Perhaps it’s for a wedding, a special birthday or a christening, breaking out the Champagne is the most popular tipple for those big, big occasions.

While most of us enjoy a glass or two, however, many people don’t have much expertise when it comes to the traditional bubbly.

Does this sound familiar? No panic: we’ve got you covered.

If you don’t know your sparkling wine from your brute coup or a flute from a red wine glass, here’s our quick guide on how to pick the best Champagne for your next special occasion.

Champagne or sparkling wine?

Here’s the simple truth: Champagne is sparkling wine. But not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Sparkling wines from other places in the world have their own brand names. In Spain you have Cava and in Italy there’s Prosecco. But they can’t be called Champagne.

To acquire the prestigious “Champagne” label, the sparkling wine must be made in Champagne, France. It can only be made using particular grapes: Pinot Munier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; and follow a traditional winemaking technique that requires that the liquid is fermented in the bottle as opposed to in tanks. It’s carefully controlled and protected.

Why is Champagne expensive?

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that Champagne generally costs more than other types of sparkling wine. There are several reasons for this, not all of them comprehensible. The higher price point is due to the price of the grapes, which are more expensive than any other. Champagne, they say, is subject to more rigorous production values and takes longer to make. There’s also the climate in the region that can restrict the number of bottles that are produced, especially if there is a winter frost.

The smaller the bubbles…

The key to choosing a good bottle of Champagne is the look rather than what’s written on the bottle. First of all, a young Champagne will look lighter than an older one. The other thing to look out for is the size of the bubbles – the smaller they are the smoother and creamier you should find your glass of bubbly.

Types of Champagne

Champagne varies from the very dry to the sweet and much will depend on which appeals to your taste buds.

You’ll most commonly see the term “brut” on Champagne labels, which means the wine contains less than 15 grams of sugar per litre. Other common terms include extra brut, which is slightly drier than brut; brut zéro, which is the driest; extra dry, which is between sweet and dry; and sec or demi-sec, which is sweet and semi-sweet respectively. The sweetest Doux has 50 or more grams per litre of residual sugar – equivalent to just over 2 teaspoons of sugar per glass.

Serving your Champagne

There are two simple things you need to do to fully enjoy your Champagne or sparkling wine.

The first is to ensure that you chill your Champagne properly, putting it in the fridge at least an hour before you intend to serve. The second is to serve it in fluted glasses – these are just the right shape to release the aromas but also keep in the bubbles as long as possible.

Should you mix Champagne with something else? The traditional Bucks Fizz may sound like a great idea but you’re wasting that Champagne if you are adding orange juice or anything else. Ideally, Champagne should be drunk on its own. If you want to try something else then opt for a cheaper sparkling wine, it’ll taste just as good.

Sparkling wine: the perfect substitute?

The world of sparkling wine has improved a lot over the last half a century and you can get some really good non-Champagne bottles. A lot may depend on the celebration you are planning and how much you want to spend or the effect you’d like to create.

If it’s an extra important occasion, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a glass of Champagne. But don’t sweat too much if you can only afford sparkling wine – there are plenty of brands like Prosecco and Cava and even Cap Classique from South Africa that are also great for those big occasions.

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