“My Only Regret In Life Is That I Did Not Drink More Champagne” ~ John Maynard Keynes

These are said to have been the last words of John Maynard Keynes, English economist and father of macroeconomics. For a wine to have so profoundly touched the heart of this famous number cruncher there must be something magical about this beverage.

Indeed, we do think of Champagne as a wine of celebration and very special occasions. Although there is no shortage of great sparkling wines from all over the world, most of us acknowledge that there are some occasions like the holidays, weddings or anniversaries where only the “real” thing will do. If you are looking to select a special bottle for this New Year’s Eve or to find that especially great Champagne you will love drinking in 2015 . . keep reading!

What is Champagne?

Only wines grown in Champagne, the northern most wine region of France, which adhere to the strict winemaking regulations are allowed to use the designation “Champagne.”  This region has a very special soil with high levels of chalk and limestone.  Along with a cool climate, the soil is said to create the necessary conditions to grow grapes with the right fruit and acid balance to create the magic of Champagne. There are three grapes used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (pronounced Pee-Noh Moon-yay)—the latter two are red grapes, whereas the former is a white grape. Most Champagne is made by blending still wines made from these three grapes to take advantage of each grape’s varietal character.  It is said that Chardonnay adds elegance; Pinot Noir power; and Pinot Meunier fruitiness. 

Champagne Houses create a blend that expresses their distinctive style or often referred to as a “house style.”  One special blend bears the term Blanc de Blancs (translated “white from whites”), which is made entirely from the Chardonnay grape and tends to be more elegant and less fruity. In contrast, another special blend bears the term Blanc de Noirs (translated “white from blacks”), which uses the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and has more fruitiness and power.

How is Champagne made?

Let’s review the basic process of creating Champagne, which has become the gold standard in sparkling wine production.  Grapes are harvested by hand when ripe and a still wine is created from each grape variety. The red grape skins are removed during fermentation, which prevents color or tannin being imparted to the wine (to give red wine its red color, the skins are left in contact with the wine during fermentation). An exception to this rule would be the production of Rosé Champagne, which is created from minimal skin contact or the addition of red wine for flavor and color.  The wine maker will then create their blend of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier wines and possibly other vintages as well—this process is called assemblage in France.  Blending of vintages is used to ensure that the house style remains consistent from year to year.  The winemaker wants its Champagne to be the same fabulous tasting experience every time. It is said that a monk, Dom Pérignon, was the first to perfect the art of blending in the Champagne region.

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In excellent years the winemaker will produce vintage Champagne bearing the vintage on the label and containing only grapes from that specific year’s harvest. Vintage Champagne is meant to be an expression of that vintage, rather than a house style.  Since it is only made in certain years, Vintage Champagnes tend to be more expensive.

Next, the blend is added to a bottle with what is called the liqueur de triage, which is liquid yeast with sugar. Topped with a crown bottle cap, like those used for beer, this bottle is rested on its side for the secondary fermentation.  The yeast and sugar in the liqueur de triage set off fermentation with by-products of alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is trapped by the bottle cap to create the legendary tiny bubbles of fine Champagne.  As the yeast cells transform the sugar to alcohol, they settle to the bottom of the bottle and are usually left there for at least 12 months and sometimes up to three years to add richness and flavor to the wine. This aging process explains why some Champagnes smell toasty or like a fresh baked loaf of bread, and it also allows the bubbles to become better integrated with the wine. 

After aging, the winemaker uses either a manual or automated method to remove the yeast sediment.  Then, a blend of wine and sugar called dosage is added to the wine before corking.  The amount of sugar that is contained in the dosage will determine the Champagne’s sweetness style.  The wines with the least sugar are considered Extra Brut (or bone dry) with styles of increasing in sweetness—Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux (sweetest).

Try These Champagnes for a very Happy New Year!Nicolas Feuillatte Brut NV

Once a legend on the New York party scene, Nicolas Feuillatte inherited a vineyard in Champagne in 1978 and began creating high end sparklers for friends like Jackie Onassis and Lauren Bacall.  Word spread quickly and this is now known as one of the best values in Non Vintage (NV) Champagne.  An emphasis on red grapes in the blend creates this light bodied Champagne with flavors of apple and pear.  You don’t have to have the pedigree of Jackie O to know that this is one delicious sparkler.   
(Retails for approximately $29.99)      

Ployez-Jacquemart Brut NV

Their passion for Champagne and each other inspired Marcel Ployez and Yvonne Jacquemart to establish the Ployez-Jacquemart house in 1930. Three generations have continued this labor of love crafting wines from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards that taste like they cost twice as much.  60% of the blend is Pinot Noir and Meunier making this a very aromatic, rich sparkler.  If you prefer small family run restaurants over big chains you get what is so special about this wine.  Invite over that special someone and share this sparkler for New Year’s and it’s guaranteed to ignite some sparks! (Retails for approximately $39.99)      

Pierre Peters Cuvee Speciale 2007

If only the best will do, then this Blanc de Blancs vintage Champagne made from 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes from 2007 is for you.  Pierre Peters is one of a new breed of artisanal producers making what is sometimes referred to as “grower-Champagne.”  One whiff of this wine and you know there is love in the glass with aromas of ripe lemon, spice and caramel.  Its powerful grip and unique flavor profile will make this year’s toast like none other.   (Retails for approximately $114.99)      

Hopefully understanding what makes the wines of Champagne so special has inspired you to enjoy a glass or two! To make the celebration complete consider pairing it with oysters, lobster or buttered popcorn with truffle oil.  Just like each of us takes time to evolve so does our full appreciation of the famed bubbly we know as Champagne.  Consider each glass a way to better understand and love this legendary wine.  Who wants to look back one day and regret missing out on one of life’s greatest treats?