Champagne 101: From Buying the Bottle to Serving Your Guests

There's an art to serving champagne—and you can master it.


I am not alone in the belief that there’s a fail-safe wine choice you could always make, depending, of course, on your budget. Champagne, an extremely versatile wine, came to be known as the “wine of kings” because, for centuries, the coronation of French kings took place in the great cathedral at Reims, the capital of Champagne, about ninety minutes northeast of Paris. Ever since, it has reigned as the wine not only of sovereignty but of love, romance and celebration. Perhaps that status owes something to its natural traces of lithium. (No, it won’t cure clinical depression, but it may well help one’s mood: imbibers of bubbly get bubbly themselves, and just a glass will do the trick.) For me, Champagne is a state of mind. For the record, Champagne should not give you a headache (though I suppose if you drink it by the quart anything’s possible). It’s actually the kindest of wines, lowest in histamines and calories while full of healthy minerals. So many people tell me they can’t drink Champagne, but upon interrogation it comes out that they’ve been drinking something else.

Champagne, the one and only, comes from the Champagne region of France. The usual culprit in these head cases is cheap, sweet sparkling wine from California, Italy, Spain or even France, but not from Champagne. The low-cost bubbles sometimes get passed off as Champagne at big wedding-reception toasts. A glass or two of that decoction of sugar, mediocre grapes and shoddy vinification would give anyone a headache. A polite sip for the toast is plenty.

By law, real Champagne is the most quality-controlled wine on earth. The white grape Chardonnay and the reds Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are gathered from different villages and even different years to be blended by the cellar master. When the wine in the bottle is from a single, exceptional year, though, that’s a vintage Champagne, which is then aged from three to five years before being released. But 85 percent of all Champagne is nonvintage (or multivintage, if you will) and bears no year on the label; the cellar master is not dependent on any one harvest and so can maintain the wine’s consistency and quality. Besides the vintage and nonvintage Champagne, a small percentage of a premium vintage goes into what is known as a prestige cuvee, such as Dom Pérignon or Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame. These are the best bottles the Champagne houses make. Each house has its style, largely due to the grape composition of the house blend. Some are fuller-bodied, generally indicating a blend that is two-thirds red grapes. A small number of houses use only Chardonnay, and this is called Blanc de Blancs (white from white). Some Champagnes are rosés (that’s a Clicquot specialty), which generally include a little red wine in the blend. Champagne’s soul, however, is in its famous bubbles, which result from a second fermentation in the bottle. Just before the cork is inserted and the label affixed, the bottle is topped up with a little Champagne with added sugar; this allows the fermentation to continue and lets the cellar master adjust the sweetness of the wine. Brut is the driest, Extra Dry (despite its name) is a little sweeter, and Demi-sec (half dry) is sweet.

Oscar Wilde said that only those without imagination can’t find a good reason to drink Champagne. French women can always think of something.

Champagne Vintages: Telling the Difference


Opening the bottle: 


The proper way to pour: 


Are you chilling your champagne right?


Choosing the best flutes: 


And finally, the proper etiquette when serving your guests champagne is to make sure you’re serving it with hors d’œuvres, or some type of food!