What can be so tough? To buy Champagne you go to a store, plunk down your money, and walk out with one or more bottles, correct? Well, it can be that simple, but there are some major factors to consider.
1) Storage – Champagne is the most fragile of wines and storage absolutely matters. Higher temperatures absolutely affect the taste negatively!
2) Variety – you may need to look around to find the Champagne you want or even buy at auction, especially if you want to try some older vintages.
3) Price – Yeah, it matters too.
First, although much Champagne will age gracefully and wonderfully, it is fragile and needs to be stored for extended periods of time relatively cool. This is true for all sparkling wine, not just Champagne. Most stores, even high end wine stores, have most of their Champagne at room temperature which is OK for the short term only. For this reason, buy Champagne at stores that have high turnover, that sell a lot of Champagne. In general, the fresher the better.
Avoid stores that are hot. Champagne is easily damaged by heat. I know of one fine wine shop where the temperature hits 80 degrees inside sometimes. This is a big no no! I only buy cheaper and younger wines there, although occasionally I may buy a more expensive red as they are far more robust. I NEVER buy any Champagne there, no matter what!
I also try not to buy Champagne in the summer once it gets hot or at the end of hot summers. It may have overheated during shipping and transportation.
Some stores will have their higher end Champagnes such as prestige cuvees and other vintage bottlings in temperature controlled storage. This is of course ideal, and I’m very comfortable buying wines under these conditions.
So how much does temperature matter? Well, I bought some magnums of Deutz Cuvee William Deutz 1990 from a very reputable retailer that keeps their store at a very reasonable temperature (under 70 Fahrenheit for sure) and had them on their shelves for about 18 months. I compared them to a magnums bought on release and stored at 55 degrees. The one that had sat on the shelves had clearly aged much more, and despite being utterly superb, was not going to age as long or as gracefully. Anyone could have told the difference; it wasn’t subtle! Comparing the bottles 5 and ten years later (I bought a lot of them!) confirmed the diagnosis. The cooler bottles were, in the long term, much better.
For less expensive Champagne the difference would definitely be magnified, be even far greater.
Secondly, variety. Even if you are looking for something specific, buying
Champagne where there is a wide variety is lots of fun! These often will
also have enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff should you want or need some
help or advice. They may steer you to cheaper choices that are fantastic as
Some stores will simply carry more varieties than others, and your best bets are wine shops in urban areas. For example, there are limited choices if any in little old (and remote) Millinocket, Maine, more choices for sure in Portland Maine, and much more in Boston, Massachusetts.
Although similar rules apply in other places too, the USA in particular has absurd state by state regulations, so Champagne widely available in one state may not be 2 miles away at all right over the border.
I like variety and of course different Champagnes taste very different, which may surprise you if you haven’t had many varieties yet.
Now Champagne is expensive, but shopping around is well worthwhile, as long as you need the advice above. I once bought Cristal 1990 at a store (the state run liquor stores in New Hampshire) for less than the wholesale price my favorite wine store in Boston was buying it at!
Also keep in mind when buying Champagne or anything else, that if the price is too good to believe there is something probably wrong! For example the Champagne may have been horribly overheated and actually have “cooked” in the bottles (and it won’t taste good, trust me!).
You can buy Champagne lots of places, but keep these guidelines in mind.