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Champagne cork

Champagne is for show-offs, making it the bluffer’s perfect beverage. Take sabrage, for example: the simple technique of opening a bottle with a sabre, made popular when Napoleon’s army visited the region. Just hold the bottle facing away from you, then with a backhand movement slide your sabre, blunt-edge forward, along its body towards the neck. As you strike the lip it separates the collar, cork and all, from the neck of the bottle. Huzzah! As Napoleon himself remarked of Champagne, “In victory you deserve it. In defeat you need it.” And you’ll probably never need a glass more than when observing the severed end of your thumb lying in a pool of bubbles and shattered glass. Nonetheless, as a bluffer, you must claim that this is the purist’s method of opening. Just don’t try it at home.

As you and the late George Best are both aware, Champagne is more than just a drink; it is an expensive lifestyle choice. Assuming you have an attentive audience when drinking the stuff, ram your sybaritic credentials home by quoting the late, great Madame Bollinger: “I drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”

Serving Champagne

First impressions last, so if you don’t have a sabre to hand and you don’t want to make a Champagne Charlie of yourself, the best way to open a bottle of fizz is as follows. Once you have stripped away the foil and freed the cork from its wire prison (la cage), hold said bottle at an angle of 45 degrees, facing away from eyes and breakable objects. Hold the cork still and gently twist the bottle, tilting the cork sideways slightly, allowing the carbon dioxide to leave with a sigh rather than an undignified bang. Make sure the bottle has been resting in the fridge for at least a couple of hours beforehand (nothing fizzes like warm Champagne) to avoid both injury and the embarrassment of premature ejaculation.

Before you pour, wrap the bottle in a crisp, white damask napkin to conceal the label because a) it is bad form to boast, and b) it might not be Champagne at all, more of which later. Quarter-fill each glass, allow the foam to subside, then top up, leaving sufficient space to ‘nose’ the heavenly elixir. For added effect, hold the bottle like a sommelier, with your thumb in the indent (the punt) at the base of the bottle. Contrary to popular belief, the punt is not there to short-change you but to further strengthen the thick glass which, you might like to point out, needs to contain the equivalent pressure of a tyre on a London double-decker bus.

And remember, all this pomp and circumstance will be wasted if you serve your fizz in a Champagne saucer or coupe. This shallow design allows a) the Champagne to warm up as it is in close contact with your hand, and b) a rapid dissipation of the mousse (bubbles). A tall, slender flute glass remedies both a) and b). Note that there are different views on the correct way to fill a flute. Some favour the popular method of pouring it straight into a vertically held glass, so that there is maximum bubble action. But according to recent research in France, pouring Champagne down the side of the glass (at an angle) preserves up to twice as much carbon dioxide (fizz) as pouring it down the middle. This is thought to be due to the gentler pour rate (i.e., reduced speed) at which the Champagne hits the glass. And crucially, you get more in.

How Champagne is made

When it comes to bluffing about bubbly you need a phrase book. For a start, it’s le Champagne (the drink) and la Champagne (the region), an interesting anomaly you can draw attention to as you admire the fine mousse rising in your flute. With Champagne, more than any other type of wine, you need to arm yourself with les mots justes.

Champagne is made by the traditional method (méthode traditionelle), otherwise known as the classic method (méthode classique); for Eurocratic reasons it can no longer be referred to as the Champagne method (méthode champenoise). Fundamentally, it’s about producing a second fermentation in a bottled wine, which creates the fizz.

The winemaker begins with a palette of still ‘base wines’ which he mixes into a cuvée (blend) in the appropriate house style, in a process called assemblage. The region’s famous chalky soils and its northerly position – Champagne is France’s most northerly appellation – ensure that these base wines have the high levels of acidity that are necessary for quality sparkling-wine production.

Explain that it is because Champagne is a blend that it seldom tastes like the still version of, say, Chardonnay plus gas. You might venture that the tooth-stripping acidity of the still wines made in the Coteaux Champenois is the most persuasive argument for making Champagne fizzy.

Once bottled, the blended base wines are enriched with a liqueur de tirage, which is a mixture of young wine, sugar and yeast. This provokes the second fermentation called the prise de mousse, which is best translated as ‘capturing the sparkle’. This usually lasts for about three to five years, during which the bottle is sealed with a temporary crown cap (bouchon de tirage). The longer the wine spends in contact with the decomposing yeast, the more it will take on the flavours of dead yeast cells (yummy), a process known as yeast autolysis. ‘Ah, a pleasingly autolytic Champagne!’ you can exclaim, if it shows the well-bred Champagne flavours of bread, biscuits and brioche.

During this second fermentation period, the bottles are ever-so-slowly tilted from a level position until they are inverted, causing all the sticky, nasty ‘lees’ (dead and dying yeast cells) to gather in a lump in the neck of the bottle. Traditionally, this process, known as remuage (riddling), was helped along by a man in a white coat called a remueur (riddler), who tilted each bottle by hand, giving each one a short, sharp twist to encourage the yeast cells down into the neck. A skilled riddler could riddle up to 50,000 bottles a day, but most producers these days do their riddling with automated racks called yropalettes, developed by the Spanish Cava industry. Once the yeast cells have finished their downward migration into the neck of the bottle, and the wine is considered to have spent long enough in their company, it is time for dégorgement (disgorgement). The bottle necks are plunged into a freezing brine solution, the dead yeast cells turn into an ice plug, the crown cap is removed and the frozen plug bursts forth. The final act is to top up each bottle with a liqueur d’expédition, a mixture of still wine and cane sugar, in a process called dosage. The larger the dose, the sweeter the Champagne. Each bottle is then sealed with a cork and wire cage. It should be apparent by now why Champagne is so expensive. So the next time someone complains about the cost, you’ll have the ammunition at your fingertips to explain why. It’s a risky tactic, as you don’t wish to be mistaken for a banker or hedge fund manager, but imply that the whinger in question is one of tho e people who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

You could concede, however, that riddling the bottles, the most cumbersome and costly part of the whole process, is undertaken for purely cosmetic reasons, to prevent the wine from being cloudy – but who wants to drink cloudy Champagne? You wouldn’t be able to admire the mousse.

The second-best method for making sparkling wines, by some distance, is the charmat or ‘tank’ method, where everything up to the final bottling is done in a pressurised tank. It is much cheaper, quicker and less labour-intensive, but can you taste the love?

The cut-rate method, favoured by cheapskates and meths drinkers, is the injection or ‘bicycle-pump’ method, as used in the production of soft, fizzy drinks. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped from cylinders into a tank of wine, which is then bottled under pressure. The resulting liquid has lots of big bubbles when poured, but they rapidly fade, leaving the disappointed drinker feeling as flat as his ‘fizz’. This method is widely used to make Germany’s debilitatingly dry sparkling wine called Sekt. Apparently, when Bismarck was offered a glass by the Kaiser himself, he replied, ‘I am sorry, your Majesty. My patriotism stops short of my stomach.’ And despite producing industrial volumes of Sekt, Germany is one of the largest importers of Champagne.

So, if you don’t see the words méthode traditionelle or méthode classique (or anglicised derivations thereof), refer to it as ‘picnic fizz’ and drink it accordingly – like ripping off a plaster. Honourable exceptions can be made for decent Prosecco.

Champagne styles

The first distinction to make is between non-vintage Champagne (abbreviated to NV) and the vintage version. Non-vintage (most) Champagne is a blend of wines from several years, whereas vintage fizz is made from the wines of a single year deemed to be exceptionally good. It’s not age we pay for, but the perceived quality of that particular vintage – which is why vintage Champagne does not need to be very old in order to command eye-watering prices. In fact, Champagne that is more than about 15 years old turns a darker, toffee-ish colour, takes on a honeyed flavour and loses its sparkle quickly once poured. It’s an acquired taste, you can explain, which the French mischievously call le goût anglais (‘the English taste’), on the grounds that the English, apparently, are into that sort of thing.

To understand the peculiar dry/sweet nomenclature of Champagne you’ll need not just a phrase book, but a willing suspension of disbelief. Brut is dry, but rarely bone dry. For that, you need wines labelled extra brut, ultra brut, brut sauvage, brut zero or zero dosage (no added sugar). Curiously, ‘extra dry’ denotes a style that is less dry than brut. Champagnes described as sec are usually quite sweet (off-dry), even though sec is French for ‘dry’. It’s so illogical that you’re sure to score bluffing points, first by confusing people (bad cop), then by adopting the role of the kindly expert (good cop) and guiding them through this minefield.

Argue, contentiously, that most people express a preference for dry wines because they think it makes them look sophisticated, yet in blind-tasting situations they frequently prefer off-dry, medium styles. If pressed on this point, explain that this is often the case when focus groups are involved in taste-testing new drinks.

Certain cider brands, for example, label their medium ciders as dry for this very reason: to appeal to the faux-sophisticates. If at a wedding, or any other cake-based celebration, lament the fact that truly sweet Champagne (labelled as doux or riche) is so hard to come by. It’s a much better partner for cakes and desserts, don’t you think?

As you know, Champagne can be made from three permitted grape varieties, and each brings something to the party. Chardonnay adds elegance and finesse, Pinot Noir gives body and strength, and Pinot Meunier brings freshness and youth. It is generally considered that Champagne’s finest Chardonnay comes from the Cote des Blancs region to the south of Epernay, while its best Pinot Noir comes from the Montagne de Reims, which is as mountainous as Norfolk.

Obviously, Chardonnay is a white grape and the two Pinots are red – or, in Champagne parlance, ‘black’. Hence, blanc de blancs (‘white of whites’) denotes a lighter style made solely from Chardonnay, while blanc de noirs (‘white of blacks’) is fuller-bodied Champagne: white, obviously, but made entirely from black grapes. This is achieved by minimising the contact between the freshly pressed juice and the black grape skins, which is where the pigment is found. Most rose wines are made by controlling this maceration process. Do point out, however, that pink Champagne is one of the very few rose wines that are made by adding a soupçon of red wine to the blend. Not a lot of people know that.

The most coveted (and certainly most expensive) Champagnes are the de luxe cuvées, or cuvées de prestige. The mouthwash of oligarchs, footballers, bankers and rappers, these are statement wines for very conspicuous consumption. You could certainly buy two or three bottles of non-vintage Champagne for the price of one deluxe cuvée, so do the contents of a deluxe bottle match the bells and whistles of its packaging?

As a discriminating bluffer with a finely tuned palate, you will have to argue that they are worth every penny, and here are the arguments you’ll need. De luxe cuvées are produced only in limited quantities, made from the best fruit from the top-rated vineyards, using only the juice from the first pressing of the grapes, or the tête de cuvée – literally ‘head of the blend’. This has fewer of the harsh tannins found in subsequent pressings, so it lends itself to making wines with greater elegance and finesse.

The first prestige cuvées were Louis Roederer’s Cristal and Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon (or ‘DP’ for those in the know), but now all the leading Champagne houses boast at least one über-fizz. Among those to be suitably impressed by are Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne; Krug’s Grande Cuvee; Pol Roger’s Winston Churchill; Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame; Perrier-Jouet’s Belle Epoque and Bollinger’s RD, which, of course, stands for récemment dégorgé (‘recently disgorged’). Champagnes that are disgorged (removed from their lees) at the last moment before going to market seem to retain their freshness and fruity expression regardless of their age.

According to the company, Cristal was created by Louis Roederer in 1876 for Tsar Alexander II, who allegedly insisted on the now-iconic clear glass bottle so he could see what he was drinking (uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and all that). The hip-hop community embraced Cristal so everyone else could see what they were drinking, but the rappers have since dropped Cristal like a hot pomme de terre.

Offence was taken at comments, which were deemed disrespectful, from Roederer’s headquarters, allegedly suggesting the association with hip-hop was ‘unwelcome’ (subsequently denied). This is pretty rich, coming from a culture that referred to Cristal as ‘Crissy’ and drank it from the bottle through a straw. You might know your RD from your DP, but if you want to get down with the kids, you need to know that rappers have since moved on to Armand de Brignac (with its nice, understated gold bottle).

For more sparkling repartee, drink in The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine®