The Pinkness of Premium Champagne - part 1

The Pinkness of Bubbles: is premium Champagne the same business as premium rosé?

It sometimes seems that the only answer to "what is your favourite wine?" is "bubbles" - and this is definitely true for us. A bottle of still wine, once opened, will have a few glasses taken out of it before being put to one side. Few wines escape this treatment, except sparklers. The unspoken rule is that a bottle of Champagne will often always be finished in that same sitting - magnums included.

The endless "oh we don't like rosé" or "rosé isn't a real wine" is always magically silenced by a finger pointed at pink Champagne - which (along with blancs de noirs) is just as much a rosé category as the dreaded 'Provence-style'. It's not just sparkling pink: any summertime party will invariably run out of rosé long before the hearty reds are even opened. Our interest, however, lies firmly at the top - just how good can a rosé be, and can it be better than whites and reds?

Parallels are repeatedly made between modern Provençal rosé and Champagne for their business models. Provence rosé is upwards of 50% sold by large négociant maisons, many of which have ties to Champagne. Provence rosé is sold for its lifestyle aspirations rather than murky vinous 'quality', and for the vast majority of production, exact origin and terroir of the grapes is vague at best. The style is imitated across the world as it turns out to be incredibly lucrative. What do rosé and bubbles have in common? Consumers love the wines. As Alexandre Ricard of Pernod-Ricard told us, "rosé and champagne have the same audience and the same networks". It should be noted that in France, 70% of Champagne sales (by volume) are in supermarkets. For Provence rosé, this figure is 'only' 27%, although this figure is constantly rising.

With our love of sparkling wine in mind, we are currently working on ways to explore sparkling rosé - the most exciting (and fastest-growing!) category of them all, the intersection between two independently successful segments. We've been tasting through some stunning pink Champagnes - but one question has lingered. Are they as good - or better - than their white equivalents?

One of the strangest quirks in Champagne is the significant price premium attributed to rosés, even (and especially!) at the top end. WineLister estimates this at an average of 46% price increase for a little bit of pink! This is especially interesting as the lines are more blurred here than elsewhere - what is, after all, the difference between a rosé and a blanc de noir? Can a buyer save money by buying white rather than pink? In the white suggestions we list below, the Drappier Grande Sendrée is about €15 cheaper for the white. Delamotte does not make a vintage rosé, but their NV sells for just as much. Pommery's Cuvée Louise Rosé commands an additional €30 per bottle.

Rosé Champagne [costs] 46% more on average than its white equivalent (an average of £195 for rosé and £134 for white). WineLister

We have always felt that price is not tied solely to quality, but includes an invisible insurance premium. There are some truly great cheap wines out there, but buying from expensive names or appellations comes with a small guarantee - there are far fewer bad expensive wines. The market is more punishing of lacklustre quality than it is in rewarding value for money. This is what makes prestige Champagne worth considering. We have all had that sorely disappointing £6 bottle of fizz that sets the evening off to a bad start, and to an extent we've all had that €25 bottle of Champagne that is just unnecessarily austere and unenjoyable. Past the €45 mark, the number of naff wines drops off a cliff. Past €100, and we can safely say (touch wood!) that we have never had a bottle that wasn't stellar. It's that peace of mind that justifies the price premium. We tasted through a large number of grower Champagnes this year - and were surprised both at how many under-priced value-for-money stunners we came across, but equally many disappointing wines that were at times borderline faulty.

As with still rosé, 'premium' is a hard to define category. Is it based solely on the price? Is a more expensive wine necessarily more premium? Is Vintage Champagne the same thing? Modern rosé all too often relies on packaging and repeatedly calling a wine 'premium' to make it so - what about Champagne?

Despite all these rather ominous question marks, we do have some answers. Much like rosé, a large part of this swing to premium is accompanied by a transition to Vintage wines, or more specific, limited terroirs. Champagne is after all fortunate (or not) to have a slightly more understandable Grand and Premier Cru classification than most regions, and many of these prestige wines make the most of it - although it is by no means a pre-requisite. In fact, some critics have gone so far as to comment on how many modern premium Champagnes are true to their blend roots.

The antithesis of a single-vineyard wine, the 'super blend' is a non-vintage prestige cuvée, built on a profound depth of reserve vintages. Decanter

Terroir is further complicated by the distinction between négociant and récoltant: those who buy in the grapes, and those who grow them themselves. Even for the large Champagne or rosé houses, with their millions of bottles sourced from 'selected partners', this line is blurred by the top cuvées, which are almost always grower wines. This is as true in Champagne as it is for Provence rosé. In a market where most of the money is in inexpensive négociant wines, the top end is clearly récoltant. The wines we have included span everything from 'super-blends' to single-vineyard wines, and Grand Cru single-village wines to regional blends.

Where does vintage come in? The rosé trade is paralysed with fear over vintages, age-worthiness, and leftover stock every autumn. More and more people talk about non-vintage rosé or multi-vintage blends, and mull declaring Vintage wines only for premium cuvées. So far, this Champenois approach has not taken mainstream hold in Provence, but in our opinion it is only a matter of time, especially in the entry-level category. Estimates for the share of Non-Vintage Champagne range from 90 to 98% - does this grant Vintage wines an instant pass into the 'prestige cuvée' category? One comment we hear from small grower Champagne houses is that they do not have the capital to maintain vast reserves of wine to draw from for their NV wines - and therefore rely that bit more on Vintage cuvées.

Just as we make great efforts to find the rosés with the most rosé character, we felt it important to seek out the most white white Champagnes - and what more so than Blancs de Blancs? We're not big fans of the category as a whole, so this was a particularly interesting challenge for us. The choice of a wine should not be made purely by its colour, but rather by a combination of aromatic profiles, flavours, structure, and even winemaking decisions. A Blanc de Blanc should not therefore be simply white, it should taste distinctively different to a rosé or even a Blanc de Noir. Accordingly, the Blancs de Blancs we include in this list, many of which we tasted with Essi Avellan MW, a leading Champagne specialist, and Julia and Bruno Scavo, top international sommeliers, are all chosen in part for how charmingly white they are.

We loved tasting these whites, and are so looking forward to part 2 on how the rosés compare and what to look for from them!

About us

We’re mother and son duo Elizabeth Gabay MW and Ben Bernheim. Between us, we’ve been involved in the wines of southern France for over 30 years. Elizabeth started working with the wines of Provence back in 1986, and for the past 20 years has lived on the eastern edge of south-east France. We’ve worked on three books on rosé: Rosé Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution (2018), Elizabeth Gabay’s Buyers Guide to the Rosés of Southern France (2021 e-guide) and, most recently Rosés of Southern France (2022).

Please do not reproduce our tasting notes or scores without getting in touch with us first.