Guide: How to Buy Champagne

Before you pop the corks, here's a primer on getting the best bubbles for your buck

Now that we’ve almost made it through the year, a hearty pat on the back is in order. So, what to proffer at your New Year's Eve house party? In the run-up to December 31, you could grab a few bottles of sparkling wine from your local grocery store, but that would be an affront to the refined revelry and vivacious vigor that can be had from clinking a flute of top-notch Champagne with your loved ones. 

Granted, perusing the Champagne aisle of your enoteca can be a challenging experience, given the explosion, so to speak, of Champagne varieties and labels in the recent decade or so. And yet, this is a challenge we hope you will gladly accept, because being spoilt for choice is a true bon vivant’s luxury. Besides, all you need to sabre your way to a successful purchase is a good glossary of key vino terms. To help you with your search for bubbly with the best cellaring potential, we gleaned a few tips from Richard Juhlin, visiting master sommelier and founder of The Richard Juhlin Champagne Club.

Before we dive into our Champagne shower proper, we must address the bugbear besetting this most glamorous of French wines—the unfortunate popular perception, reinforced by its association with rococo carousing and the chintzy nightscene, that Champagne is a frivolous and, dare we say, feminine drink. Juhlin has this to say to naysayers who persist in bursting champagne's bubbles: "To the macho men who dismiss Champagne as girly and uncomplicated: try the older vintages, which can be terrifically muscular, demanding and powerful. The more you treat Champagne as the great wine it is, the less prejudice there will be." 

With that out of the way, our circuit around the Champagne region begins. Below we present five essential steps in identifying and selecting an excellent bottle of bubbly.

Know Your Spirit

  • Anyone with a glancing knowledge of spirits will know that only sparkling wines produced in Champagne, France can be marketed and sold as Champagne (capitalized to denote its provenance and to differentiate it from sparkling wine created in other regions).
  • While seven grape varieties can be used, most Champagne wines are created singly or from a combination of three grapes: one white (Chardonnay), and two reds (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).
  • Champagne is composed from base wines made from grapes specifically chosen for lower alcohol content and high acidity. This base wine is given a booster shot of sugar and yeast, then bottled for a second round of fermentation. 
  • It is this secondary fermentation that yields the bubbles so celebrated in Champagne. You may notice that the bottles appear heavier than those used to house other wines: this is to create the pressure required for the festive pop when the cap is uncorked.  

Know the Categories

  • Bubbly made solely from Chardonnay are dubbed blanc de blancs, whereas an all-red made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier is called a blanc de noir. 
  • Blanc de noirs are generally as pale as their blanc de blanc counterparts because the juice is culled before the crushed grape skins can imbue the wine with color. 
  • Most Champagnes are colorless blends of white and reds, a category not given any specific name.  
  • A rosé gets its rosy hue from the addition of still red wine or by allowing the Pinot skins to steep in the juice to bestow flavor and color. Rosés are generally more time-consuming and costly to produce, which means they also sell at a higher price.
  • According to Champagne appellation, a cuvée is the first 2,050 liters of juice siphoned off 4,000 kg of grapes. Most Champagne producers pride themselves on using only the cuvée for their wines. 
  • Cuvées are assigned different labels according to their relative dryness or sweetness. Look out for the terms extra brut, brut, extra-sec, demi-sec and doux, which indicate the driest to sweetest types, respectively. 
  • Cuvées de Prestige are the proprietary blended wines that are the frontrow stars of a Champagne house. Examples of top house names include Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon and Palme d’Or from Nicolas Feuillatte.
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 19This is Moët & Chandon's Grand Vintage 2004, a bottle we had the privilege of tasting at its recent reveal in Singapore. Richard Juhlin's advice is to always opt for vintage where possible. Champagne houses typically only decide on their vintages months after the initial harvest, which means a great deal of behind-the-scenes monitoring of the sparkling wine's evolution took place before the final call was made. 
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 14The pouring of mid-19th century Juglar, salvaged off the coast of Finland's island province of Aaland. What did the ancient bubbly taste like? "I was in the boat itself when the bottles were being brought up from the sea, a marvelous experience," Juhlin says. "The bottles were immediately transferred to a special tent filled with argon gas. Handlers were taking out a small sample of every single bottle retrieved from the sea for me to taste. One third was completely destroyed—sea water, rotten eggs and worse—one third was interesting but too strong an acquired taste, and one third was actually very good."  
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 15Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Rosé 2002. In Champagne circles, there is an old saying that "one only drinks rosé out of girls’ slippers", the implication being the drink was puerile and that it was prissy types who demanded it. That is the polite implication of course...Historically, Juhlin says only Parisian prostitutes fancied rosé, because the drink had the whiff of scandal and excess about it. However, attitudes are changing: "More and more we’re beginning to realize the tantalizing, fleeting flavor imparted by the Pinot Noir in rosé, and how it pairs so well with robust food like red meat."  
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 17A selection of glassware created by Richard Juhlin in collaboration with Swedish manufacture Reijmyre. As you can see from the Champagne-filled example here, good glasses should be neither too narrow nor too straight, because you will not get a good bouquet with anorexic flutes. Indeed, Juhlin says that newer-generation Champagne glasses are modelled after those used for white wine: wider in the hips and narrower at the top to concentrate the aromas. 
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 18The best way to enjoy Champagne is to stick it in the fridge at seven to eight degrees Celcius, take it out, pour only what you are going to consume, then chill the open bottle in an ice bucket. According to experts, the key is to refill often. "Keep your uncorked bottle very cold in your ice bucket and top up your guests’ glasses frequently, in manageable amounts," Juhlin says. "And never recork Champagne, because you lose a lot of the bubbles when you do that." 
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 21 Champagne works brilliantly with Japanese cuisine, particularly nigiri or sashimi, whose clean flavor profiles lend themselves well to Champagne. Juhlin says more piquant dishes are not suited for pairing with Champagne, although you may be in for a surprise: "While foods infused with hot peppers will annihilate subtle wines, mild curry is actually very good with Champagne." The cardamom, cinnamon and fennel in curry paste echo the notes in some of the more virile Champagnes. The trick, it seems, is to keep experimenting.
  • Guide How To Buy Champagne 20 While it may be tempting to adhere to a particular brand once you've acquired a taste for it, Juhlin says one of the pleasures of wine-tasting is discovering new houses: "It would be quite boring, would it not, to listen to the same song 20 times a day. The more we are exposed to quality stuff, the better off we are." Shown here is a lesser-known boutique Champagne, Pierre Peters Cuvée de Réserve NV, a 100 percent Chardonnay from the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, incidentally also the location of the vineyard used to produce Krug's famed Clos du Mesnil.

Know the Age

  • A vintage wine is derived from grapes picked during that particular year. Most entry-level Champagne are non-vintage: mature wines are blended with younger wine in precisely calibrated formulations to produce consistent house style and flavor. 
  • Richard Juhlin strongly recommends buying vintage, which age well and increase in depth and complexity over time: "The current vintage is 2002. There might be a few 1996s left, which was a very good year indeed. If you chance upon a bottle, buy it as an investment and store it for 20 years. All you require will be the right occasion and the right people to share your vintage with."
  • Do your research and ensure you buy from a good year. Future vintages to look out for are 2005, 2007 and 2008.
  • According to Juhlin, 2004 is universally considered an exceptional year. Moët & Chandon has just released its Grand Vintage 2004, which Moët oenologue Elise Losfelt describes as being "emotional, subtle and delightfully graceful in character."

Know the Styles

  • Some non-vintage and vintage Champagnes are given house names to indicate style and price point. Moët & Chandon's Imperial, for instance, is considered an entry-level wine. 
  • While Champagnes vary according to cuvée and age, vintners have identified distinctive aesthetics that the big houses have cultivated for themselves.
  • Generally speaking, Bollinger produces wines that are rich with a creamy finish; a flute of Krug often holds nutty or toasty notes; Moët & Chandon takes particular pride in the crisp freshness of its wines; and Perrier-Jouët offers Champagnes that are relatively light and floral. 

Further Reading

  • Surround yourself with like-minded appreciators by joining online wine forums and clubs.  
  • Uncork the power of knowledge by perusing the following tomes in the comfort of your study, a flute in hand, of course: 

Guide How To Buy Champagne

Juhlin's Champagne Guide

Guide How To Buy Champagne 1

4000 Champagnes

Guide How To Buy Champagne 2

The Champagne Companion:
The Authoritative Connoisseur's Guide

Guide How To Buy Champagne 3

Champagne: A Global History

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