Nothing repays close attention quite like Champagne. This is a wine that bares its soul like no other — a soul that "dances in the bottle" wrote the poet Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal. Now joyful, now sad, now powerful, now graceful, Champagne can be exuberant one moment and hushed the next. It can be full bodied or delightfully spirited, big enough for grand occasions but gentle enough for a romantic tête-à-tête. This is a wine that you taste with your head and drink with your heart, a wine that speaks to the softness inside you.
"Champagne murmurs in the glass
like a wave flowing up the beach"
Champagne is the only wine that makes a sound, stimulating all five senses as it sharpens your perceptions. First there is the soft "pop" of the cork leaving the bottle. Then, as you hold the glass up to your ear, there is the whisper of escaping gas — a fizzing, crackling sound that may be soft or loud as the bubbles jostle their way to the surface. Sound is your first glimpse of a Champagne’s personality, whether timid, reserved, animated, gushing, effusive — the words you use are yours to choose. Sound is how Champagne makes its entrance.
Sight is the next sense that comes into play. As with still wine, the eye observes the density and the particular shade of colour, looking for such qualities as brightness (the wine’s potential to reflect light) and clarity (translucence).
Colour density is judged on a scale that ranges from virtually colourless or pale to concentrated or intense. The shade or hue is the colour value to which the Champagne most closely approximates, with different gradations of colour between the wine at the centre of the glass and the wine at the rim, or meniscus, where light is reflected in the wine.
White Champagne can range in colour from pale yellow to old gold and various shades of yellow in between (greenish yellow, lemon, straw coloured, gold, buttercup, honey coloured). Rosé Champagne is pink as its name suggests but with the exact shade varying from peony pink to coral, progressing through raspberry, strawberry, antique pink, grey, salmon pink and crimson. Words to describe the brightness of Champagne (its potential to reflect light) include clean, luminous, twinkling, radiant, shimmering or sparkling. Words to describe the clarity (or translucence) of the Champagne include transparent, limpid and crystalline.
A Champagne Blanc de Blancs is usually pale yellow or straw-coloured while a Champagne Blanc de Noirs tends to be a richer shade of yellow verging on gold.
This being Champagne, there is also the effervescence to consider. The rate of bubble formation depends on a number of factors, starting with the pressure in the bottle but also including the temperature at which the Champagne is served. The colder the liquid, the more dissolved gas it can hold and the less the pressure of CO2 at the surface of the wine. The composition of the Champagne is another factor, particularly in terms of (protein-based) surfactant concentrations — which make for more stable bubbles and more of them too. Just to complicate matters further, the glass also affects bubble production. Shape (tulip or coupe), the condition of the glass itself (whether smooth or scratched, dirty or clean) can all seriously influence the visual appreciation of Champagne. This is easily seen by observing several glasses filled with the same Champagne and placed on the same table. The effervescence will be different in every case.
That aside, a Champagne’s mousse is described according to its persistence — too little or too much, fleeting or long-lasting. This initial effervescence then subsides, leaving a ring of bubbles (cordon de mousse) around the rim of the glass. Observe the size of these bubbles, the space they occupy and how long they last. Next, observe the bubbles that rise up from the bottom centre of the glass. Their size and frequency offer a major visual clue to the quality of a Champagne. Notice too, where the bubbles form (bubble nucleation sites) and whether they always seem to form from the same spot on the glass.
Bursting bubbles at the surface also help propel the aromas towards the nose — but they can be a bit overpowering. Hence the need to hold the glass at some distance and let the aromas reach the nose gradually. One good sniff will tell you all you need to know — swirling the glass will only increase the fizz factor.
Before all else, try to assess the strength of this first impression, and also its balance. Ask yourself whether the wine’s aromatic intensity may be described as weak (insipid, closed, discreet) or strong (fruity, expressive, fragrant, developed). What about the balance? Would you say it was average or subtle, elegant and refined? As with all wines, the aromas themselves may be classified into primary, secondary and tertiary — but this distinction is particularly marked in Champagne wines. The primary (or varietal) aromas are a case in point: lime-blossom, white fruits and citrus from the Chardonnay; cherry fruit, peonies and violets from the Pinot Noir; and (occasionally exuberant) strawberry aromas from the Pinot Meunier.
The secondary aromas in Champagne are those derived from yeast autolysis: the self-destruction of the yeast cells following secondary fermentation. Champagne, like all wines made in the méthode traditionnelle, shows complex yeast autolysis character of toast, bread dough, brioche, fruit cake and butter. The more refined these aromas, the more they indicate a lengthy second fermentation generating an ideal intensity of effervescence.
The tertiary aromas are those that develop with bottle aging — notes of honey, beeswax and soft fruit (peaches, Mirabelle plums) together with hints of spice and sometimes oak in those rare Champagne wines that are still barrel-aged.
The range of aromas varies with every blend, every vintage and every vineyard. Minerals, flowers, fruit, spice, empyreuma, plants — Champagne taps into a virtually infinite array of possibilities that makes every wine uniquely aromatic. Nosing a Champagne requires you to concentrate on every tiny aspect of its bouquet, every hidden treasure waiting to be discovered in the glass.
A Blanc de Blancs Champagne offers aromas of white acacia flowers, mint, iris, white fleshed fruit, citrus, grapefruit, verbena, lime blossom, tea leaf and fresh cut grass. Aging adds nutty overtones of hazelnuts, almonds, ripe apples, beeswax and honey.
A Pinot-based blend will show up-front flavours of red berry fruit, violets and peonies, with notes of licorice, spice and apricot-like soft fruit not far behind. Wood-aging brings out toasty notes of oak, vanilla and cinnamon, verging on coffee, cocoa, prunes and sometimes leather in older wines.
Blancs de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs blends share hallmark flavours of brioche, freshly-churned butter, biscuit dough, fruit cake and toast.
Blends made from a mixture of white and black grapes can combine all of these aromas in a single bouquet. The effect is extraordinarily complex, conjuring mysterious scents of spices and imaginary fruits, truffles and Virginia tobacco ...
Rosé Champagne boasts an even greater profusion of red fruit and spice, evolving with age towards more complex notes of pepper, gingerbread and prunes.
To say that bubbles have a taste is a bit like saying that angels have a gender. What you can say however is that they influence how you taste the Champagne. For instance, by all means swirl the wine around the mouth, but don’t overdo it since this will only increase the fizz factor at the expense of the taste. Remember too, that your first impression of the wine will come from the bubbles in this initial mouthful — whether creamy in the mouth from an abundance of tiny bubbles, or on the contrary big, coarse and aggressive.
The next step (as with any wine) is to ask yourself whether the Champagne tastes balanced or not. Is there an even match between the acids, sugars and tannins (that come from black grapes in white and rosé Champagne)? The acidity should be refreshing but not sharp, determining whether a wine is described as flabby, supple, crisp, lively, nervy or green. Now consider the Champagne’s vinosity or winey-ness — its characteristic flavour, body and colour. A Blanc de Blancs blend will have a light, airy, almost lacy structure, while a Champagne made with black grapes will be typically robust and fleshy, with a rich, firm mouthfeel. Assessing the degree of sweetness presents more of a problem since the actual sugar content depends on the type of Champagne — ranging from Brut Zéro or Brut de Brut (no added sugar), through Brut and Demi-Sec to Doux. The difference lies in the quantity of liqueur d’expédition or dosage added before FINAL CORKING, but only a practised palate can tell whether a Champagne is at an appropriate level of sweetness. Brut Champagne for instance (the most common style of Champagne) should contain enough dosage to offset the high acidity but not enough to create a perception of sweetness. The winemaker’s skill lies in striking a happy medium between too little and too much sugar: too little and the wine will have a tart, aggressive taste; too much and it will taste sugary, flabby and cloying.
The palate is judged by its intensity, finesse and natural fruit aromas. Then there is the length of the Champagne to consider: the flavours left after the wine is swallowed (hardly anyone spits out Champagne), also known as the aftertaste or finish. That taste sensation can be short or very long indeed, fanning out into a wonderful peacock tail of flavour. Other descriptors include fleeting, well-developed, satisfying, lingering and persistent. A wine’s age likewise has its own special vocabulary. There are young wines; new wines; wines that need more time; wines ready to drink straight away; wines at their peak; and wines past their prime, which have become dry and maderised with age.
A Blanc de Blancs Champagne will have a light, airy, almost lacy structure, with a subtle sweetness offset by citrusy acidity and a crisp, lively, nervy character. As it ages, a Blanc de Blancs develops a creamy, velvety texture. Pinot-based blends typically exhibit more concentration, with good underlying structure and plenty of vinosity, flesh and backbone. Given enough time, the wine becomes becomes seamlessy blended and integrated, with just the right balance of tannins, vinosity and freshness. Rosé Champagne is more full-bodied still, with chewy substance and obvious tannins that merge and settle out with age while still providing a solid frame for the palate.