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Champagne 101 with McLean's Chain Bridge Cellars

Sparkling wine? Champagne? If you're a little confused, Chain Bridge Cellars answers the basics (and how to avoid spending a fortune.)

Champagne is as synonymous with New Year's Eve as eggs are to Easter.

But picking the right bottle can be a little daunting with all the choices out there - and the price ranges.

Meg House of Chain Bridge Cellars breaks down what you need to know to start the new year off with a sparkle and a pop! Happy New Year!

1. Do you need to spend a lot of money to buy a good Champagne?  

Yes and no.  “Real” Champagne – sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France – is fairly expensive to make (and has still more cost tacked on for marketing in the case of big-name brands), so it tends to cost more than other sparkling wines.  We have excellent non-vintage Champagne in stock from $27 with top “tete de cuvee” wines like Pol Roger Winston Churchill 1999 going for $275.   You can drink excellent, small-grower Champagne for $35-$50 or drink great sparkling wines from other parts of France, Italy, California, or even Austria and Germany from $12-$25.

2. What is the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?   

At the technical level, Champagne has to be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France (east of Paris) and get its bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle.  Real Champagne has to age in bottle for a couple of years, although most good Champagnes age on their lees – i.e., with the dead yeast cells from the secondary fermentation – for 3 – 5 years or longer.   Other sparkling wines may be made just like Champagne but from grapes grown other places.  You’ll usually see something like “méthode champenoise” or “méthode traditionale” on the label of these wines.  Or, many fine sparkling wines (Italy’s Prosecco being the prime example) are made by what’s called the Charmat Method – where the bubbles are captured in a pressurized tank and the wine is already fizzy when it goes into the bottle.  This is easier and less expensive than méthode champenoise, and gives wines less fizz, bigger bubbles, and more fresh fruit taste.

3. Is there a difference in taste?   

Yes, although "different" doesn’t mean better for your taste or purpose! Real Champagne flavors vary extensively depending on the exact mix of grapes used (there can be three: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and another black grape called Pinot Meunier), where the grapes were grown, how they were made into wine (in tank vs. oak barrel), and how long the wine aged on the lees.  But, in general, Champagne is more crisp, mineral, and yeasty/biscuity than sparkling wines made in other regions.   Lots of fine California sparkling wines made méthode champenoise mimic Champagne’s flavors, but the greater ripeness of West Coast grapes usually gives California fizz a deeper fruit flavor and, some argue, less precision and fineness than real Champagne.

4. Can you offer three recommendations at three different price points?   

Three outstanding “real” Champagnes:

  • Duval Leroy Champagne Brut NV ($34.98 sale price) – A consistently excellent fizz from a mid-sized house that made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 2011; crisp and toasty.  
  • Pierre Paillard Champagne Grand Cru Bouzy Brut NV ($44.99) – Our “go-to” choice for party/sipping Champagne, this is round and generous with a creamy, soft, finish.  
  • Eric Rodez Cuvee des Grands Vintages Grand Cru Ambonnay NV ($69.98 sale price) – Mindboggling Champagne in the style of Krug (but less than 1/3 the price!) from 10 different vintage base wines, aged in oak, and then aged for 8 years on the lees.    

And, for other sparkling wines:

  • Dom De Martinolles Le Berceau Blanquette De Limoux NV ($11.98 sale price) – Probably our best selling sparkling wine ever, this gives a nice hint of Champagne class and taste at a Cold Duck price. (Do they still make Cold Duck?  One hopes not!)  
  •  L' Antica Quercia Prosecco Superiore "Matiu" Brut NV ($19.99) – Probably our favorite Prosecco in the store right now, this is unusually crisp and complex for Prosecco but still lots of creamy, fizzy fun.  
  •  Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee Blanc De Noir 2007 ($39.99) – Probably the prettiest wine in the glass (a very pale salmon pink) from one of America’s best fizz houses; crisp red berry flavors and a nice note of toast.

5. Can you estimate how many bottles of Champagne and sparkling wine you will sell in the days leading up to NYE?   

We sell about 40 percent of all sparkling wine for the year between December 20 and December 31. Which is too bad, really, since Champagne and other sparklers are some of the best all-around food and pleasure wines we sell for any time of the year!    

6. What are your holiday hours?   

Chain Bridge Cellars is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily every day except on Sunday, when it is open from  11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The store will be closed on New Year’s Day.

Chain Bridge Cellars is located at 1351 Chain Bridge Road, McLean. 

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