French Sparkling Wine

Champagne: The grand-daddy of sparklings


Any discussion of sparkling wine should begin at the beginning, in Champagne. The only wines that can truly be called Champagne come from grapes grown in the chalky soil of the region of the same name in north-eastern France.

These are the grand-daddies of the sparkling wine world, and range in price from the affordable to the unfathomable, but savvy shoppers can pick their way through the shelves and emerge with a winner that suits their budget.

So, we’re starting at the top, which means the finest Champagnes, also known as Crème de Tete, or Cuvée de Prestige. These are wines that define a house’s style and go by proprietary names like Cristal, Dom Pérignon, and Cuvée Winston Churchill (one of my faves). These represent the pinnacle of the Champagne blender’s art and are wines that frequently benefit from -- and many times demand -- cellaring to release their potential. Right off the shelf the current release of these wines can be somewhat disappointing.
More common is a house’s non-vintage style. This is, not surprisingly, a blend of several vintages that allows a blender to combine the freshness of younger sparkling wines with the complexity contributed by older, more mature sparkling wines. The goal in making a non-vintage wine is to offer a consistent style from vintage to vintage. I am a big fan of non-vintage Champagne, but prefer to age it for several years so that it softens up and gains more depth and complexity. Three to five years in the cellar is perfect for my palate.

In certain vintages, the Champagne is so good and has such a distinctive character that it may be bottled as a vintage wine. In general, these wines are a step-up in quality from the basic non-vintage bottling, though there can be exceptions. As with the Crème de Tete, a vintage sparkling wine may require several years in the bottle to offer the drinkability of a non-vintage. You also have to be familiar with the style of the vintage. Great vintages come in different styles, from opulent and ripe to chiseled and structured. It’s easy to love one vintage and hate another, so ask a trusted retailer if you have any questions.

If we are looking for value we should be looking at Crémant, as opposed to Cramant, which is a great vineyard, ironically in Champagne. Crémant sparkling wines are wines made with the Méthode Champenoise process but that come from regions outside of Champagne. Thus there are Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne and, the greatest in terms of production, Crémant de Loire. These are wines that rely on the grapes most well-suited to each region, but are always produced in the traditional style. They are a very varied and unique set of wines that need to be explored in-depth to be fully understood. In light of the limited space here, let me just say that the sparkling wines from the greatest Loire producers have consistently impressed me.

Once upon a time, pretty much all Champagne sold in the U.S. was produced by big houses that bought grapes and wine from others to make their blends. They are known as Négociants. Not too long ago, the farmers growing these grapes got an idea. They thought it might be in their best interest to make some wine themselves, see if they could sell it and make a little more money. A movement was born: Farmer Fizz, also known as Grower or Grower-Producer Champagne.

The beauty of Grower Champagne is that the wines come from a single plot or plots of land. Year in and year out, the wines are produced by the same folks, using the same techniques so the character of the wine comes from the terroir and the climate as opposed to the blender's art. Whether you prefer one style over another is not something I’m going to take issue with, but if you want to compare styles you’ll need the following code.

On each label of Champagne you’ll find a small alphanumeric code. The first two digits of this code will tell you what sort of an operation is responsible for your fizz.

NM = Négociant manipulant -- Someone who buys grapes to make their wine.
CM = Coopérative de manipulation -- A co-op that produces wines from member’s grapes and sells it under one label.
RM = Récoltant manipulant -- The grower producer who makes wine from his or her own grapes.
SR = Société de récoltants -- A group of growers who make wine together but sell them under more than one brand.
RC = Récoltant coopérateur -- A co-op member selling co-op-produced Champagne under his or her own label.

MA = Marque auxiliaire or Marque d'acheteur -- A brand name, or private label, not related to the producer.
ND = Négociant distributeur -- A company that sells Champagne that it does not make under its own label.

Here are a few notes for some recently sampled sparkling wines from France.

Godmé Père et Fils Brut Reserve Champagne et Villages

Deep and perfumed with butterscotch, brioche, dried peach, vanilla, and hints of forest floor and mushrooms. Super subtle mousse, very fine bubbles, firm, clear and brilliant on the palate. Soft and caressing finish, wonderfully well balanced, nice pure mineral-laced apple fruit, elegant, real length with lovely yeasty tones in a perfumed finish. 94pts
Find out more.

Taittinger Champagne Nocturne Sec
Smoky, lemon verbena, floral and herbal, burnt citrus peel tones, and dried fruits. Nice entry, round, big, vibrant acids, syrupy pear and peach fruits, a touch of strawberry jam even. Nice earthy center, layered and complex with the gentlest mousse. A nice spice tone on the finish, this has almost perceptible sugar but the acids balance it out effortlessly. The finish is caressing and long, with just the softest yeasty top note. The bottle for New Year's. 94pts
Find out more.

Guy Charlemagne Brut Extra
Waxy fruit, dusty, decidedly yeasty but not toasty with notes of brie and butcher’s wax. Medium mousse, nice and bright with the softest sweet edge to the lemon curd and almost peachy, deep. This really evolves in the mouth, there’s a touch of berry fruit here, with lovely, deft cut in the mouth. 93pts
Find out more.

Taittinger Prestige Rose
Powdery, spicy, vanilla-scented cinnamon-touched pale red fruits. Fine bubbles and real tension make this a real pleasure to drink. It’s fairly dry, with apple and soft red berry tones joined by a touch of rose petal and a hint of watermelon in the mouth. The finish is focused and fine with good length and a nice late pop of fruit. 92pts
Find out more.

Guy Charlemagne Brut Reserve Grand Cru Le Mesnil sur Oger B de B
Toasty, briochy with figs and lime zest, lightly floral. Fine mousse, golden apples, firm, mineral, succulent. Zesty on the backend and finish, mineral, apple blossom, racy, delicious, long. 92pts
Find out more.

Taittinger Prelude
Funky, floral, subtle, mineral and bright. A bit sweet on entry then bracing with mineral notes, lots of firm fresh fruit, a slight yeasty note, a hint of bitterness, but it works well with the rich, fresh fruit character offering some contrast before the light, medium-length finish. Elegant and refined, lip-smacking, not fruit-driven, complex and built for delicate foods. 91pts
Find out more.

2004 Taittinger Brut Millesime
Dusty and very citrusy. A little dough, hint of hazelnut, almond nougat. Round, a bit noticeably sweet, easy style with fine mousse, silky in the mouth, nice fruit on the mid-palate then firm and almost steely on the finish. Medium  finish, lots of acidity but well balanced with the dosage. 90pts
Find out more.

Taittinger Brut La Francaise
Lightly aromatic and somewhat spicy on the nose, with a slight sour cherry aspect to the orchard fruits. Round and easy on the entry with juicy apple and pear fruit that has a nice spicy edge to it. The balance is nice with modest dosage and correspondingly soft acids. Decent length, simple but very friendly with a fine mousse. 89pts
Find out more.

De Chanceny Crémant de Loire Brut
Bright and buttery on the nose with a lightly toasty, slightly cheesy, feta nose. Bright, nicely round yet fairly dry, mineral and funky, cheesy mid-palate with bright bittermelon fruit behind. Nice complexity, nicely yeasty and ripe on the finish, lightly wild-flowery. 88pts
Find out more.

NV Toad Hollow Amplexus Crément de Limoux Brut
Herbal, green, floral, lightly aromatic, citrus, almost orange-toned. Noticeably sweet but still not too obvious, big acids, very citrussy in the mouth as well -- more of that orange tone with a little butcher’s wax, short. 86pts
Find out more.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: McMon30
    636558 12

    You are quite right the Cremant is real value for money. You did not metion Krug or the Grand Dame of Veuve Clicquot. Where do you place those?
    My personal taste lies with Louis Roederer or Billecart Salmon for value for many. I loved the story about the bottles - why they are clear and with a flat base.

    Dec 27, 2010 at 5:44 PM

  • Snooth User: McMon30
    636558 12

    Part 2:
    The bottles that are clear and have a flat bottom are used for cristal.

    Dec 27, 2010 at 5:46 PM

  • During October Of this year, my wife and I visited the three areas in France you spoke about that produce Cremants. And we both agree for the price, some compare with some of the higher price champagnes. We also agree that the best cremants come from the Loire Valley, especially the ones produced from the Sauvignan Blanc grape.

    Dec 27, 2010 at 7:49 PM

  • Snooth User: cleere
    97952 57

    I like this article, I feel like I can never learn enough about Champagne. Thanks for the old and new information.

    Dec 28, 2010 at 12:56 AM

  • Snooth User: Blake E
    345931 1

    Five of ten wines reviewed were Tattinger. You must really like what they do for you.

    Dec 28, 2010 at 4:43 AM

  • Snooth User: Keith55
    680872 22

    At the value end I like Louis Roederer NV and their Californian offering Quartet. Still saving up for Cristal.

    Dec 28, 2010 at 5:24 AM

  • Snooth User: Keith55
    680872 22

    Other than those already mentioned above, I also like Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque, especially the Rose.

    The only one of the recommended ones I've tried is the Taittinger Brut Millesime, which is very enjoyable, if you like a lighter style.

    Dec 28, 2010 at 5:37 AM

  • Snooth User: Forsstedt
    150999 1

    You forgot to enlarge on your Pol Roger...

    Dec 28, 2010 at 10:52 AM

  • Snooth User: cippa
    199041 30

    I always prefer Champagne R.M. , are the owners of the imprint of the producer .
    In addition, some manufacturers (Francis Boulard, f.e. ) using indigenous yeasts, non-industrial. Yeasts always leave traces in the flavor of the final product and its use yeast distinguishes his own creation .
    I invite you to drink PETRAE VII , 36 months cuvee of 7 years in Solera Method with formation of ' flor' on the base wine in barriques...
    I'm an Italian friend of Francis but all of you can see this on Blog of Francis.
    I hope the traduction from italian of ' lieviti' in YEAST is correct....
    Hi to all, nicola

    Dec 28, 2010 at 11:57 AM


    Dec 28, 2010 at 3:12 PM

  • Snooth User: pfarjas
    316282 3

    I love Cristal, but La grande Dame 1985 and 1989 are fantastic too.
    As for the best deal it has to be Theophile Roederer(the Brother) cannot bit the quality price...
    Chef Patrick Farjas "Maitre Cuisinier De France"

    Dec 28, 2010 at 4:24 PM

  • Snooth User: cabgrower
    420293 2

    cristal is my muse


    Dec 28, 2010 at 4:40 PM

  • Snooth User: eugene92
    556007 4

    Had just read the article on annoying words used to describe wines when I read this. Wasn't so much annoyed as perplexed: how can something be bad smelling (which I take funky to mean in this context) and subtle? And what is a dusty or powdery wine, am I supposed to feel I'm being suffocated?
    Also is there an article on your points system, tried to find one without luck?

    Dec 29, 2010 at 5:30 PM

  • Snooth User: julie21
    523707 20

    I agree with the Tattinger ratings. Tattinger Prestige Rose is one of my all time favorites along with Egly-Ouriet a Ambonnay. They will make any day that is ordinary extraordinary!

    Dec 31, 2010 at 1:42 PM

  • interesting

    Sep 24, 2013 at 9:23 AM

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