Christie’s in-house Champagne expert Tim Triptree on top vintages, niche growers, and how to store a collection.
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True Champagne must come from the Champagne region, in the northeast of France. Though sparkling wines are produced worldwide, only those produced in the Champagne region are legally allowed to use the name Champagne on the label and are recognised as being authentic — the name Champagne is protected by EU law.
The very best and most expensive Champagnes are single-vintage ‘prestige cuvées’ that include names such as Krug Clos du Mesnil, Clos d’Ambonnay, Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Salon Le Mesnil. In the last five to 10 years, smaller grower-producers have seen a rise in popularity — particularly among expert collectors who really know their Champagne. Christie’s sells bottles by these independent producers including Jacques Selosse, who’s at the forefront of the movement.
Many producers release a top Champagne, known as its prestige cuvée. These are only made following an exceptional harvest and, as a result, exist in much smaller quantities, and at much higher prices. Salon Le Mesnil, for example, has released just 39 vintages since it was first produced in 1905.
A Champagne house’s prestige cuvée will often have its own name: Louis Roederer calls its prestige cuvée Cristal, while Pol Roger produces Sir Winston Churchill — a vintage Champagne that aims to imitate the robust build of the famed politician. Vintage Champagnes have the potential to evolve in bottle and develop honeyed, crème brulée complexity.
The vast majority of all Champagne, however, is non-vintage. This type of Champagne is made not from a single harvest, but from a blend of several years, resulting in a consistent house style. For this reason, non-vintage Champagnes will be undated. Moët & Chandon is the best-known non-vintage Champagne.
Top Champagne will have the right balance of acidity and intensity of flavour. Prestige cuvées such as Cristal or Krug really are incredible, offering an amazing harmony, and very long persistence (the length of time their flavour lingers in the mouth) and ageability that allows the Champagne to evolve with bottle age. A good prestige cuvée really is exceptional — you can certainly taste the difference.
At 1.5 litres, a magnum is twice the size of a standard 75cl bottle, and half the size of the 3-litre jeroboam. Although more expensive, larger bottles have the benefit of tending to age more slowly, with less oxidation and more freshness. One reason for this is that the ‘ullage’ (the distance between the bottom of the cork and the champagne liquid) is proportionally smaller in a larger bottle — meaning less oxygen gets into the bottle during disgorgement; approximately half compared to a standard bottle.
Another advantage of bigger bottles, of course, is that they are better for parties.
The Champagne house and vintage should guide your buying. I recommend new collectors try a range of champagnes to determine what they like. Consider buying different Champagnes: for example, a Pol Roger, a Krug, a Bollinger and a Cristal. Different houses age their Champagnes for differing periods of time on the dead yeasts that cause the second fermentation in bottle and the fizz (lees). The minimum requirement for non-vintage Champagne is 12 months on the lees, and for vintage three years, but in practice the top Champagnes are aged for much longer. This has an effect on the flavour profiles, with complex overtones of brioche and toast from the long period of ageing on the lees (called autolytic ageing).
Once you’ve settled on your preferred house, you can consider vintage. Although top champagnes are only produced in exceptional years, some vintages are better than others. In 2003, for example, atypical hot weather led to few houses releasing a vintage. In 2002, however, nearly every house released a vintage — a clear indicator of an exceptional year. 1996 was also a great year for vintage champagne.
In Champagne the levels of residual sugar, called dosage, are key, with the lowest being Zero Dosage, through to Extra-Brut, Brut, Extra-Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux. The most common styles, however, are Extra-Brut, Brut and Demi-Sec. Zero Dosage has no dosage sugar added to it, and is more austere and lean — perfect as an accompaniment to sashimi. At the opposite end are Demi-Sec, with between 32 and 50 grams of residual sugar per litre, or Doux, with more than 50 grams. Both are ideal for those who prefer sweeter Champagne, and are perfect as an accompaniment to dessert or at the end of a meal. Occasionally, Champagnes will be labelled Blanc de Noirs or Blanc de Blancs, indicating the colour and variety of the grapes used. Blanc de Noirs is made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, while Blanc de Blancs is made purely from Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs typically are firmer structured wines with red-fruit flavours. Blanc de Blancs demonstrate finesse, elegance and citrus flavours.
Rosé champagnes can be excellent, although they are often more expensive because they are produced in smaller quantities.
Normal Champagne can be made from red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The Champagne remains clear because the grapes are pressed off the skins very quickly — before the pigments (anthocyanins) in their skins can colour the juice pink.
Rosé Champagne acquires its colour through one of two methods. In the first, the juice is soaked with the skins of red grapes for a short period prior to and during the first fermentation — a technique known as saignée, from the French for ‘bleed’. This method is preferred by the top vintage producers.
In the second method, a base white wine is mixed with normal still red wine before the second fermentation in bottle, resulting in champagne with a pink tinge. Although it is illegal for other still rosé wines to be made in this way, it is permitted for Champagne. Many non-vintage producers prefer this method for its consistent colour.
It really depends on your budget, and occasion, but it is possible to buy a vintage Champagne from Christie’s for as little as £30.
Champagne should be stored in the same way as wine: in cool, dark and humid cellars. While it has a shorter lifespan than, say, a tannic red Bordeaux, good vintage Champagne can last a long time, and will develop a great deal of character with bottle evolution — though it will begin to lose some of its fizz.
Coupes and flutes are traditional, but many experts find vintage Champagne is best enjoyed in a conventional wine glass. Temperature, too, should be a consideration: chilled vintage champagne often doesn’t reveal its full bouquet. If you’re presented with an ice-cold glass of top champagne, leave it to warm a little before drinking it. Of course, when opening Champagne, the key is to not hit someone in the eye with the flying cork!
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