Everything You Need To Know About Drinking Champagne:
Plus How to Pour and Serve With Flair

For most folks, Champagne remains a bit of a mystery. Sure, everyone drinks the good stuff at weddings and other momentous occasions, but aside from those random celebrations, the French sparkling wine is too often ignored. It’s thought of as too pricy, too snooty, too expensive and confusing to pick out, and even too difficult to open and pour.

The intoxicating bubbly need not be so inscrutable, though. Champagne is just as accessible as any other wine, if you have a little knowledge. What exactly differentiates Champagne from other sparkling wines? Where does it come from? Believe it or not, most people don’t know that Champagne is an actual French region! What glasses should you serve your Champagne in? And how to best to serve it? Most importantly, this article will help you realize Champagne need not only be served when there’s something worth toasting.

What Exactly Is It?

Champagne is always sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. The taste is somewhat irrelevant; where and how it’s produced is the key. To officially be “Champagne,” a sparkling wine must come from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, some 100 miles east of Paris, in the most northern wine-producing area of the country – a land of chalky, limestone-rich soil. That’s not everything, though.

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Starting in 1941, the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) – an official organization of Champagne producers and sellers – developed rules and regulations for what defines Champagne, in the hopes of protecting their home-grown product. Only when a product meets the following rules may it be labeled as “Champagne”:

  • Grapes must be grown in specifically-designated plots within the 34,500 hectare “la Champagne viticole” region; the varietals mostly consisting of black pinot noir, pinot meunier, and white chardonnay.
  • Grapes may not be harvested until the vine is at least three years old.
  • There are lengthy requirements for the pruning methods, vineyard yield, and the degree of pressings.
  • Bottling must follow the méthode classique – meaning, the wine must have a secondary fermentation of at least 15 months within the bottle to create the bubbly carbonation. (Champagnes labeled “vintage” must have a secondary fermentation of at least three years.)

CIVC strictly enforces these rules and they are further protected by European Union regulations and international trade agreements like the Madrid system, with lawsuits being filed in the case of abuse. In most countries it is now illegal to officially label a wine “Champagne” unless it comes from Champagne and is produced following these specific rules of appellation. But there’s one exception...

The California Loophole

Although the United States finally agreed to adhere to the CIVC’s appellation in 2003, some bottles of California bubbly are still labeled “California Champagne.” California has been making sparkling wine since the 1860s and generally labeling it all “Champagne,” with France not having much recourse. The Treaty of Versailles, though, which put an end to World War I, unintentionally had a loophole that curtailed the use of the name “Champagne” on wine labels in all nations party to the treaty. But unfortunately for France, the American Senate never ratified the treaty. Finally, in 2005, the United States and the European Union reached an agreement on trade restrictions and labeling laws – one of them being that “Champagne” would never again appear on American sparkling wine labels, unless the producer was already using the name. If that was the case, the American producer could use the term indefinitely. Most of these sparkling wines are of a lower-end quality, something that surely enrages legitimate French Champagne producers.

How to Serve Champagne

Unlike most wines, Champagne is to be served cold, with a liquid temperature in the 43–48 °F range. That range is generally best for appreciating and enjoying a Champagne’s aroma and flavors. A bottle can be chilled down either by placing it in the refrigerator for a few hours, or by placing it in a bucket of ice and water for a good twenty minutes. (If storing a bottle for an extended time period, keep in a cool cellar or room, unless you specifically have a wine refrigerator).

Also different from most wines is the cork situation. As Champagne is sparkling and the contents of a bottle is under pressure, there was a need to create something to prevent cork blowouts. In 1844 Adolphe Jacquesson invented something called the muselet – sometimes referred to as a “cage” in America – to stop this problem. While early versions of the muselet were difficult to remove, today Champagne has become one of the easiest (and most fun!) wines to open.

When opening a bottle, for safety purposes, point the neck of the bottle away from other people. Twist the wire clasp and slowly remove the muselet, exposing the cork. Now slowly ease the cork out of the bottle, keeping your thumb over it to prevent it popping out on its own accord. The cork should come out with a sound that is often described as a “sigh” (not a “pop”).

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Gushing is always a possibility, but if stored properly and gently opened, that should not happen often. Likewise, don’t intentionally try to “explode” the cork off the bottle. Though fun, you’ll actually waste precious bubbles with that giant pop. Then again, Champagne is meant to be fun!

For the longest time, Champagne has been served in flutes, which are great at showcasing bubbles, but not particularly capable of holding a lot of fluid. Originally, though, Champagne was served in more bulbous coupes, starting with the days of Marie Antoinette and lasting well into the Roaring Twenties. Unfortunately, while sexy, coupes aren’t necessarily as good at highlighting a Champagne’s bubbles and aromas. Whatever the case, most glassware, even the coupe, is generally satisfactory for serving champagne so long as they have a stem (you don’t want your hand to warm the glass).

When pouring, hold the base of the bottle with your thumb in the punt and your fingers around the barrel. Serve guests by pouring an inch or so into everyone’s glass. After that settles, you will able to top them off – this method is best for preventing any frothing over. Champagne bottles are meant to be finished quickly, in just one sitting, so drink up!

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Pairing Foods With Champagne

While most people think you can’t enjoy a great meal without wine – or vice versa, that great food accentuates great wine – Champagne is usually given short shrift when it comes to pairings. But it need not be. Champagne is a highly-versatile beverage alongside cuisine, owing to its high levels of acidity and minimal amount of sugar.

Now most people have probably done the sort of “decadent” food pairings that so often are found partnered with champagne – you know, oysters, foie gras, caviar, and the like. Those are delicious, but more middle- and even low-brow foods will work just as well. (One surprisingly terrible food pairing for champagne? Wedding cake.)

In fact, Champagne is so great because it doesn’t overpower foods, leaving you many options. The foods that work best though – whether high-end or not – should be salty and fatty. Snacks-wise, everything from nuts, olives, and charcuterie, all the way to more budget-friendly munches like popcorn, potato chips, and french fries work surprising well. Of course, Champagne works splendidly with cheese, preferably the more aged and stinky varieties. Champagne is likewise divine at breakfast as we all know, where a cheesy omelet is a perfect pairing. For dinner entrees, a rack of lamb, poached salmon, buttery lobster, creamy pastas, and even fried chicken work quite nicely.

The next time you pop a bottle of bubbly, do it with the confidence that you can't go wrong!

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