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Champagne 101: Your Guide to All Things Bubbly

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Pop that cork! (The right way.)

coupes of champagne in glasses with Dom Perignon and Veuve sparkling wine bottles

Champagne is the unofficial wine of celebration. Something about the popping cork, bubbles, and clinking of a toast with this sparkling white wine of France makes everything a little more special and fun. But as much as we love Champagne, how much do we actually know about it? Here is your Champagne 101 guide to all things bright and bubbly — from good food pairings to correct stemware to decoding the label.

You’ll also like: What’s the Deal With Decanting? and French Ham and Cheese Crêpes

coupes of champagne in glasses with Dom Perignon and Veuve sparkling wine bottles

How to Chill Champagne and Pop the Cork Correctly

Let’s start at the beginning: chilling the wine and getting the Champagne cork out of the bottle so you can drink it! Despite locker room and party celebration images of popping corks to the ceiling and spraying everything in sight, that is precisely not how to do it — if you want to be très correct, that is.

First, get your champagne the correct temperature. Champagne is best not straight from the refrigerator, but at about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows the flavor to show better than if it was ice cold. This makes sense; food never tastes as flavorful cold.

You don’t need a thermometer to be fairly accurate about the serving temperature, though. Remove the fully-chilled Champagne from the fridge and, assuming you have a cool room temperature, serve about 15 minutes later. Do not let the Champagne get warm, though. In additional to deadening the wine’s crispness, warmth expands the pressure inside the bottle, which could cause projectile cork popping.

Next, pop the cork. Here’s how:

  1. Make sure to avoid pointing the Champagne at anyone.
  2. Use a wine key or knife to cut the foil off the top of the bottle from beneath the bottle lip. Untwist the wire cage and remove it.
  3. Place a clean, folded kitchen towel or linen napkin lengthwise over the top of the bottle. Grip the sides of the napkin or towel against the sides of the Champagne bottle with your non-dominant hand as you slowly release the cork. To do this, use your dominant thumb to press the edge of the cork upward, making quarter turns of the bottle between each movement, slowly and evenly releasing the gas.
  4. Repeat until the cork (quietly) pops open!

There is another traditional way to open a bottle of champagne, and that is by sabering it, a real sight to behold and lots of fun. (But that’s for another post. In the meantime, check this out.)

champagne saber with bottle and glasses of champagne

How to Pour Champagne Correctly

To serve Champagne, tilt the glass on an angle and pour slowly, as you would a beer. You want to preserve the bubbles, and dumping the Champagne in the glass will make fizz too much, then go flat. Aim for one steady motion.

Do not overfill the Champagne glass. A Champagne glass should only be filled about one-quarter full, and refilled often, to keep the Champagne chilled and fresh.

What Type of Glass Is Best for Champagne?

Coupes, flutes, regular wine glasses? Coupes have the most old-Hollywood glam, and Champagne flutes are the most iconic shape. But may sommeliers and wine professionals agree that a white wine glass is the best way to serve Champagne. So great news, everyone: You do not need an extra set of stemware.

Why are white wine glasses the best? Mostly by a process of elimination.

Though they do preserve the bubbles a little longer, Champagne flutes do not allow drinkers to enjoy the wine’s aroma; the mouth of the glass is too narrow, and the wine has trouble “opening up.” Coupes are plenty wide, but people have a tendency to hold the bowl of the glass in their hands, warming the Champagne. Further, the wide bottom makes the bubbles dissipate more quickly.

champagne in white wine glass
Photo courtesy Reidel

What Does Brut vs. Extra-Brut Mean?

Literally, brut and extra-brut means “dry” and “extra-dry.” However! Do not be fooled by the literal translation. Brut Champagne will actually taste drier, and extra-dry a little sweeter due to the relative alcohol contents.

That said, both types still lean crisp and dry. When you get into the sec and demi-sec varietals, you will notice more perceptible sweetness.

Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne vs. Cava vs. Prosecco

Sparkling wine is the umbrella beneath which specific types of wine are categorized. Sparkling wine means any effervescent wine, with bubbles produced from a secondary fermentation of sugar and yeast. This fermentation can take place wither once the wine is inside the wine bottles, or in barrels. (Sparkling wine’s first fermentation is the initial fermentation of the grape juice’s sugar and yeast into alcohol and wine.)

Champagne is a French sparkling wine that:

  1. Is produced exclusively in the Champagne region of France,
  2. Was made according to the specific méthode Champenoise process of secondary fermentation in bottles to produce its bubbles, and
  3. Uses only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes.

Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine, made in a similarly traditional method of in-bottle secondary fermentation. Around 95 percent of Cava is produced in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia. The most common grapes are Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello, though this is non-exclusive. Cava may taste a little earthier than Champagne.

Prosecco is Italy’s answer to Cava and Champagne. Prosecco is from northeastern Italy, in the Veneto region, and is made from the Glera grape. Unlike Cava and Champagne, which undergo secondary fermentation in the bottles to make bubbles, Prosecco undergoes secondary fermentation in barrels. This charmat process is faster and cheaper, which helps keep Prosecco’s price lower than Champagne’s prices. The flavors usually hew a little sweet and simple. But that does not mean Prosecco isn’t a great drink.

roast chicken platter with salad and potatoes

What Food Pairs Best With Champagne?

Champagne tastes great on its own, but also makes for great food pairings. Different types of Champagne works best for different food.

For brut or blanc de blancs Champagne, think briny oysters and light seafood. This dry wine will also cut nicely through creamy dishes and some fried food as well.

Extra-brut Champagne works well with dishes like roast chicken and meatier seafood like lobster and halibut.

The rounder, more berried notes in rosé Champagne can hold its own and complement gamier poultry like duck and quail. It also makes a great pairing for fried foods, tuna, spicy food, and salty, cured meats.

coupes of champagne in glasses with Dom Perignon and Veuve sparkling wine bottles

3 comments

  • Happy New Year’s Eve Lisa!

    Loved the post about champagne!!!
    I’ve been a fan of it since about 15.
    And you probably don’t remember,but I’m the reader who hitchhiked through Europe & the U.K., fir 3 years from June 1982-Christmas 1985.

    While there I was lucky enough to tour the Moet & Chandon vineyard. One of my jobs I fell into in France was mucking horse stalls for a family I met. As a treat,after they learned of my love for champagne, they took me to the vineyard for a surprise. It was fascinating. The tasting made me feel so grown up (lol).

    Anyway!
    Thank you for another interesting read, I never tire of your posts, just look forward to more(I love your writing style).

    Have you ever written about comparisons of the different champagnes, do you have a favorite (if you do like it?).

    My fiancé and I have a bottle chilling for tonight.

    Thanks again for a year of exceptional recipes & writing!
    Lisa

    • Unpeeled

      Hello and thank you so much for sharing this! I am glad you enjoyed reading this. What a fantastic story! I hope you had a wonderful New Year’s Eve. Here’s to 2022!

  • So interesting! I had no idea that extra-brut was actually not as dry. I would have thought the opposite. Huh. Thanks; enjoyed this article a lot.

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