When you think of Champagne, you can’t help but think celebration. Champagne is an essential part of many weddings, whether you’re pouring out glasses at cocktail hour or providing every guest with a toast. But the world of Champagne can be an intimidating one, with its many brands, French terms, and high price tags.
Champagne is a sparkling wine made in a specific region of northeast France, with specific grapes and according to a specific method. Familiar Champagnes include Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, and Moët & Chandon. To help us make sense of it all, we talked with advanced sommelier Jenny Benzie.
Meet the Expert
Jenny Benzie is a sommelier and the owner of Épernay Wine & Spirits on Nantucket Island along with her husband Kirk Baker.
Terms to Know
“When I’m talking to a customer who wants to choose a Champagne, I’ll often ask them, do you want a brut or a rosé?” says Benzie. Brut translates to “dry,” but in common parlance, according to Benzie, “people understand it to mean a white Champagne, what we think of as classic Champagne.” Rosé Champagnes, like all rosé wines, have a lovely pink hue.
Extra Brut denotes an even drier Champagne, meaning a wine with less sugar. “My husband and I love to drink extra brut Champagnes,” says Benzie. “If you’re someone who loves a crisp Sancerre, or other wines with high acidity, you might like this style of Champagne. But it’s not for everybody. Most Prosecco drinkers would find it too dry.”
All Champagnes are made from some combination of the grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. If you see “Blanc de blancs” (or “White from whites”) on a label, that’s a bottle made from 100% Chardonnay. “These wines are richer, creamier, and fuller,” says Benzie. “They’re very elegant. Something that’s meant to be aged.”
Finally, vintage Champagne is made from grapes from a single year’s harvest—usually a prized harvest—and then aged for at least three years; they’re often pricier as a result.
How to Choose a Champagne
Like every other aspect of a wedding, choosing a Champagne is a balance between finding something that the wedding couple loves, and keeping in mind the preferences of their guests. “For a toast at a larger wedding, whether that’s 50 people or 200,” says Benzie, “I would recommend a non-vintage brut Champagne. It’s equal-opportunity; no matter what style of wine guests like, they’ll like it.”
She points out that you might not want to do something particularly expensive or unusual for a group toast. “If two hundred people get a glass, they’ll just think, Oh, it’s the Champagne toast!” she says. “They might not pay attention to what they’re drinking.”
If the wedding is more intimate, Benzie says, the wedding couple might choose something more interesting. “You might look for a grower-producer [Champagne made by grape growers, rather than by larger houses] that you love, and do something a little more esoteric and special since it’s not for such a big group. If it’s thirty people, you can really share a story, something that adds to the experience or the memory of the event.”
And if there’s a personal connection to the bottle, so much the better. “My husband and I remember the Champagne we drank the first night we kissed, and he bought a stash of it for special occasions,” Benzie shares. “For a wedding couple, they might serve the sparkling wine they had when they got engaged; or a bottle that’s going to be their new tradition. Little things like that are touches that people can add to their wedding that will be a memory for them forever.”
How Much You Need
It depends if you’re serving Champagne as part of a broader open bar, or if you’re just looking for a toast. “A Champagne bottle is approximately 25 ounces,” Benzie explains. “We think of a glass as five ounces, but for a toast, you’d pour half that. A toast is just that—a small amount for everybody, it’s not supposed to be a full glass.”
To be on the safe side, she says, plan on getting eight toast-sized pours per bottle. If you’re pouring Champagne throughout the evening, talk to your caterer about what percentage of the overall bar you think it’ll make up.
Bottles to Consider
Veuve Clicquot is often requested, but there are other labels that Benzie often recommends as good values and widely appealing:
- Pol Roger
- Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve
Other Bubbles to Consider
Champagne commands a universally high price tag, usually starting at $40-45 per bottle, retail, and going up from there, often considerably. But there are many other French sparkling wines worth your time, too. “A crémant is a sparkling wine made elsewhere in France, made in the same production method,” says Benzie. “Grapes vary depending on the region. Crémant de Bourgogne, from Burgundy, is made from Chardonnay and tastes like a Blanc de Blancs. Crémant from the Loire has more acidity; Crémant de Limoux is another one to look out for.” You can find great bottles, often with just as much sophistication, in the $20-30 range.
If all you’re looking for is a little sparkle, Italian Prosecco and Spanish cava are two much less expensive options. And there are excellent sparkling wines made in America, as well. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Schramsberg,” says Benzie. “When you drink it, it’s very close to Champagne.” Iron Horse is another brand she loves. “They’re an icon in Sonoma, and I like that they’re both California companies rather than French companies that came to the U.S.”
Is It Worth It?
Alcohol often makes up a large portion of an overall wedding budget; Champagne can add to the cost considerably. But there’s nothing quite like a Champagne toast. “For some people, it’s worth the splurge; for others, it’s not,” Benzie says. “Personally, I think it adds to the celebration. And the toast is really a time for everyone to come together, no matter the size of the group at the reception. But like so much else, it’s a choice only the couple can make.”