Tasting a fine Champagne should be a pleasant and relaxing experience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be reserved for special occasions either and can be relished even among friends or alone.
However, conflicting advice and the pressure of knowing what you’re doing can suck the enjoyment out of it. Nevertheless, with just a bit of background information and a mental checklist, you can easily learn to get the most of it.
In the following article, you will learn the fundamentals for tasting Champagne to help you get on your way.
How To Prepare Champagne For Tasting
To ensure that your tasting experience is the best, make a few preparations so that your champagne is ready to be tasted.
You will need to consider certain factors beforehand such as the environment, the glasses and the best temperature. Furthermore, there’s an off-chance you may not be familiar with the proper serving technique for Champagne.
You can brush up on the above subjects with the following dedicated guides:
- The Best Glasses For Champagne
- Ideal Champagne Serving Temperatures
- How To Correctly Serve Champagne
If you’re already familiar with the topics above, scroll on to read how to properly taste Champagne!
How To Properly Taste Champagne
- Sound: “Popping” The Cork
- Touch: Feeling The Cork & Glasses
- Sight: Appreciating the robe
- Smell: The Bouquet’s Aroma
- Taste: The Wine’s Palate
Now that everything is prepped and ready, let’s walk through the steps to fully enjoy your Champagne. Bear in mind that there is a slight difference between appreciating and knowing wine. However, one never excludes the other. If you feel that you may lack the knowledge to taste wine, that by no means suggests that you can’t appreciate it.
Many sommeliers believe that wine tasting is an art. Tasting the wine by following certain rules, creates this art-form and aids in appreciating the wine in a more refined way. However, even without professional experience, we can unpretentiously enjoy wine.
Learning a couple of easy steps and gestures will help to genuinely enjoy without any pretension. As you may have noted above, tasting any wine can be based on the 5 senses: sound, touch, sight, smell and taste.
Simply keep this in mind when tasting. Consider how the Champagne stimulates each sense and the pleasure it gives. You can jump straight to a section by clicking above or just scroll down to keep reading.
1. Sound: How Did The Cork Sound?
Listen carefully to the sound the Champagne makes as the cork releases. Don’t let the cork pop! Remember that it’s important to properly open the bottle in order to fully appreciate its nuances. The Champagne should “whisper” a satisfied sigh of effervescence if properly released.
You’ll know if something doesn’t seem quite right by the sound. If the cork had kept a pour seal, the sound will be underwhelming and unhealthy. Conversely, if you had to fight the cork from popping the minute it was touched, that also serves as an indicator. Bottles that pop too keenly can either be a sign that the Champagne was slightly too young or even too warm for drinking.
2. Touch: How Do The Cork & Glasses Feel?
Firstly, touch the glasses to check their temperature. They shouldn’t be too warm or too cold but only slightly cool to the touch. If this is the case, we’re ready to pour.
While you or someone else serves the Champagne, check the cork. How does it feel? It should be slightly moist at the end. If it’s bone dry or flaking, it may have been badly stored upright for too long. When a cork dries, it contracts and shrivels, which loses the seal.
Look at the side of the cork and check whether it has darkened. It shouldn’t have any marks or colour change above more than 1/8 of its side. If has darkened, this means that it was exposed to a high temperature and the wine was forced to bleed through the cork when expanding.
Sometimes this is just a short spike of temperature change when moving so hopefully will have no effect. However, it’s best to check visually beforehand. Moreover, you can watch the cork as you taste. A particularly good cork will slowly begin to regain its original cylindrical shape even if it’s been bottled for several years.
Why Do Corks Go Bad?
Feeling and visually checking the cork are useful but your nose and palate will be more effective at detecting a bad cork. If it’s the case, you’ll immediately detect a sour, rancid aroma that is reminiscent of damp cardboard.
This is due to Trichloroanisole or TCA, a sterilising agent washed on corks before they’re applied. If the chemical (which is harmless to ingest) isn’t properly rinsed off, it can mix with the wine.
Finally, you can check the year that the Champagne was corked. Usually, this is written on the cork itself. Unlike many wines, Champagne ages best during its second fermentation when bottled and capped.
Once disgorged and corked, it can still age but not for as long. For example, a vintage Champagne can age well for another 5-10 years and develop creamy, yeasty notes. However, a non-vintage bottle may begin to lose its bubbles after around 5 years.
3. Sight: How Does The Champagne Look?
Now that the Champagne is in the glass, it’s time to observe and admire its appearance. Holding the glass by the stem, raise it to eye-level and turn it at 45°.
Use the following checklist to guide you on what to look for:
- Clarity (clear, opaque)
- Colour (pale, straw, golden)
- Bubbles (large, small, graceful, lively)
In order to really appreciate its purity, try to hold it in a well-lit area. Furthermore, a white background such as a napkin will make it easier to observe the colours and bubbles.
First and foremost, study the Champagne’s clarity. This is the first indicator in what to expect in terms of intensity. Put the fingers of your free hand behind the glass and judge how well you can still see them. Older Champagnes are usually denser and more opaque. Conversely, much younger Bruts are light-bodied and can border on transparent depending on the blend.
Now admire the robe’s colour. A Champagne’s colour will evolve over time as it ages and matures. Younger Champagnes will often be a pale yellow. As they get older, they will develop a straw-like texture until beginning to adopt deep golden colours like honey or amber.
Now consider the bubbles. Look at things like their size, movement and concentration. Firstly, coarser Champagnes will feature big and rough bubbles.
Instead, superior Champagnes create many small and refined bubbles that travel gracefully to the rim. In fact, a single glass can release up to 2 million bubbles alone! Bear in mind that the taller the glass, the bigger the bubbles as they effectively snowball on their way up.
As a Champagne matures, that number may begin to dwindle. If the Champagne starts ageing, their speed towards the surface will lessen too.
Look at the glass from the top and watch how the bubbles spread across the surface. The glass’s shape and width will have an effect on this but take note of how wide it is. A concentrated yet wide spread ensures an even but refined dispersion.
Finally, remember that how cold a Champagne will affect bubble density. A Champagne at 15°C (59°F) will produce 50% more bubbles than one at 5°C (41°F). Therefore, remember to favour the correct serving temperature.
Bubbles are one of Champagne’s greatest pleasures. However, they’re also vitally important for its taste. They help the Champagne breathe and release the aromatic molecules when they pop at the surface, which creates the bouquet. Therefore, since smaller bubbles come in greater quantities, they are more effective in stimulating the palate’s receptors.
4. Smell: What Aromas Does The Champagne Give Off?
Firstly, remember that thanks to the bubbles, you don’t need to swirl the glass. As noted above, the bubbles do all the work for you in creating the aromas when they rise to the surface. In fact, swirling the glass only creates foam and speeds up the release of carbon dioxide.
Start by placing the glass under your nose and gently inhaling. This allows you to admire the light and volatile notes of the wine.
Now that you have been teased, don’t be coy and try to place your nose deeper into the bouquet to appreciate its deeper notes.
You’ll need to keep only two things in mind, which are:
- The Bouquet’s intensity (delicate, mild, medium, full)
- The Wine’s Aromas (aromatics, floral, fruity, minerals, yeasty)
Firstly, take note of the intensity. How strong is it and how easy is it to pick out the bouquet’s notes? This is something of a prelude to determine what to expect from the flavours. If the intensity is delicate on the nose, then there is a high chance that the effect on the palate will be similar.
Professionals obsess over deciphering a wine’s aromatic mysteries and Champagne is no exception. Don’t overlook a wine’s bouquet as they are the foreplay to experiencing the pleasure it provides. A wine’s quality and identity can be deduced from its nose with only a little experience.
Furthermore, the aromas will reveal a hint about the Champagne’s palate. This can be quite challenging but think about the families of the notes. Is it floral, fruity, mineral or yeasty? Can you specifically identify any of those notes from their families?
Many enthusiasts relish this moment and social gatherings can consist of intense sessions of working together or competing to discover precise aromas. Don’t feel intimidated by the vocabulary and just jump in and have fun!
5. Taste: How Does The Champagne Taste?
Everything has lead to this moment. It’s time to bring the Champagne to your lips. However, don’t guzzle or quaff it down despite the overwhelming temptation. Instead, inhale gently to take in some aromas as you take a light sip.
Take in just enough that will cover the surface of your tongue and let it roll over your palate. Let the saliva break down the chemical compounds and bring out the aromas.
Some professionals will swish it around their mouths like mouthwash, which is an efficient way for the saliva to quickly bring out all the flavour. However, don’t feel like you have to do this. Instead, let the wine evolve naturally and enjoy its harmony of notes as they phase in and out.
Take a mental note of the checklist below when tasting a Champagne:
- Acidity (dry vs fruity)
- Viscosity (light, medium, heavy)
- Palate Notes (aromatics, floral, fruity, minerals, yeasty)
- Finish (short, average, long)
The acidity of a Champagne ties quite simply into the sugar dosage added before it is corked. These are usually indicated on the bottle with terminology such as “brut”, “sec” and “doux”. The result is either a sour or sweet wine due to the Champagne’s dryness. Naturally, this has a huge impact on the flavour as a higher sugar content will reveal more fruity notes.
When swirling the Champagne across your palate, take note of the viscosity. This can be felt by the wine’s weight and consistency against the tongue. Younger Champagnes are quite light whilst vintages may be thick and syrupy.
The notes detected across the palate are a continuation of the aromas explored in the nose. They often complement the bouquet and you will likely rediscover the aromas but in greater detail. You may be able to identify the more obscure, volatile notes that were teased in the nose. However, you may discover something completely new.
The notes you will encounter can reveal a lot about the Champagne’s origins. For example, Chardonnay grown along the chalky slopes of the Côte de Blancs will exude mineral notes and green fruits such as apples or rhubarb. Aged, vintage Champagnes will have discernible notes of yeast such as brioche or toast. Meanwhile, rounded blends may offer a kaleidoscope of notes including citrus and spices.
The different notes that can be revealed in a Champagne are vast. If you feel like you’re getting lost, you can refer to the list of common champagne notes at the end of this guide.
After swallowing, let the notes linger across your palate before taking another sip. Appreciate how long the flavours endure and which notes have a greater longevity. Superior Champagnes will feature long, drawn-out flavours that can go on for a while.
Common Champagne Notes
Aromatic & Spice Notes
- Nuts: Almonds, Hazelnuts, Walnuts
- Tobacco: Balkan, Cavendish, Virginia
- Lime flower
- Candied Fruit
- Citrus Fruits: Clementines, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Mandarin
- Dried Fruits: Apricots, Dates, Figs, Raisins
- Exotic Fruits: Figs, Litchi, Mango, Passion Fruit, Pineapple, Pomegranate,
- Green Fruits: Apples, Pears, Rhubarb
- Stones Fruits: Apricot, Nectarines, Mirabelle, Peaches, Plum
- Red & Wild Berries: Blackberries, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Cherries, Damsons, Quince, Raspberries, Sloes, Strawberries
- Candy: Caramel, Toffee
- Dairy: Butter, Cream
Champagne is a rich wine for tasting with a surprisingly diverse range of varieties. It resides in its own universe within the wine industry with many secrets that can be unlocked with perseverance.
If you really want to get into Champagne, don’t hesitate to take notes of all of the aforementioned details when tasting. List out the aromatic notes that you encounter and you will become more adept at recognising them. You can do all this with our free tailor-made Champagne Sheet!
Refer to the list above when tasting Champagne and see if you can detect any of them in either the nose or on the palate.