Top Tips for buying Champagne - Gourmet Basket


Champagne is a fast-moving target, recording record global turnover in recent years not always in step with the region’s best buys. For all of its record-smashing, cork-popping success there is still much to embrace in the diversity of styles, producers and prices that Champagne has to offer.

Here are my top ten tips for making the most of the region’s finest this year.

Buy Vintage –

It’s a travesty that the smallest-selling champagne category remains the best value. Excluding prestige and rosé, vintage champagne represents a minuscule of 1.6{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of champagne bottles exported. And yet this same category represents an enormous 62{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of my best of lists this year!

Buy 2008 –

2008 is the most refined and long-lived vintage in many decades, and it’s on the shelves right now

Buy NVs based on 2012 –

2012 is the predominant non-vintage base in the market this year, and it’s the best since 2008. Where possible, I’ve explained throughout The Champagne Guide how to decode bottling codes to ascertain base vintages.


Champagne rosé continues its flamboyant growth curve, up 8.6{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} in 2016, now representing more than 10{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of champagne exports. And yet its performance in the glass far outranks its sale success, representing a huge 23{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of my best of lists this year

Buy Prestige –

This year I discovered an unusually small number of high-scoring cuvée in lower price brackets (AUD$60 – $150), making an investment in prestige cuvée all the more rewarding. I have lined up 56 astonishing champagnes at over $150.

Prestige champagne remains a tiny category, and although exports grew by 4.6{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} in 2016, they still coincidentally represent just 4.6{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of all champagnes sold.

Spend Up –

Champagne remains the bargain of the luxury wine word, with prestige champagne ranking as the most affordable and most accessible of all flagship global benchmark wine styles. When was the last time you found a mature First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy for the same price as Krug Grand Cuvée?

In 1904, Moët and Chandon Carte Bleue sold for the same price as Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. A 30-year-old Chateau Lafite was just double the price of a bottle of Louis Roederer, Mumm Cordon Rouge or Verve Clicquot. Today, these Bordeaux wines are 20 times the price! Champagne does not rank even once among the top 20 most expensive wines in the world.

And yet Champagne pays is growers the highest grape price in the world of €6.20 per kilogram, more than 60{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} up on the price 15 years ago. It takes 1.2 kilograms of grapes to make a bottle of wine, not to mention a production process more complex and more labour-intensive than any other in the wine world. Besides fortified, champagne is the only wine style matured to its prime prior to release. Champagne currently has 1.43 billion bottles stockpiled in waiting, more than 4.5 year of supply.

Champagne is the envy of the wine world and the universal and inimitable symbol of celebration. It accounts for 20{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of French wine sales, from just 4{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of the country’s vineyards.

Can champagne maintain its bargain prices? It can, and it will, until demand hits a record high in the coming years. Since a record of 338.8 million bottles in 2007, champagne achieved a post-GST sales record of 312.5 million in 2015, softening to 306 million in 2016. Average ex-cellar bottle prices have risen by just 14{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} over the past nine years, making €4.7 billion in sales in both 2015 and 2016 all-time records for global champagne turnover.


Pinot noir ranks as Champagne’s most planted varietal (38{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b}), followed by meunier (32{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b}) and chardonnay (30{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b}). The blanc de blancs cuvées of the greatest villages of the Côte Blancs and the pinot-driven bends of the Montagne de Reims uphold their reputations as the greatest sparkling wines on earth.

Don’t miss champagne growers –

A tremendous 4,461 of Champagne’s 15,800 growers produce their own champagnes, compared with just 306 houses and 39 cooperatives. However, growers have declined to less than 20{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} of champagne sales.

Since 2007, the volume of sales from champagne houses has ebbed and flowed with European and global economic instability, but stabilised at 219.4 million bottles in 2016, unchanged from 2010 levels. Cooperative sales likewise remained stable since 2010 at 27.1 million bottles. By comparison grower champagne sales suffered a steady and consistent decline since 2008, dropping 2.4{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} from 78.5 million to just 59.5 million in 2016.

This year, the growers most worthy of your attention are Egly-Ouriet, André Clouet, De Sousa, Gatinois and Pierre Gimonnet & Fils. I include De Sousa here even though, like Bérêche et Fils this estate recently relinquished its Récoltant-Manipulant status for the flexibility to purchase grapes. Both will always remain growers in my mind.

Beware of faulty bottles –

Of more than 800 cuvées I tasted for The Champagne Guide, I’m delighted to report that I encountered less than 1{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} cork taint and less than 1{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b} random oxidation, by far the lowest result I have ever seen for bottle variation.

Imparted randomly by natural corks, cork taint gives a mouldy, ‘wet cardboard’ or ‘wet dog’ character to champagne. It suppresses fruit and shortens the length of finish. In its most subtle form, it may simply have a slight dulling effect on the bouquet and palate.

Champagne is the most fragile of all wine styles, and particularly susceptible to degradation in contact with oxygen. Oxidation shows itself in champagne as premature development, flattening fruit expression, contributing character of burnt orange or vinegar, and drying out the finish.

Positive trends in both cork taint and oxidation are thanks in part to more than 60 million bottles (a little more than 20{118871712487e99ea55a4bf9113f2f9ce7d4c6c832c56501f07442925571cf3b}) of champagne now sealed with Mytic DIAM, a micro-agglomerate closure moulded from granulated fragments of cork which have been treated to extract cork taint and some 150 other molecules that might produce ‘off’ characters. I have never seen cork taint in any DIAM-sealed wine.

‘Lightstruck’ is the menacing effect of degradation of wine exposed to ultraviolet light from fluorescent lamps and, worse, sunlight. There is no wine more susceptible to lightstruck that champagne in clear glass bottles, deminishing citrus aromas and producing reductive characters such as sulphur, corn, gherkin, bacon, gun smoke or burnt rubber.

As always, request a replacement for any faulty bottle.

Get off the low sugar diet –

For the first time this year, I have made the bold move of dropping the ‘Low Dosage Champagne of the Year’ as a dedicated category in my ‘Best of’ lists. There simply aren’t enough worthy cuvées this year.

Over the centuries, dosage levels have gradually lowered, and in recent years the catch cry seems to have become ‘how low can you go?’.  Until recently, to qualify as ‘brut’ champagne, required less than 15g/L of sweetness – a little less than a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee. This has now been lowered to a maximum of 12g/L. ‘Extra brut’ requires less than 6g/L, and ‘brut nature’ or ‘brut zero’ less than 3g/L. Most champagnes now boast a refreshingly low dosage of 5-10g/L.

Champagne’s sweet dreams may be a thing of the past, but has it gone too far? ‘Zero dosage’ is all the rage, and the intent of the ‘Coke Zero’ movement of the wine world is certainly noble, but too many champagne brands have joined the parade simply because it’s the thing to do. Dogmatically slashing dosage to zero purely for the sake of branding is self-defeating.

A carefully tweaked low dosage is not designed to make a wine taste sweet. The effect of just 5g/L (a spoonful of sugar in an entire bottle) can be astounding. Floral aromas are lifted, the palate is softened and more harmonious, the fruit is more expressive, and, in the most delightful way, it doesn’t taste sweet. Sugar also builds longevity, reacting with amino acids to give roasted, honeyed characters.
Champagne’s most progressive makers carefully tweak the dosage of every cuvée, every year, to create a precise balance. Beware of zero-dosage cuvées build on the same bases as the brut cuvée of the house.


Tyson Stelzer

I’m frequently asked why I write more about champagne than anything else. It goes without saying that I love the wine, the place and its people. I am thrilled by the challenge of unravelling what is probably the most complex wine style in the world, and I love the chase of discovering the real story behind the wines of its most guarded brands.



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