Vintage wisdom on selecting a fine bottle of champagne

Where there’s a wedding, there’s bound to be champagne.

Whether during the reception or on the honeymoon, newlyweds use the flowing bubbles to celebrate the occasion.

But just because the bottle goes “Pop!” when opened doesn’t mean it’s really champagne. Sometimes a little extra knowledge can make choosing and drinking the bubbly an experience to remember.

Not all champagnes are created equal. Ask the French and they will say that a sparkling wine called “champagne” must be made in the Champagne region of France according to the traditional method.

In the United States, however, the term “champagne” is often used generically to describe all sparkling wines.

Not surprisingly, the French have something to say about this.

“It’s like taking a Ford and calling it a Ferrari,” says Daniel Lorson, spokesman for the Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne France, the organization that represents the vintners. “Yes, the car will run, but it’s not the same driving experience.”

American makers, particularly in the Napa Valley, vehemently counter that they have mastered the “methode champenoise.” This is the sparkling wine’s crucial second fermentation, which creates natural carbonation that occurs in the bottle in which it is later sold.

Most American “champagne” is the result of the “charmat” or “bulk” process, a method that produces low-cost bubbly. Charmat sparkling wines are fermented in tanks, like beer, and often produce champagnes with large, lazy bubbles that disappear quickly.

The result is a vintage “as similar to authentic champagne as chicken cordon bleu is to KFC take-out,” Lorson contends.

If you want a really great bottle of champagne, the makers are French. Brands such as Moet & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, Champagne Veuve Clicquot and Piper (to name just a few of the more 12,000 champagne makers in France) have a reputation for excellence unmatched by any other vintners in the world.

The Web site provides links to the most significant French champagne makers as well as harvest ratings, taste-test results and reviews of vineyards and cellars, says John Holland, editor of the Web page.

This is helpful information, because there is something else that good French champagne is — expensive. Prices range from $50 to $250 a bottle based on the brand and vintage.

Here are some buying tips:

• If you want the guests to drink the Cold Duck and reserve a bottle of high-end champagne for later, first read the label, which carries the following information: the champagne appellation, a legally-protected guarantee that this is a bottle of authentic champagne from France; the brand or name of the producer; the level of dosage (sugar content) such as brut, demi-sec or extra-sec; and descriptors such as color and character of the champagne — blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, vintage, ros or prestige cuvee.

(The back label gives other useful information, such as which grapes were blended, the aging period, a description of the aromas and food-matching suggestions.)

• Chill, don’t freeze! Champagne is best drunk chilled, but never iced. The younger and livelier the champagne, the cooler it should be served. Over-chilling will mean that the wine is too cold to release its aroma and flavor.

Chilling your champagne in the freezer will ruin its aroma and flavor, so plan ahead with buckets of ice and coolers for chilling. About 40 degrees is considered the right temperature for drinking. A bottle plunged into a mixture of water and ice should reach the right temperature in 15 to 20 minutes.

• In the refrigerator, lay the bottle down on the bottom shelf for three or four hours before serving. You can leave it there even longer, provided that the temperature remains constant.

• When opening champagne, undo the wire cage, hold the cork in the palm of your hand and twist the bottle holding it at the bottom. The cork will come out on its own.

• The shape and state of the cork, just like the gentle hiss or resounding pop upon opening, gives the drinkers an indication of how long the wine has spent in the bottle and how long it has spent sitting on the shelf.

If the cork splays out at the bottom it means that the bottle is fresh and the cork still wishes to find its original shape. If the cork tapers in at the bottom it means that the bottle is old, you will only hear a gentle sigh as the cork is popped.

The bubbles also show the age of the wine. Over the years, the bubbles will gradually become smaller and smaller before finally dying out.

A connoisseur doesn’t worry about the absence of bubbles in a very mature wine, something that might shock the uninitiated into believing that their wine is flat.

• Which glass? To fully appreciate a champagne wine you must give it the glass it deserves. Its volume and height must be enough to allow the bubbles the space to form and rise to the surface, while allowing the temperature to remain as constant as possible.

The ideal shape is that of a tulip, say the French. The thickness of the glass also has a role to play, especially on the lips where the sense of taste begins, they say.

How to wash the glass? Rinse in hot water without any trace of soap, drain until dry, then store upright, sheltered from dust. The residues of liquid soap can inhibit the formation of the bubbles.

• When drinking, take your time. For a sublime experience, pour the champagne so that the glasses are only half-full.

Inhale its bouquet, slowly and at length, and then taste the wine. Keep it in your mouth for a few seconds, then start again. If it is a particularly fine bottle — welcome to paradise.