Champagne; "The Taste of the Stars"

Champagne's capacity to inspire good cheer for festive and celebratory occasions has been well documented; less often noted are all the great witticisms it has inspired. From the trenchant observations of Winston Churchill "Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it" to the deathbed commentary of John Maynard Keynes "My only regret in life is that I didn't drink enough Champagne", no other wine even comes close to matching the Champagne compendium of clever maxims and memorable quotes.

I'm not quite sure why. Is it the bubbles? The unique bottle and pop of the cork? Or simply the name? Even nondrinkers know what Champagne is—even if they don't know where it comes from or how it is made. It's a wine that's at once completely familiar and yet entirely unfathomable. "How do those bubbles get in there, anyway?" . The answer to that question and others can be found in this very brief overview of the history, production and geography of Champagne—along with some recommended Champagnes for the festive season , depending on your budget of course.

Bringing up the bubbly: a history

For centuries, Champagne—the wine produced in this region of northeast France—was a still, pinkish wine. Champagne in its familiar bubbly form is said to have been "invented" by a monk in the mid-17th century. According to legend, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk (and much later a prestige brand), called out to his friends and fellow monks, upon tasting the very first sparkling wine: "Come quickly—I am tasting the stars."

In fact, Dom Pérignon was a talented bloke who did a lot of useful things, like limiting yields and replanting vineyards, but he wasn't the first to make a wine sparkle. That distinction is likely to belong to an English scientist named Christopher Merret, who figured out how to produce a secondary fermentation in a bottle—the source of Champagne's bubbles .

The lay of the land

Champagne, like Chablis, was famous first as a wine and only much later as a place. (The two also share the distinction of having inspired a legion of dubious imitations.) Although collectively referred to as "Champagne," the region is actually divided into five distinct parts: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne in the middle and the Côte des Blancs to the south, and the less famous Aube and Côte de Sézanne. The Champagne landscape is a mix of rolling farmland and forests, a pastoral if somewhat unexceptional view, save for the pristine, chalky soils of its vineyards—the same chalk that shows up as the White Cliffs of Dover across the Channel.

Is there a Champagne grape?

Not as such, the primary grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

Burgundy and Champagne share the same grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though a third grape, Pinot Meunier, is also important in Champagne. A rustic, early-ripening cousin to Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier is important because it rounds the wine out. Champagne may be one of those grapes, or a blend of two or three. (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier account for 98% of all Champagnes produced, though a few other grapes may be legally grown and there are a few Champagne producers who use them (most famously Aubry). The Montagne de Reims is best known for Pinot Noir, the Vallée de la Marne is home to great Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and the Côte des Blancs produces great Chardonnay.

Where do the bubbles come from?

All wine is made a through simple fermentation process that converts sugar into alcohol. In Champagne, there is a secondary fermentation in the bottle, thanks to an addition of sugar and yeast. As this second fermentation takes place, bubbles of carbon dioxide begin to form. When this is complete, the Champagne bottle is gradually turned upside down until the yeast has collected on the crown capping the bottle. This tedious process, called riddling, was once done by hand but is now (mostly) accomplished by a machine. After as short a period as 18 months (the legal minimum for non-vintage Champagne) or three years (the vintage minimum), or as long as 10 years, the bottle is "disgorged": The cap is removed; the yeast is forced out; the wine is topped off with a small "dosage" of wine and sugar (the higher the sugar level, the sweeter the resulting Champagne) and the bottle is finally corked. The bottle remains in the cellar for a few months or years before it is shipped. A vintage Champagne is a wine from a single, presumably superior year—and comes with a higher price tag.

The sweet spectrum

While the first Champagnes were very sweet, Champagne has grown much drier over the years, and the average "dosages" are getting smaller. Some producers now aren't adding dosages at all: These wines may be designated as Non Dosage or Brut Zero. Moving along the spectrum in order of ascending sweetness, you'll find Extra Brut, Brut (the most common designation), Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec and Doux.

There are also several Champagne colors: Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay) Blanc de Noirs (a white wine made from red grapes) and rosé, which is produced either by blending red and white wine or by the saignée method, which allows a brief contact with the skins of red grapes.

The pecking order

Unlike in Burgundy, where vineyards are ranked, or Bordeaux, where wine estates are divided into classifications, in Champagne the classification system is based on the villages where the vineyards are located. There are 319 villages in Champagne and 17 that are rated "grand cru" in recognition of the quality of their terroir. Another 43 are designated "premier cru," just below grand cru. The rest are unrated, even if some might (and do) produce exceptional wine. Growers in grand cru villages get the highest prices for their grapes from Champagne houses, those in premier cru villages get about 90% to 99% of those figures and those in unrated villages may get as little as 80%.

This system called the" echelle des crus," - the ladder of growth, was implemented about 50 years ago to protect Champagne growers. Champagne houses had once sourced outside the region for grapes, a practice that has long been outlawed. There is a delicate balance between the Champagne houses and the growers, who own the vast majority of vineyards but produce very little wine. Instead, most growers sell their grapes to the big Champagne houses, whose wines are designated "NM" (négociant manipulant) on the label. There has been an increase in the number of growers making their own Champagnes in the past couple of generations—their wines can be identified by the letters RM (récoltant manipulant).

Time in a bottle

If you're drinking Champagne this coming festive season, the odds are great that it's non-vintage—a blend of several vintages, from dozens to even hundreds of wines from different harvests, styled to taste the same year after year. Non-vintage Champagne accounts for the majority of production for most Champagne houses. For example, at Louis Roederer, the home of Cristal, the Brut Non-vintage accounts for 75% to 80% of total production. The term "non-vintage" has fallen out of fashion with some producers, who prefer the more positive-sounding "multi-vintage," though I've yet to hear someone ask for a "multivintage" Champagne in a restaurant or retail store.

A vintage Champagne, conversely, is a wine from a single, presumably superior year—and comes with a higher price tag. Recent top vintages include 1995, 1996, 2002 and 2008. A third designation you may see on a Champagne bottle is "prestige cuvée"; this is the very best wine produced by the Champagne grower or house. Some of the best-known examples include Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon, Cristal from Louis Roederer and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, though some are made by smaller houses like Pol Roger (Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill) and growers like Pierre Gimonnet (Special Club).

The big guns

The great success and global recognition of Champagne rests largely on the work of the "brands"—big Champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët. They account for the vast majority of sales and just about all the promotional dollars. Instead of large marketing budgets and celebrity spokesmen, the growers of Champagne have prospered thanks to this marketing and a cadre of impassioned sommeliers.

Bottles worth buying

Champagne, overall, has never been better. The quality is high; the prices are (mostly) reasonable, especially compared with those of other world-class wines; and some of the best producers' wines, even those of the smaller ones, are not too hard to find.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some of the best producers—a mix of big houses, small houses and growers—Bollinger (for its big, yeasty style); Cédric Bouchard (ethereal single-vintage wines); Gaston Chiquet (the master of Pinot Meunier); Deutz (brilliant Blanc de Blancs); Dom Pérignon (in a class by itself); Duval-Leroy (the "Femme" cuvée); Pierre Gimonnet (more brilliant Blanc de Blancs); René Geoffroy (delicious rosés); Alfred Gratien (the Cuvée Paradis bottling); Marc Hébrart (his special Club bottling); Krug (multivintage); Pierre Moncuit (great Chardonnay-based wines); Bruno Paillard (particularly the rosé); Pol Roger (always reliable); Louis Roederer (consistently great across the board); Salon (brilliant Blanc de Blancs at a steep price); Camille Savès (stunning rosé); and Vilmart (the rosés).

Try a good quality champagne this festive season and you will certainly see the difference and uniqueness compared to other sparkling wines