Champagne is without a doubt the most luxurious wine style out there. A wine coveted by heads of state, Fortune 500 CEO’s, pop and sport stars alike. Champagne can seem daunting at times, but at the end of the day it’s just fermented grape juice like the rest of wines, and undeniably delicious.
Essi Avellan, a Master of Wine from Finland, is one of the world’s leading experts in Champagne. Her new book Essi Avellan’s Champagne is a glimpse into the world of Champagne and the way she sees it, with added fizzy tips on where to eat, drink and sleep when visiting the region. But why Champagne?
“I got interested in Champagne early on,” says Avellan. “It was definitely the flavour but also, I thought it was a really interesting wine, just different from the rest. Champagne is the only wine that is 50% a luxury good and 50% wine. It’s very intriguing. The world of sparkling wine has evolved a lot since I started focusing on it 12 years ago. It’s the fastest growing wine category. There are good sparkling wines coming out of almost every corner of the world now.”
It's clear that people are going crazy over bubbles. These days you don’t have to be a Tsar to enjoy this great beverage. However, there is some homework to be done if you want to get the most out of your Champagne.
Choosing the wine
“In Champagne the best buy in my opinion is Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve. It’s the whole wine cellar in one bottle. It is quite possibly the best non-vintage Champagne in the world. If money is not an issue then I would recommend Cristal Rosé. It is made with such precision and the wine is unbelievably elegant,” she says.
In a situation with no Champagne at hand there are some other regions you can look into. “If you like the style of Champagne then you should definitely try English sparkling wine. It’s like an extreme version of Champagne. But English sparkling wines can be hard to find,” Avellan says. “New Zealand has just the right climate to produce sparkling wines with Champagne-like acidity, but with more fruit. In Italy the sparkling wines of Franciacorta are well-known, but I’m also surprised of the quality coming out of Trentodoc these days.”
When talking about the proper way to store a bottle of Champagne so those precious bubbles are preserved, Avellan says: “Same rules apply to Champagne, as to any other wine. The cooler it is, the slower the wine matures. But with Champagne the bottles may also be stored upright without the cork getting dry.”
Surprisingly, the danger of ruining a good bottle is easier than one would imagine. “Champagne is a very delicate wine and sunlight is its worst enemy. The darker bottles can endure light fairly well, but the clear glass bottles are basically wine killers. If I go to a restaurant and order a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs or Cristal, I ask them beforehand how and where they have stored it, was the bottle wrapped in the cellophane or in a box. It’s not easy explaining afterwards in a restaurant that ‘sorry but this Champagne has a taste of light.’ But it’s true: direct sunlight can affect the taste of Champagne in a matter of minutes.”
Temperature is something to consider when serving Champagne because nobody likes warm bubbles. “For most Champagnes I would say straight from the fridge is ok. It’s about 6°C but by the time it hits the warm glass and is being sipped it has already warmed up a degree or two. But the more complex Champagnes, especially if the wine is a bit older, I would say 10°C is good. I usually chill my Champagnes well and watch the wine evolve in the glass as it gets warmer.”
Then there are the glasses: the Champagne coupe, flute, tulip etc. “The biggest misconception about Champagne is that it all tastes pretty much the same, when in fact it is incredibly diverse and nuanced wine. I normally don’t like to stress that every wine should have its own glass. However, if you invest in a good a bottle of Champagne it would be just silly not to invest in good quality glasses as well. Between a white wine glass and a sad little flute, you should always go for the white wine glass. In a narrow flute you lose at least half of the aromas. My personal favourite for Champagne is the Lehmann Glass Grand Champagne.”
Champagne continues victorious. With the new just-add-ice Champagnes and colourful world of cocktails the region is gaining new ground among young consumers. But even without these efforts Champagne is the kind of drink that is hard to see falling out of fashion. “With Champagne, and wine in general, ignorance is not bliss. If you take the time to learn about the wine, the world around it and how it is made, you can enhance the tasting experience significantly. And of course, wine always tastes better when enjoyed at the source. So, if you really like Champagne I warmly recommend to visit this beautiful region.”