There are few pleasures in life more decadent than a Champagne cocktail, which is precisely why you should make sure to have one every now and then. When deciding how to pick the right Champagne for a cocktail party, there are a number of key factors to consider, including grape varieties, sweetness, and sub-regions.
Grappling With Grapes
There’s a common misconception that all Champagne is made with the same grapes. Not only is that not the case, but the type of grapes used will go a long way to determining the final taste of your Champagne. The standard form of white Champagne uses a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.
The most popular alternatives are Blanc de Noirs or Blanc de Blancs - that is, made with red grapes or made with white grapes. We rarely think of red Champagnes because the drink itself is traditionally white in appearance. However, this doesn’t mean that it hasn’t come from red grapes - only that they are gently pressed and that the skins and juice are kept separate throughout fermentation, resulting in an absence of color. For those who favor red wine, the taste of Blanc de Noirs is a treat for the taste-buds.
Blanc de Blancs are made using just Chardonnay grapes, while Blanc de Noirs will use Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or some combination of the two. The other Champagne style is rosé, which is made by combining Blanc de Blancs with a touch of red wine. It’s important that it is only a touch - less than 10% will usually suffice. Often associated with more informal occasions, rosé Champagne can add a touch of whimsy to an elegant affair - or offer a great way to coordinate your drinks with your color scheme.
There are, in theory, four other varietals of grapes that can be used to make Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. However, in actuality, the former three make up approximately 0.02% of all Champagne production, while the latter three are negligible. It’s said that these secondary grapes have all but vanished from the vineyard scene because of their sensitivity to frost and other practical factors, but a few creative producers are now working on ways to bring them back en vogue. Lesser-known brand Drappier uses Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier grapes alongside Chardonnay in the Quattuor blend, which will elevate your cocktails from drinks to conversation starters.
Sweet or Dry?
We all have a preference between sweet and dry when it comes to wine - but choosing the right balance is of extra importance when it comes to Champagne. While most wines gain their sweetness from the residual sugar of the fermented grapes, Champagne is sweetened with what’s known as dosage - usually a mixture of sugar and wine. Without this, Champagne would be too acidic to drink.
The sweetness of Champagne is measured on a seven-term scale, the most common of which is the middle-range “Brut”. Because of its palatable flavor, Brut is the best champagne for mimosas and most popular type used in cocktail recipes - an important consideration when deciding how to pick the best Champagne.
The common classifications, from driest to sweetest, are Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec, Doux. The first has been popularly dubbed the “skinny Champagne” because of its low sugar calories, but it can be somewhat of an acquired taste because of its extreme tartness. If you’re opting for a particularly dry blend, finding a good quality bottle from a skilled producer is of the utmost importance. Pol Roger carries a hefty price tag, but many experts agree that it’s well worth it - particularly when it comes to Brut Nature.
At the other end of the scale, Doux is the Champagne to choose if you’re looking for pure indulgence. With more in common with dessert wines than any other, Doux Champagne will challenge even the sweetest of teeth - but the first hurdle is finding a bottle. Having fallen out of fashion around 20 years ago, Doux Champagnes can be hard to track down, although heritage brand Champagne Fleury’s 1995 edition still receives rave reviews. Because of its sugary taste, this is a drink best served alongside cake canapés or a dessert course, or mixed with a similarly aromatic flavor such as rose to create a memorable cocktail.
Selecting a Sub-Region
Most Champagne drinkers are aware of the Échelle des Crus classification system, with Grand Cru being the highest rating and Premier Cru the second. In Champagne, unlike in wine, these ratings apply to villages rather than individual vineyards. But when considering how to pick the right Champagne, it’s important to take into account not just the rating of the village, but the sub-region in which it’s based.
All true Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France, which is further divided into five key sub-regions: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. The region that a grape is grown in can determine the climate, the soils and the farming style involved - all of which make a significant contribution to the final taste and quality.
Aube is situated on the border of Champagne and Burgundy, which has historically been a source of some controversy. While there was pressure from major Champagne houses to exclude the area from the Champagne region in 1911, it succeeded in achieving in second-class status, which was upgraded to full status in 1927. Because of its turbulent history, the area is still playing catch-up with many of the bigger regions and currently has no Grand Cru or Premier Cru villages. Yet its proximity to Burgundy means that many producers place heavy emphasis on a wine’s goût de terroir - the idea that the final flavor should be reminiscent of the place from which it came. Aube is the place to look if you want a distinct taste - and its lack of accolades means that you can get great value blends from Côte des Bar, the area’s primary growing region.
Côte des Blancs is one of the most highly esteemed sub-regions, partially due to the prevalence of slopes that allow vineyards to catch the sun and shelter them from extreme weathers. The area primarily grows Chardonnay grapes and is the most prominent producer of Blanc de Blancs. Because of the chalk-based soils, grapes grown in this region tend to produce Champagnes with higher acidity - which are perfect for balancing sweet liquors on a cocktail menu.
The soils in Côte de Sézanne are a more balanced mix of chalk and marl, which results in slightly lower acidity but more aromatic intensity. While it only garnered favor in the 1960s, it’s quickly become a key Chardonnay region for many of the most prominent Champagne houses - perhaps because of its location. Situated in the south of the Champagne region with mostly east-facing vineyards, Côte de Sézanne’s grapes ripen well. Its modernity combined with its flavorsome produce make Côte de Sézanne’s Champagne great for exciting and artisanal cocktails when you’ve got guests to impress.
Montagne de Reims is the northernmost sub-region, classically renowned for Pinot Noir grapes. It’s well renowned amongst connoisseurs, with a high concentration of Grand Cru villages situated in the area and many tête de cuvée Champagnes created here. Its crown jewel is the city of Reims, considered by most to be the unofficial capital of the Champagne region because its limestone pits left over from the Roman era provide the perfect conditions for many of the world’s premier producers to age their wines. If you’re hosting a black-tie event and are wondering how to pick the right Champagne, bottles from Montagne de Reims are the elegant choice.
Vallée de la Marne is known for Pinot Meunier grapes, which are said to produce a smokier flavor. While this grape is considered by many producers to be the least refined of the three primary varieties, Vallée de la Marne is still home to two of the Champagne region’s 17 Grand Cru villages. In fact, the Pinot Meunier grapes grown in the village of Aÿ are popularly used by one of Champagne’s most famous names, Bollinger. Full-bodied and fruity, Champagnes produced in this sub-region are perfect for use in (or partnering with) similarly fruity cocktails.
Once you’ve picked the perfect Champagne for your cocktail party, all that’s left to consider is the mixer (and perhaps an accompanying amuse-bouche).