Champagne: the smallest stars shine the brightest

A brief introduction to the wines of Champagne…

Most of us have a favourite Champagne, the label that raises a subtle smile when spotted in the lilting hand of our host. Champagne has a special place in the hearts of the British: we imported more than 34 million bottles last year, way more than any other country. Quite right too – when at its best, Champagne is still the greatest sparkling wine in the world.

Amongst the wines of France, the Champagne region has a unique approach to making wine, born of necessity. At 90 miles northeast of Paris, it’s the most northerly winemaking region in France. When the weather is warm enough, the fruit grown on these rolling chalk hills is exceptional. But some years, it’s simply too cold or too wet. This has led to the traditional practice of blending, the mixing together of vintages, vineyards and varieties (usually Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) in the attempt to even out quality.

It’s this blended wine which becomes the Champagne House’s ‘non-vintage blend’, their calling-card house style, and usually their best-selling wine. Most also make a ‘vintage’ wine, only made with grapes grown in one named year, and only made after a favourable harvest. Rosé Champagne is increasingly fashionable, and uniquely in this region producers are permitted to blend still red wine into their white to make it pink. Though delicious, they are rarely the best value. Then there is the ‘prestige cuvée’, normally a selection of the very best grapes from the best years then subjected to long-term ageing. This is the Champagne Houses’ ultimate licence to print money, but they can be staggeringly good. But beware if it says ‘sec’ on the label – although French for ‘dry’, the wine will be sweet.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, although fizzy, Champagne is a wine like any other, with thousands of small producers, many of which are creating much more exciting and better value wines than the big names. They tend to only be found in independent wine shops and top restaurants, but they are well worth trying. So  although the names might be unfamiliar, why not seek out one of the best artisan producers? Autréau, Larmandier-Bernier and J.L.Vergnon are highly recommended. But if they are proving hard to find, Louis Roederer, Pol Roger, Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck are all safe bets for top quality fizz.

First published in Living France.