Champagne — some key basics to know before you buy that next bottle of bubbly

A Chicago expert answers the key questions about sparkling wine: How do the varieties differ? Does higher price mean better quality? And is last year’s bottle still good?

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RPM Steak’s wine director and sommelier Kat Hawkins has plenty of useful tips for choosing the right champagne for every taste and every price point. 

RPM Steak’s wine director and sommelier Kathleen Hawkins has plenty of useful tips for choosing the right champagne for every taste and every price point.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Champagne? Prosecco? Sparkling wine? Brut? Demi-sec? Extra dry? Rosé?

Decisions, decisions.

And so it goes, year after year, holiday after holiday, party after party: What Champagne (or other bubbly bottled libation) should we serve for New Year’s Eve and other holiday gatherings? (Not to mention anniversaries, birthdays and the next time you cook up a batch of fried chicken — more on that later.)

And it’s not just the type of bottled bubbly, but there’s also the price. Does higher price mean better quality? Should Champagne be pink? Is it best to serve it ice-cold? And what about that unopened bottle in the back of the fridge from last year — is it still good to serve?

For answers to these eternal questions and more, the Sun-Times reached out to a local expert — specifically Kathleen Hawkins, a sommelier and a certified specialist of wines, and also the wine director at Chicago’s tony RPM Steak — to guide us all through the trek to the wine aisle.

From left: Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Brut Rosé, Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Grand Cru, Champagne Collet Brut and Cava Faustino Rosé are available at RPM Steak in River North. 

Bubbly at various price points: Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Brut Rosé (from left), Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Grand Cru, Champagne Collet Brut and Cava Faustino Rosé are photographed at RPM Steak in River North.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

At the end of the day it’s all about enjoying that glass of fizzy wine and, where possible, opting for a magnum — because, as Hawkins points out, “two bottles are better than one, and a magnum is twice the volume of a standard bottle.” Just something to consider.

Q. What is Champagne (with a capital “C”)?

A. Champagne is very much a wine of “place,” specifically the Champagne region of France. Make sure whatever bottle you select has gone through “traditional method” of production [“Méthode Champenoise”]; otherwise it will have been made in a tank or artificially carbonated. It may not say those exact words on the bottle, but if it says Champagne it has to be made in that traditional method legally. .... It’s a historic process through which the bubbles are formed inside the bottle you’re eventually drinking.

Champagne is made through two fermentations. The first one is going to be the base wine a [vintner] normally makes. And the second fermentation is how you get the bubbles, and that happens from pressure formed in the bottle. That produces a better quality. ... That’s also why the corks are dangerous, because they’re going 60 to 70 miles per hour when they come off the bottle and they can be a little unruly due to all that atmospheric pressure that forms inside the bottle, pressure from the carbon dioxide when that fermentation starts for a second time to produce the bubbles. Those bubbles are finer, there are more of them, and they have a better texture as opposed to being artificially done.

Q. Does price matter when it comes to quality?

A. It can. It all depends on what price point you’re comfy with. There are bubbles that all go through that traditional method at all price points. The best quality/price point overall on the retail shelf is gonna be somewhere between $50 and $75.

You won’t find proper Champagne from France for $20, but you will find domestic sparkling wine produced in the traditional method at that price point.

Q. What’s the safest/best way to open a bottle?

A. Safest way truly is to place the bottle on table and hold the bottle with one hand firmly around the bottom and other around the top and twist in opposite directions at the same time. Just don’t have it underneath your chin or hold it angled toward someone.

RPM Steak’s wine director Kathleen Hawkins demonstrates the best way to pour a glass of Champagne.

RPM Steak’s wine director Kathleen Hawkins demonstrates the best way to pour a glass of Champagne.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Q. Is pink Champagne a real thing?

A. Yes, it’s called rosé (“ro-Zay”) Champagne. You’re making rosé wine first as the base wine either by blending back in a little bit of red wine or a grape that has red skins and soaking skins a little bit longer to get the color. It adds different flavors and texture to the wine.

Q. Is sparkling wine the same thing as Champagne?

A. Yes and no. Within the geographical boundaries of Champagne there are rules that are all very legally delineated. The grapes must grown in certain area, must be harvested at specific “must weight” (or sugar level), and have to through that two-step process for a minimum amount of time to be released as Champagne. ... Sparkling wines are generally from another place. For example, the U.S. doesn’t have it own “place” category, so you wouldn’t call [sparkling wine] Napa Valley. It’s not the law there.

If it’s not made within the bounds of Champagne it’s sparkling wine. But it’s still good and in many cases more affordable than Champagne because Champagne has a longer aging requirement, the land is more expensive, grapes are harder to grow because it’s cool [in the French region]. ... There’s a price tag that comes with that prestige. But there are also very expensive sparkling wines, too.

Q. What about prosecco?

A. Prosecco is another class of sparkling wine. It’s from the Veneto region of Italy. It’s made with a native Italian grape called Glera. Often prosecco is done in really large tanks. It’s made to be fresh and easy and made to be value-driven and usually a little more fruit-forward.

Q. How long can you keep an open bottle of Champagne?

A. If you have proper Champagne bottle stoppers — they click around the neck of the bottle — it will help maintain the bubbles for day or two. Also the less you move the bottle around, the better. If you take the bottle in and out of the fridge a bunch of times it will disturb the carbon dioxide in the solution. So pour a couple glasses, click it shut and put it away and don’t disturb it a lot and it will keep for up to two days at the most.

Q. How long can you keep an unopened bottle of Champagne?

A. A pretty long time, if it’s the highest quality, if it’s vintage-dated or from a high-quality producer. They start to lose a little bit of effervescence over time and start to get very toasty and caramel-ly, but I have vintage-dated Champagne on the list at RPM from 1983. The really, really great stuff can last 30 to 40 years. I think the the sweet spot to drink it is in the 10- to 15-year range if it’s the highest quality. If it’s that $40 bottle of Champagne, they’re all made very well, and will last three to five years easily.

Q. What’s the difference between brut and dry? What if you prefer a Champagne on the sweeter side?

A. They’re based on scientific measurement of residual sugar left in the base wine. If it says demi-sec on the bottle, those will have palpable sweetness to them and still be refreshing and not syrupy. Things that say “brut” or “extra brut” will be on the drier side (much less sweet). The bone-dry ones are gonna be labeled “Brut Nature” — no added sugar. Brut is the most popular category by far. If you want a really awesome demi-sec, my favorite is Louis Rodderer Carte Blanche.

Q. Should you keep unopened bottles in a refrigerator?

A. Champagne does best when it’s standing up, not on its side. It does best in a cool, dark environment. So the fridge is great or if you have a basement or closet that doesn’t see a lot of heat fluctuation, because those corks will pop if the bottle gets too hot.

Q. Should Champagne be served in a chilled glass? How chilled should the bottle be?

A. A chilled glass is not necessary. Most people drink their wines too cold in this country anyhow. We’re often drinking our white and sparkling wines too cold and losing all the nuance of the wine.

I live by this rule: For red wine, put it in the fridge for 20 minutes before serving. For white, take it out of the fridge for 20 minutes before serving

Q. Can you serve Champagne with a meal, or is it best just for toasting?

A. Champagne is delicious and pairs with everything. Absolutely try it with your favorite food. With fried chicken it’s the best! If you’re munching on potato chips or french fries, all of those things are great with Champagne. Any food that’s richer or more buttery is great to pair it with because Champagne has a little bit of tartness and acidity to it, so it helps to balance out the richness.

Champagne options

The Sun-Times asked Kathleen Hawkins, sommelier and wine director at RPM Steak, for Champagne and sparkling wine suggestions at various price points, which she shares here and in greater detail at her blog at
A bottle of Cava Faustino Rosé.

A bottle of Cava Faustino Rosé from Spain.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Everyday Sparkling: Spanish Sparkling Rosé

Cava Rosado, Faustino, Brut, NV (retails for $12.99 plus tax)

“Cava is Spain’s most well-known contribution to the sparkling wine game, and there are generally affordable options. It’s produced in the traditional method. … This is a rosé of Garnacha from the Rioja region of Spain, so in addition to being wonderful on its own, it can pair with almost any dish that hits the table this holiday season.”
A bottle of Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Brut Rosé.

A bottle of Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Brut Rosé is photographed at RPM Steak.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Domestic Sparkler: Willamette Valley Rosé

Soter, Mineral Springs Ranch, Brut Rosé, 2017 (retails for $78.99, plus tax)

“The combination of respectful farming, ancient marine soils and temperate climate, result in wines that are layered, nuanced and captivating. This cuvée is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and is made in the traditional method, gently pressed and then fermented. They also see extended aging, just as Champagne does in France, and this is a hallmark of quality sparkling wines.”

Classic Champagnes Made to Share: Large Format

Magnum of Pol Roger, “Réserve,” Brut, NV ($175.99, plus tax)

“In the mid-20th Century, the British chose to mark the end of World War II with one of the most iconic Champagne producers, Pol Roger. Sir Winston Churchill was such a fan of the house (and personal friend of co-owner Odette Pol-Roger) that his devotion eventually earned him his own eponymous cuvée, the finest ever offered by Pol Roger.”

Classic Champagne That Won’t Break the Bank

Champagne Collet, ‘Art Deco’ Brut, NV (retails for $39.99, plus tax)

“If a little more depth and texture is your style, then this ‘Art Deco’ blend is a great value. Finding true Champagne of this quality at this price point is rare. The dominant portion of the blend is made from the red grapes Pinot Noir and Meunier and shows a richness that pairs well with fish, meat, and celebration.”

Classic Champagne: Baller Status

Rare Champagne, 2006 (retails for $179.99, plus tax)

Hailing its history from the court of Marie-Antoinette, Rare is made for when it is time to really turn up the celebrations. Formerly the top cuvée of Piper Hiedsieck, Rare Champagne is made from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, and the wines are not made every year. This is only the ninth time that Rare has been made since 1976.”

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