Champagne is always the life of the party. But there’s more to bubbles than just caviar and wedding toasts. Of course, getting into Champagne is no small task — fancy French names and high prices are just a couple of the obstacles aspiring connoisseurs face. (Edit: We’ve answered some of the basic questions, but have a long way to go.)
If you’re looking to improve your fluency in bubbly, Robert Bohr, a former partner and sommelier at the now-defunct NYC oenophilic haven, Cru, is your man. He most recently helped design the wine list at the très chic Winston’s Champagne Bar, newly opened in Manhattan. He’s a big advocate of treating Champagne like you would any other wine. As in, why not pop a cork midweek with takeout? No need to save it for a special occasion. He offers a few tips for navigating the sparkling sea of magnums on a high-end Champagne list.
Step 1: Look beyond the Cristal
“I love Moët & Chandon, Cristal and Dom Pérignon and all the well-known great wine houses out there,” says Bohr. “But, actually, the lesser-known producers, what we would call ‘grower Champagnes,’ can be very interesting. These are Champagnes that are made by the farmers who also grow the grapes.” The short list of grower Champagnes on Winston’s list, for example, features bottles that will run you about $200-$400. Sounds pricey, until you check out the Grande Marque options, which start at $170 and go all the way up to $13,500. (Note: improving your Champagne fluency is an expensive endeavor.)
Step 2: Check out non-vintage (NV) Champagnes
The weather in the Champagne region is unreliable at best, which means some vintages are not quite up to scratch. Champagne producers blend wines from different years to achieve a quality product. Bohr recommends Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Reserve NV, which sells for $24 per glass at Winston’s. “It’s one of the great, small brewery houses in Champagne. They make all their wines from Chardonnay grapes and it’s some of the purest, most refined, most elegant Champagne you’ll find.” He also endorses Aubry Sable Rosé, deeming it a “Champagne of the moment.” That one will set you back $37 a glass.
Step 3: Get to know the fringes of the Champagne region
In the southern part of Champagne, you’ll find a number of up-and-coming producers in the sub-region of Aube. “They’re making wines in the style pioneered by Jacques Selosse, who is using a style that is more akin to still wine than sparkling,” explains Bohr. “The result is a lot more texture and richness.” A bottle of this NV grower Champagne costs $325 in a fancy Champagne bar like Winston’s, but you can find it in a wine shop for around $150.
Step 4: Learn to recognize what’s special
If non-vintage Champagne is most common, then you can deduce that vintage Champagne is rarer and, thus, coveted. Bohr recommends keeping an eye open for anything from 1988, a stellar vintage in Champagne. “Arguably, the greatest Champagne ever is Krug Clos de Mesnil Blanc De Blanc,” says Bohr. “We have the very first vintage of that, 1979, which is an extremely rare wine.” He also suggests splurging on a large-format bottling. In addition to magnums, look for jeroboams. “Champagne, like most wine, tastes better out of large bottles,” he says.
Step 5: Ask for directions
As in all wine tasting, there is never any shame in asking for help. “The real basic questions are, Do you want it white or pink? Do you want something that’s crisp and lean and mineral, something more like the snappy skin of a fruit? Or you want something that’s richer and lusher, more like the flesh of the fruit,” Bohr says. “Then, ask yourself if you’re hungry for dinner or are you just having some caviar? Do you want something refreshing or do you want something concentrated? People think of Champagne as something you have before dinner or while you’re toasting a wedding. It really is a wine that has incredible complexity and enormous differences between different sub-regions of Champagne.”
Step 6: Eat something, will you!
“Anything salty or fried really goes really well with Champagne,” says Bohr, citing the old Marilyn Monroe pairing of Champers and potato chips. “I try to treat Champagne as a wine. At Cru, we used to do these crazy, baller dinners where we’d start with Champagne, then move into white wine, then take a break and go back to Champagne.” But there is one storied pairing you should steer clear of, he warns. “For me, the biggest myth is the wedding cake-and-Champagne pairing. They’re pretty awful together. I appreciate the ceremony, but the sugary with the sparkling component isn’t that much fun.”
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