How to Select Good Champagne

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Champagne instantly conjures up images of festive celebrations, but there's no need to wait for a special occasion to break out the bubbly. This sparkling wine has taken its rightful place on the dinner table as a delicious food accompaniment, with more affordable selections available than ever. Go to WineSpectator.com for insider tips on the best vintages, but keep in mind that a mid-range champagne may actually give you the best bang for your buck.

  • Respect the arrogance of the French when it comes to champagne. They say the only legitimate bubbly is the stuff that hails from France's Champagne region. All others are technically sparkling wine (known as spumante, sekt or vin mousseux in other parts of the world).

  • Understand what "sweetness" means with regard to champagne. It's determined by the winemaker during the process of fermentation with the addition of dosage (a secret blend of wine, sugar and sometimes brandy). Levels include brut (very dry), extra brut (extra dry, but sweeter than brut), sec (medium sweet), demi-sec (sweet, considered a dessert wine) and doux (very sweet, considered a dessert wine).

  • Purchase from the three main types of champagne. Methode Champenoise is a rigorous, multistep process. Indicates a top-quality sparkling wine was made exactly the same way as French champagne--"fermented in this very bottle." Vintage Champagne is made only on occasions. Wines from the declared year must compose at least 80 percent of the cuvee (blend of still wines), with the balance coming from reserve wines from prior years. Must be aged for three years before release. Nonvintage Champagne (NV) are blends of usually five to seven years that make up 75 to 80 percent of those bottled. It is typically made in a definitive house style and maintained by meticulous blending. It is with this reserve that the winemaker is able to create the same style every year.

  • From the three main categories, learn about the many derivatives. Rose is made by adding a small amount of red still wine to the cuvee, although some producers extract color by macerating the juice with red grape skins. The clearer the better and more full-flavored when it comes to Blanc de Noirs. It's made entirely from the red Pinot Noir and/or Meunier grapes. Blanc de Blancs are usually more delicate and the lightest in color--made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. Made with only slightly more than half the pressure of standard sparkling wines, Cremant has a creamier mouth-feel. Grand Cru, meaning "great growth" is the top ranking a French vineyard can receive. Premier Cru, or "first growth," is the second-highest ranking of French vineyards. Grande Marque is a French term for "great brand" and is used unofficially to refer to the best champagne houses.

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