How To Talk Authoritatively—And Interestingly—About Champagne
Champagne is an unusual wine category in that most people like it, but few, even serious wine lovers, think deeply about what they like about it. It’s frothy and celebratory—plus expensive, which tends to make us like things more; sometimes it’s pink; and most people know they should get more excited if they’re handed a glass of Dom Pérignon than of Moët Brut Imperial. But beyond that, most of us are happy to assume that champagne is champagne.
The way champagne has historically been marketed bears some of the responsibility. Champagne bottles, labels and advertisements tend towards the beautiful, luxurious and atmospheric rather than the informative. However, if you’re willing to pay a little attention, there is easily as much variation among champagnes, even if you limit yourself to major brands, as among the wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, and the gustatory rewards of learning to discern the differences are just as great.
One challenge with distinguishing champagnes is the relative dearth of apt vocabulary. Comparatively subtle in its flavours, champagne does not reward those who mainly look for descriptors in the fruit aisle. Instead, much of its charm lies in the ineffable aromas and textures that derive from extended contact with lees. Baked goods like toast or brioche are typical reference points, but how many times can you use them without flattening the wines’ delightful idiosyncrasies into a dull, biscuity sameness? Champagne’s winemaking process also introduces some less savoury-sounding aromas that, when subtle, can be utterly transformative: iodine, ozone, metal, burnt rubber, oyster shell, seaweed. This phenomenon, which I have previously described as “the crack”, is, in my view, the key to greatness.
The base wines do of course contribute their own aromas and flavours. But the grapes are harvested at lower ripeness levels than is typical for wine and thus tend toward the floral, herbal, spicy and even vegetal rather than overtly fruity. I often find myself raiding the vocabulary of fragrance: lotus, peony, chypre (an accord of citrus, resin and oakmoss), patchouli, verbena, amber. But unless you know what a chypre is (and who does, really?), how much help is that?
Of course, there are also real, practical differences: some wines have more chardonnay in the blend, some more pinot noir, some more pinot meunier. Some vines are grown in the chalkier soils found in the Côte des Blancs, others in the dense clays of the Marne Valley. Wines are made with varying levels of oak, time on lees, dosage and so on. However, the sheer number of factors involved can make it difficult to tease out these individual facets when thinking about overall style.
It can be somewhat more instructive to think about categories of champagne style using a few spectrums: body from light to full; aromas from floral and fruity to spicy and toasty or, for the more technically minded, reductive (precise, clean and “mineral”) to oxidative (nutty). Though helpful, this effectively leaves you with a set of coordinates on a multidimensional grid, which seems an awfully prosaic way to think about what is—at its best—vinous poetry.
So, to take a leaf from the champagne houses themselves, which seem universally drawn to artist collaborations in their branding, I have hypothesised that tasting a champagne can be likened to seeing a piece of visual art, and suggested artists best evoked by each wine. Some are as intense and deceptively simple as Rothkos, while others seduce with luscious, Rubenesque oomph. Because most champagnes, especially non-vintage, are heavily blended for consistency, a producer’s style typically pervades all of its wines much in the way that Cézanne’s paintings, whatever their subject, are always clearly Cézanne’s.
Light Body, Clean Flavours
Dom Pérignon: Piet Mondrian
Despite being the luxury champagne par excellence, Dom Pérignon gives the sense of having been pared back to its essentials. Just as a true Mondrian shames its many imitators, Dom is set apart by the way it always yields something unexpected: a sparkle of iodine or a whiff of spark plug, like a skinny sliver of yellow jammed into one corner. As in Mondrian’s compositions, a thoroughly modern surface conceals a deep understanding of classical proportions.
Ruinart: Constantin Brancusi
Ruinart wines are heavily built on chardonnay, some of them 100 per cent, and strike the palate like beams of pure light, their taut, soaring energy beautifully epitomised by Brancusi’s bronze Bird in Space sculptures. Like those space-age plumes, the wines leave the impression that they will outlive us all.
Perrier-Jouët: Georgia O’Keeffe
The swooning art nouveau anemones gracing Perrier- Jouët’s Belle Epoque lead virtually everyone to pick up white flowers in their wines, so perhaps picking O’Keeffe is a bit on the nose. However, these wines share the focus and formal discipline of the New Mexico painter’s close-ups of white roses, calla lilies and irises. A fine balance of fanciful and pure, the wines, like the paintings, are quietly luminous.
Cristal: Sandro Botticelli
Cristal, the superlative cuvée born in 1876 of Tsar Alexander II’s paranoia—it is rumoured he requested a clear bottle so he could detect poisons—boasts the peerless longevity that eluded the royal himself. There’s an austerity at its core, the product of chalky soils or retained malic acid, that is tempered by an elaborate exterior of abundant lees and creaminess. Likewise, the floral crowns and brocades of Botticelli’s figures contrast with their serene, contemplative expressions and a detached, linear style that, at more than 500 years old, feels similarly timeless.
Agrapart et Fils: Alberto Giacometti
The coveted wines of Côte des Blancs superstar grower Pascal Agrapart are almost exclusively angular, lithe and racy, much like the slender, craggy figures of mid-20th-century Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Intensely hand-wrought in feel, the wines exhibit a dynamic immediacy shared by Giacometti’s confidently striding forms.
Light Body, Bold Flavours
Moët & Chandon: Andy Warhol
Much as the name Moët is almost synonymous with champagne, the way the wines taste and feel is similarly quintessential: buoyant, bracing and toasty, beyond even the epitome of how we imagine champagne. This “essentialism plus” is embodied in the work of 20th-century seer Warhol, who, with his technicolour silk screens of Prince, Marilyn Monroe or the Queen of England, transfigured human subjects into iconic images.
Charles Heidsieck: Mark Rothko
Perhaps because of its Champagne Charlie vibe, few people take Heidsieckas seriously as it deserves. The immediate impact of its Brut Réserve on first sniff is unrivalled among NV champagnes, with a luxuriant, smoky richness that masks a surprisingly elegant frame. Similarly, the walloping colour of Rothko’s paintings reveals subtle nuances upon longer contemplation. Pushing and pulling modulations of flavour and texture create dimension and depth not immediately appreciable.
Salon: Elizabeth Peyton
Another lodestar of the champagne firmament, this is a wine of seductive richness but apparent effortlessness, recalling the portraits Elizabeth Peyton builds out of concise, jewel-toned strokes.
Having started as the private project of a wealthy furrier, Eugène-Aimé Salon, Salon—there is only one wine—retains a handcrafted singularity that feels commensurate with Peyton’s lovingly brushed, intimate oils and watercolours.
Pierre Péters: Katsushika Hokusai
Grower Rodolphe Péters is a chardonnay specialist making some of the most cogent but complex estate-bottled wines in the region. His wines reflect the composition, economy of form and exquisite detailing of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, with their highly controlled sense of drama (and occasional eruptions), feel like spiritual siblings to Péters’ wines.
Full Body, Subtle Flavours
Veuve Clicquot: Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres
Though undeniably classical in style (citrussy fruit, creamy mousse, rich though not exuberant toast) wines in the Veuve stable have a pulsating, winking allure. Their corseted, pinot-powered sensuality recalls Ingres’ portraits of wealthy 19th-century society hostesses, their dark, glossy locks pulled demurely back, their pale shoulders bare above bodies concealed by swathes of fur, velvet and taffeta.
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses: Jacques-Louis David
This is one of the greatest single-site wines in Champagne and one of its oldest. A precarious south-facing site yields an unexpectedly orderly wine of rich surfaces, profound scope and perfect proportions. With their masterful modelling and tightly controlled neoclassical structures, the monumental canvases of Jacques-Louis David, official court painter of Emperor Napoleon I, feel like an apt match.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne: James McNeill Whistler
The rare house run by the family named on the label, Taittinger is hard to pigeonhole: much of its range deliberately combines the robust with the dainty. Twin icons Comtes de Champagne and its rosé counterpart are opposite poles. While the white is defined by Côte des Blancs chardonnay with a rigid spine and formidable poise, the rosé blends mostly Montagne de Reims pinot with a dash of skinny chardonnay: initially plump, cascading and sensuous, it leaves the impression of icy reserve, much like Whistler’s Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink.
Georges Laval: Paul Cézanne
The much-admired organic grower Vincent Laval makes sapid, bone-dry wines of great character and self-assurance. Sometimes heavy on the greyish “crack” aromas (hot steel, fusel oil), there is a solidity of structure and a confident modulation of flavours and textures that seem at one with Cézanne’s methods. The way the post-impressionist master would feel out his still lifes, landscapes, or figures in search of a deeply subjective truth rhymes with Laval’s imperfectly perfect, individualistic wines.
Full Body, Intense Flavours
Krug Grande Cuvée: Rachel Ruysch
Krug’s flagship is notoriously blended from dozens of individual wines—a typical Édition might include around 150—in a meticulous process that unfolds over months of careful assemblage and tasting. The prodigious floral still lifes of Dutch Golden Age painter Rachel Ruysch give a similar sense of outdoing nature, ingeniously juxtaposing exotic blooms that would never bump stems in reality into exquisite arrangements of flaming colour and shimmering texture.
Bollinger: Peter Paul Rubens
Built on the flesh of pinot noir, Bollinger’s wines are a lusty cry of hedonism—more lees, more oak, more age—just kept in check by a rigid but well-concealed structure. They find a strong visual parallel in Rubens’ baroque vortices of luscious female curves and writhing male sinews.
Pol Roger: Rembrandt van Rijn
Although Pol Roger’s most famous fan, Sir Winston Churchill, admired the paintings of Matisse, Cézanne and Monet, his tastes in wine ran darker and more brooding. Pinot-heavy, deep-toned and oozing finesse, Pol Roger’s wines recall Rembrandt’s dense, finely honed portraits built of layered earth tones, whites, blacks and flickers of vermilion.
Jacques Selosse: Pablo Picasso
Though he’s the original evangelist for letting terroir speak through champagne, Selosse’s divisive creations are perhaps more recognisable than any other producer’s. Like Picasso’s vibrating cubist canvases, these wines deliver almost an over-abundance of information, both more and less true to lived experience than a more straightforward portrayal; like the Spaniard’s works, they are unforgettable.