10 Lessons on Becoming a Champagne Connoisseur

Born into a vineyard family in Cognac, France, Carl Heline has become one of the foremost international authorities on champagne, not to mention a passionate, thoroughly engaging ambassador. He now acts as Director of Education for Champagnes at Moet Hennessey USA (whose portfolio includes Ruinart, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicqout, Dom Perignon and Krug). He graciously took the time to chat with BlackBook about the mysteries and misconceptions of the bubbly—here’s what we learned.

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Stop treating champagne as just a status symbol or a celebratory treat.

“It is luxury—but it doesn’t need to be linked to celebration. The French, when we go to a party, we come with a bottle of champagne; it could be April, it could be June. But I brought a $45 bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label to one of the first dinners I was invited to here—and the host put it away and said he was going to save it for a special occasion.”

If it’s from California, it’s just fizzy wine.

“If anyone discovers how champagne tastes as opposed to those sparkling wines, they will choose champagne. Every single product we use, from the bottle to the cork, is more expensive, it’s better quality. It’s also in the way we age the champagne.”

A great deal of pressure goes into the bottle—so don’t “pop” that cork.

“The second fermentation creates so much pressure…it’s 90 PSI, which is more than twice the pressure in a car tire. And it’s so much higher than the sparkling wines, where they just add the gas…like Coca Cola does.”

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Don’t believe all those other claims. Champagne was created in, well, Champagne.

“If the question is who invented sparkling wine, that could be anywhere in the world. If the question is who invented champagne, it would have to be in Champagne, by definition. It’s not because we are arrogant French people. It’s because there are a hundred reasons why it can only be made in that region. It’s the most regulated wine region in the world.”

Don’t visit the Champagne region of France for the weather.

“The weather in Champagne is awful! It rains 220 days a year, it’s freezing cold in the winter. It gets as much snow as Vancouver—and to grow vineyards in Canada would be impossible.”
(BB epicurean tip: We suggest taking your champagne at St Moritz—which enjoys more than 300 days of annual sunshine.)

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It’s important to know your grapes.

“It’s about the blending, from two, three, five different years—as opposed to the vintage, which is all from one year. The Pinot Noir is like the backbone, the skeleton, the structure. The fruitiness will come more from the Pinot Meunier. And the Chardonnay will bring the spiciness and the acidity and the floral aromas. If you do drink 100% Chardonnay, you will lose the fruitiness.”

Seriously, enjoy champagne with a meal.

“In France, we drink champagne on Tuesday at lunch! I personally love it with shellfish, with a light curry, or even a croque monsieur. The rosé champagnes are actually very good with meat.”

Forget the media-established hierarchy when choosing a champagne.

“People often ask me what is the best champagne. And I say the best is the one you prefer. But what would be a glass of champagne that 99% of the time would please me? I would definitely go with the Moet et Chandon Brut Imperial. It has what I would call an elegant maturity.”

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Put away those flutes—it’s wine, it should be in a wine glass.

“Champagne really needs to be in a white wine glass. When it comes to tasting, smelling, and really feeling the quality of the wine, the flute is the worst glass you can have. And people always drink it too cold, which is maybe why they don’t know it is a great wine—it kills all the aromas.”

The French are not uppity about champagne.

“Champagne is regarded as a higher luxury than it needs to be. If you look at the best champagnes, at $200 a bottle, they are cheap compared to several thousand for the best other wines. If you ask collectors what were some of the best wines they have had, they will say La Mouline ’69, Cheval Blanc ’45…and then they will tell you Krug ’28, Krug ’29, Dom Perignon ’73. They consider that champagnes are some of the best wines in the world.”
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