I usually avoid champagne. It is most of the times impossible to find out what’s in the bottle. German Sekt is not better. But that’s a different story.
Basically 3 grape varieties are used for champagne. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
The mix of the grapes determines the character of each champagne. Unfortunately, labels say little about the contents of a bottle. To make a choice is difficult. And there is a lot of choice Champagne. In all price ranges.
If you follow a few rules while you buy champagne in France, you will find good fizz.
Taste before you buy
A good Champagne has very delicate fruit aromas. It smells of yeast and brioche. The carbonic acid is not aggressive.
That’s why you shouldn’t buy champagne without tasting.
The cellar masters of the big champagne brands make sure that their products always taste the same. If you like a bottle you can be sure the next one will be very similar. Year after year. A lot of blending wines is going on here. The French think it is an art to make the same champagne again and again.
I think always the same taste is boring. That’s why I tend to test smaller champagne houses. Their is no familiar, reliable taste and the taste can vary depending on the vintage. On the one hand, this offers a greater variety of flavors. On the other hand, a blind purchase quickly becomes expensive.
In the outer regions of Champagne, there can be free of charge tastings. In Reims or Epernay you pay 5 to 10 € per glass for sparkling wine. I think it’s money worth spending. Bottles, ending up in the drain, are no longer bargains.
Prices – don’t buy cheap
If you buy cheap Champagne, you cheat yourself. Champagne manufacturers have high costs. The grapes from the Champagne area alone cost between five and seven euros per kilo. You need at least a kilo to fill a bottle. Hand picking is mandatory. A bottle of Champagne is also handled up to 40 times before it reaches the customer. That means high personnel costs. In addition, capital is tied up because of the mandatory long ageing process of the sparkling wine.
There are always wines that are of poor quality. They are still processed and sold. Cheap champagne does meet the regulations. However, taste and quality levels are at the lower limit of what is reasonable.
Remember rule #1. Taste before you buy. It doesn’t matter what the houses recommend you. The french thinks Champagne is the #1 sparkling wine, so why try harder. They want to sell you something. You are a tourist and won’t come back if a bottle is of questionable quality.
If you are lucky, you will find good Champagne in large french supermarkets for a fraction of the original price. I bought e.g. a 2007 vintage for 25 €. Vintage 2009 is listed at the champagne house for 60 €.
Where does the difference come from? I think the manufacturers focus on new vintages. The older ones are sorted out at a certain point of time. These bottles are cheaper available in supermarkets.
To buy champagne in France you can memorize as a rule of thumb:
A champagne of a small unknown house without any marketing costs around 20 euros. For a bottle of standard champagne you pay around 35 euros.
Check the label
Colorful, elegant bottle designs and labels don’t equal good champagne. The small, black things that can be found on the label are important.
Mandatory information, such as the protected term “champagne”, brand name and address of the manufacturer, bottle content, alcohol or sugar content do not help to make a choice.
Champagne is a cuvée. That means it consists of a mixture of wines. The grape varieties are seldom specified on the label. If they are declared, the mixing ratio is missing. Likewise the vintage. This lack of information should give the manufacturers the best possible flexibility to keep the brand character. Well-trained personnel can be helpful in getting information that is not on the label. But mostly the customers are kept in the dark. Strangely it works. It’s the champagne myth.
Cuvée prestige or cuvée spéciale are top products of a manufacturer. Also a millésime. These can be quality product. Or not. I learned it the hard way.
For a millésime it is mandatory to print the vintage on the label. In addition the rule says it has to be on the lees for at least 3 years. Sometimes I buy millésimes blindly in french supermarkets. Buy a bottle, taste it, buy more if it’s a nice fizz. You can make good deals like that.
Disgorgement dates on the label are not mandatory. You don’t know if the champagne has matured or if it’s just old. Thanks to the Internet it is possible to get more information in front of the bottle shelf. Wine notes of the champagne house or other users help to avoid black sheep. Champagne develops in the bottle after disgorging.
Shopping in Reims
Let’s visit Reims now! If you pay attention how you buy champagne in France, things can’t go wrong. Unless the French are on strike. You can read more about my trip here.
Spoiler: I didn’t follow most of my rules of how to .. buy Champagne in France. Shopping was expensive and the drinks assaulted my palate.