There are three means of rating champagne and sparkling wine:
• By the price • By the label • By the taste
Expensive champagne is good champagne, as a rule. But if you only go by high price, you may be missing out. The label and your own taste buds can tell you as much about the value of champagne as the price. Here are the basics of all three means of rating, to help you choose champagne brands that will impress you personally. But let's establish what is and is not champagne, first, and whether that matters.
Champagne is just wine with bubbles in it. All champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne, however.
To be called champagne, it must be made in the traditional method; look for méthode traditionelle or methode champenoise on the bottle. (See What Makes Champagne Bubble?)
Secondly, it must be made in Champagne, France. The term 'French Champagne' is actually redundant. All true champagne is French champagne.
"Champagne" from anywhere else or made any other way is sparkling wine. Even bubbly made in France, but outside the Champagne region is sparkling wine, or as they call it, Crémant. Spain calls it Cava and Germany, Sekt.
Sparkling wine is not necessarily inferior to champagne,
just a victim of another quirky food tradition. Watch your toes! I tend
to use "champagne" to refer to both.
There's really no trick to rating champagne or sparkling wine if you just look at the price. Expensive champagne is good champagne. A very good bottle of champagne from a famous vintner can run between $75 and $150. But if you only buy Cristal Champagne or Dom Perignon, or are seen with only the "best" vintage champagne brands, you're missing out.
There are many fine less expensive sparkling wines to explore,
and not just on special occasions. Some very respectable sparkling wines
can be had for $10-$20.
Unlike a book, you can tell a lot about sparkling wine by its cover, its label. If it says 'Champagne,' for instance, you already know where it's from and how it was produced. In just a few minutes you can understand the other basics of a sparkling wine label.
Vintage or nonvintage: Typically, champagne is produced using a blend (cuvée) of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes from several harvests. 'Multi-vintage' may be more accurate than non-vintage. But once in a while a grape harvest produces a crop of just one type of grape that is perfect all by itself and a vintage champagne is born, rare and expensive.
Color: Your choices are white, white, pink, and sometimes red.
Sweet or Dry: The terms to indicate the sweetness or dryness of a sparkling wine can be confusing because the French words for dry and half-dry, sec and demi-sec, actually refer to the sweeter varieties. Brut varieties are dry. It makes a kind of sense, though, when you imagine a soda-pop-sweet drink at the top of the scale and compare all sparkling wines to it. From sweetest to driest the terms used are:
R.D. or L.D.: The abbreviations stand for "recently disgorged" and "late-disgorged." They refer to wine left on its lees (the flavorful fermentation residue that is later discarded) an extra long time for extra flavor. Often, the bottle will tell how long.
RM: It stands for "récoltant-manipulant"
and it means the grower is also the vintner. He makes his own wine
rather than grow the grapes to sell to another winery. Akin to a
micro-brew beer in that a much smaller number of cases are produced than
the big names, often surprisingly good at low cost.
Sparkling wines are described as having oaky, toasty, fruity, citrus, vanilla, spice, and lots more flavors and hints of flavors in them, even leather.
Read the descriptions to find something that appeals or intrigues and try it. As you drink it, take note of the various flavors listed in its description as they skate across your tongue.
There are those who claim that all champagne tastes alike. That's not true, but you may find that there is not enough difference for you to make it worth buying expensive champagne except, perhaps, on very special occasions. That's okay.Taste is the most important means of rating champagne. It's all that really counts. Find what you like and drink that. Hopefully, it will be a long, fascinating exploration.