We can only refer to a sparkling white wine as 'champagne' if it is produced from grapes cultivated in the Champagne region of France. Champagne has an alcohol content of about 12%, and is predominantly made from mixing 3 varieties of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The carbonation process occurs naturally during the second fermentation process after bottling.
A combination of the climate of the Champagne region (cold winters and warm summers) and its chalky sub-soil makes this area ideal for the cultivation of grapes. Although wines had been produced there since Roman times, the first mention of sparkling wine wasn't until 1531. Initially, producers were unable to create large quantities of this wine since their glass bottles were unable to cope with the fermentation process when bottles would explode. This led to it being nicknamed the 'devil's wine'. Although the 17th century monk Dom Perignon didn't invent the drink, he played a crucial role in helping to overcome some of these technical difficulties. By the 19th century, the popularity of champagne had spread throughout Europe, and it was marketed as a drink for royalty and aristocrats. Nowadays, with over 300 million bottles sold a year throughout the world, champagne is associated with celebrations.
Before consumption, you should chill champagne – either by keeping it in the fridge at a temperature of 7-10 degrees centigrade or by placing it in an ice-filled champagne bucket for half an hour. Although the large 'pop' of the exploding cork might suit your mood, it doesn't help the taste of the champagne as too many bubbles escape too fast leaving it flat and lifeless. Instead, you should first remove all the foil, gently untwist the fastening and loosen the metal cage. Then, keeping one hand over the cork and the other over the neck of the bottle, you turn the bottle rather than the cork. It should come out with a gentle sigh and then be poured into tilted glasses to prevent the bubbles escaping. The glasses used for champagne are often another bone of contention. Traditionally it is served in tall, slim flutes as it traps the bubbles and aromas in the neck. You won't get that irritating tickle in your nose when it's served in coups (from the escaping CO2), but the bubbles will dissipate too quickly.
Although the vast majority of champagnes are a pale amber colour, some producers make a rosé by blending small amounts of red and white wine and adding it during the fermentation process. A good example to try is the Bollinger Special Cuvee Rose NV. The designation 'special cuvee' tells you that the blend of the champagne has been created from high quality grapes. The NV stands for 'non-vintage' and means that it has been stored in cellars for at least 15 months before being sold. After purchase, you can store NV champagnes for up to 5 years out of direct light at temperatures of 12-18 degrees centigrade. However, keeping them any longer than that won't improve their taste.
Champagnes have different levels of acidity ranging from the driest: Brut Nature or Ultra Brut to the sweetest: Demi-Sec or Doux. How sweet a particular champagne tastes depends on the amount of cane sugar which is added to it during the process of 'dosage' (when the bottles are topped up after the sediment has been removed). Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial Demi Sec NV, with its higher sugar content, is an ideal champagne to serve with desserts. Alternatively, it makes the perfect ingredient for a cocktail like Buck's Fizz (one part orange juice to two parts champagne) or a Mimosa (champagne, orange juice and a dash of triple sec). Both cocktails are great if you're planning a celebratory brunch with family and friends.
However you decide to serve it, you're sure to find a champagne which suits your personal tastes.