, as well as to find out which glasses you prefer. Remember that balance is key—the best glass for a particular champagne is the one that brings all of the components into harmony.

5. Champagne is a wine, too.

This might seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but let’s be honest: we don’t treat champagne and still wines the same way. As enlightened as we are today, we still tend to drink champagne—whatever the style—as a celebratory beverage, an aperitif or, at most, an accompaniment to hors d’oeuvre or a light appetizer.

Yet champagne is a marvelous companion at the table, with its vibrant acidity, its relatively low alcohol and its sleek, unencumbered vitality. When it’s young it echoes the bright, clean flavors of modern cuisine, while with maturity it gains a complexity and depth that brilliantly complements classical sauces and savory, umami-rich foods. With champagne’s diverse array of styles, there’s an example to suit nearly every wine-friendly dish save the most robust, and surprisingly, even meats and game can often find champagnes that will accompany them successfully.

Henri Giraud 1998 Fût de Chêne, a robust, oak-fermented, pinot-driven champagne from Aÿ

Despite this, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to a restaurant and heard the word champagne when I’ve asked a sommelier for suggestions on pairing with a particular dish. This could partly be because we need to find room to fit other wines—drinking red wine as an aperitif, for example, is challenging. But I believe that it has more to do with attitude. Try experimenting with different champagnes at the dinner table and you might be surprised at the results. Also, thinking about the way that champagne interacts with food helps to focus attention on the components of the champagne itself: analyzing why it works (or why it doesn’t) gives us a better idea of what it really is. If nothing else, it increases the opportunities for us to drink champagne, and who wouldn’t welcome that?

  • I'd also like to say thanks to Peter for taking the time to write this article.

    I just have one question.  Are there any tricks of the trade to understand the Champagne's style just by reading the bottle?  Other than grape varietals, of course.

    In reference to style you said "that champagne is more diverse today than ever."  "The choices the producer makes in both viticulture and vinification, by blending, and the amount of time spent on the lees before disgorgement are just a few of the factors that influence the final wine, and obviously these vary tremendously from one producer to another".  Yet, and this is me writing again, some producers make many different styles while using the same grape varietals to the blend.  For example, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne.  At a resent trade tasting I had the privilege of tasting a vertical of Taittinger's fine vintage champagnes.  Some had dominate flavors of Granny Smith Apple with lemon zest and almond notes.  Others you could tell spent some significant time on their lees for the aromas and flavors of brioche and vanilla were delightful.  Same varietals, same producer, no notation on the bottle as to the style the producers had in mind.  If I didn't get this opportunity to taste these verticals I would not of known Taittinger had varying styles without doing research on the internet.

    I know this is the case with pretty much all varietals.  Cabernet comes in many different styles but you don't know which one you are going to get until you open the bottle.  Thats one of the jobs I love as a sommelier.  I can take a guest to a bottle of wine that meets the style that I discovered he or she likes.  I learned cabernet styles by sheer memorization and tasting, tasting, tasting.  Is this the same case with champagne or is there a quicker way to discover each producers style without breaking my bank account...?  


  • I am a big fan of champagne for all cuisines.  Thank you for this informative article.  I learned quite a bit.  For some reason I never really considered how each Champagne commune could reflect a different expression of styles.  I understand terroirs influence with still wine but for some reason neglected to study Champagne terroir.  

    In December I went to a trade tasting event featuring over 50 champagnes from about 30 houses.  It was a great opportunity to compare all styles of champagne side by side.   But I left that day with one troubling question that I have yet to find an answer.   Some of the brut champagnes at the tasting had rich flavors of Granny Smith apples, lemon and lime zests, some slightly floral, medium plus acid - most of these were Chardonnay led, if not 100%.  Other champagnes were black and red fruit dominate - black currants, black raspberries, strawberries - these were Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier led.  But what about the champagnes that were creamy, with notes of toasted brioche and baking spices, slightly floral, and the fruits were difficult to even extract.  This is a style of wine that I love.  I understand that style is determined by producer based upon viticulture and vinification techniques.  The time spent on the lees before disgorgement creates the creamy, brioche style.  BUT as a consumer, nothing on the bottle would tell me what style a particular bottle of champagne will be.  I would have to purchase each champagne and memorize the producers style.  Or go online and refer to the tasting notes.  Am I wrong?  The varietals in the blend will determine the fruit profiles.  I now know that the region or commune plays a part in the wines complexity and finesse.  Some houses, Bruno Paillard is a great example, produce both styles of champagne yet don't describe them on the bottle in any way.  His non vintage Brut Premier Cuvee was one of my favorites for the day, with rich, creamy brioche, just the right amount of red fruit, great balance, and a surprisingly long finish. While his 1999 vintage cuvee, with nearly the same blend of varietals was dramatically different, fruit driven, secondaries of honey and honeysuckle.

     Are there any shortcuts or trade secrets to help me understand the style of a particular bottle of champagne ?  Do I need to memorize each producers style?

    From what I could tell, this article, nor the Guild's Champagne compendium and study guides, does not touch upon this topic.  Any advice?

  • Great article and update!

    I was intrigued by your statement of

    "there has been a considerable shift in attitudes toward the vineyards in the past couple of decades, resulting in radically new styles of wine."

    and wanted more of the explanation of this "considerable shift in attitudes toward the vineyards" very much...

  • Peter, this post makes me rue that damned volcano all the more...what a time it would have been to travel the hills and valleys of Champagne alongside!  

    Question: which producers or Cuvees do you know of in France that we just don't see here in the U.S.?  To search for either over there or through friends over there...  Not thinking of you, btw!  

    Oh, and I know you dig P-Town, but you gots to head slightly north the next time you come the PNW way...

  • I agree with Geoff. Wines that are too rich tend to overpower oysters or clams, and while there are some exceptions, I usually find the flavors of pinot to clash with shellfish. A light, youthful and chalky blanc de blancs would be ideal.