When you welcomed in the New Year, did you celebrate with a silly hat? Irritating noisemaker? Bottle of champagne? If you opted for the latter, you were among the hundreds of thousands across the country that downed an estimated 360 million glasses on New Year’s Eve.
If you passed on the bubbly because you don’t like it (you’re not alone if you live in one of these states) or never tried it, maybe you haven’t tasted the real thing.
The price tag may also have turned you off? Aldi has you covered with this affordable option.
Let’s break it down for you — what champagne really is, how it’s made, what it tastes like, and what flavors are available to tickle your tongue.
So, What is Champagne?
Some may refer to it as sparkling wine or bubbly, or even sham-PAG-nee (or is that just me?), but whatever you call it, not all sparkling wine is champagne and not all champagne is sparkling wine.
There are surprising differences between the two.
While sparkling wine is produced in countries across Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, and Spain, as well as in the U.S., only the Champagne region in France can call their bottled bubbles champagne.
Just because of the name, you ask? It’s more than that.
The chalk and limestone soils of this area north of Paris is ideal for growing high acidic grapes — one of the keys for champagne.
Along with the soil, wet and cool climate, strict regulations (enforced by the European Union under the Protected Designation of Origin status), and a meticulous, specialized process make this drink unmatched by what other areas of the globe can produce.
How is Champagne Made?
Let’s start with the basics.
Each bottle of bubbly (and by bubbly, I mean champagne and sparkling wine) is made with a specific blend of grapes.
And not just any grapes, but handpicked, immediately-pressed exactly twice in a covered environment Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes.
This special blend of fruit is processed using the Méthode Champenoise or Traditional Method.
For comparison, sparkling wine can use the Traditional or Tank Method (trapping bubbles in the bottle by using large steel tanks), but champagne must use the Traditional. There are a number of methods used to produce sparkling wines.
So what is the Traditional Method?
First, the grape blend undergoes primary fermentation or in other words, yeast works on the grapes’ sugars, which then produces alcohol (typically 10.5 to 11%), carbon dioxide, and high acidity.
The next step is called assemblage, or blending.
This is where the right combination of white and reserve wines are mixed with the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes for the “house style” flavor (having a consistent, reliable taste year after year).
Once the blending is complete, the “juice” is bottled, along with yeast, yeast nutrients, and sugar (liqueur de tirage), then capped and put in a cool cellar to ferment slowly.
This is the most important part: the carbon dioxide can’t escape, which is where the bubbly happens.
The second fermentation lasts 6-8 weeks (in the bottle) and is what separates the recipe from being sparkling wine.
Then the bottles are laid on their sides to rest, mature, and age for 15 months for non-vintage champagne to 36 months for vintage-dated wine (some of the best and most expensive is aged for 5 or more years!).
As it ages, the yeast cells break open and add a toasty, nutty flavor to the brew.
When fermentation is complete, then the painstaking process of riddling takes place.
The bottles are placed upside down at 75 degrees in a special rack called a pupitre and each day, a riddler (any other Batman fans find a little humor here?) gives each one a 1/8th turn to force the sediment to rise into the bottleneck.
The next step is disgorgement, where the upside down necks of the bottles are put in an ice-salt bath to freeze the dead yeast cells into a “plug.”
The cap is opened, and the carbon dioxide pressure forces the frozen sediment out (disgorging), leaving pure champagne.
Another dose of liqueur de tirage (white wine, brandy, and sugar) is added to adjust the sweetness and to top it off, then the bottle is corked and wired tight to lock in the effervescence.
Now, it’s ready to open, pour in a glass (ahem, flute to be exact), and have it roll across your taste buds.
So, What Does Champagne Taste Like?
Before you can hear the crackling fizz and have the fruity, flowery aroma rush past your nose, you need to properly uncork the carbonated treat.
Sure, you can shake it, pop it with a bang, and get showered in the sugary drink like you see on the silver screen, but a true uncorking experience should involve minimal noise and zero attention.
Check out our guide to uncorking if you don’t have a corkscrew.
To properly open a bottle of champagne, first remove the foil (if there’s any) with a knife.
Then place your thumb on the top of the wired cage. With the other hand, twist the cage six times, but DO NOT remove it.
Now for the cork.
Tilt the bottle at a 45-degree angle (away from anyone, of course).
Press one thumb down on top of the cork, with the same hand wrapped around the neck.
Put your other hand on the base and gently rotate the bottle (not the cork) all the way around or halfway then back and forth, whichever is easiest.
Pressure will begin to fill the bottle, and you should feel the cork shifting upward.
Keep your thumb on the cork and cage until the cork is almost out, then let it go until the cork and cage come out in your hand.
Good tip: to avoid spilling out too much of the effervescent joy, hold the bottle at an angle for a couple of minutes after the cork has been released.
Then the golden, crystalline, crackling fizz is ready to enjoy.
Now the question is: what does champagne taste like?
True champagne flavor relies on the grapes, how long it’s been aged, and how many fine lees (yeast sediment) particles are left floating in the mixture.
But most champagnes share a velvety mouthful of peach, cherry, citrus, almond, cream, and toast.
Along with the flavors that wash over your taste buds, the aromas of champagne is also essential to the overall experience.
Chardonnay grapes have notes of white flower, lime, and citrus.
While Pinot Meunier varieties lean toward strawberry.
The million-dollar question (or more like the $6,000 question, if it’s a bottle of NV Moet & Chandon Esprit du Siecle Brut) is: If champagne can only be champagne if it uses the same types of grapes from the same region, how can there be different flavors?
Simply, styles and sweetness separates each flavor.
Related: You may be interested in mixing your Champagne with orange juice to create mimosas! This should work for you, if you don’t like the taste of Champagne by itself.
Variety of Champagne Flavors
Depending on how much sugar you consider to be too sweet will determine what kind of bubbly you uncork.
Here’s a breakdown of the different types:
Brut Naturelle is what’s considered sugar-free, which makes it bone dry.
Extra Brut is one step above sugar-free with less than 1% of sugar, but still very dry.
Brut, the most popular variety, adds a little more sugar (less than 2 grams) and is still dry but varies from very dry to fairly dry.
Extra Sec or Extra Dry has about 3% sugar, making it dry to medium dry.
For medium sweetness and medium dryness, reach for a Sec.
Demi-Sec gets even sweeter, but Doux is dessert in a glass.
While the amount of sugar determines the dryness, how the grapes are used dictates the style of champagne you choose.
Blanc de blanc is a recipe with just Chardonnay grapes (or white wine) and is typically a lighter variety.
Blanc de noir contains either or both of the Pinot grapes (Noir or Meunier), and is white wine made from black fruit.
Pink champagne, or better known as rosé, is a blending of red and white wine.
This exception to the rule can also be made outside the coveted northern French region (so coveted that it was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2015) and still maintain its champagne moniker.
The other styles of champagne is their vintage status, and length of fermentation.
If a champagne is non-vintage, it’s a blend of different choices of wine to produce a consistent “house style.”
Vintage champagne, on the other hand, is a rarer version (less than 10% bottled each year) produced only in the most exceptional years and using 100% of the grapes listed on the label.
Now you know pretty much everything you need to enjoy this increasingly popular, celebratory drink of kings and commoners. Cheers!