Food & Wine
Break out the bubbly for any occasion ? Champagne has become a versatile drink all over the world
Apr. 11, 2006 01:30 PM
Nothing sounds like celebration quite like the pop of a Champagne bottle or the crash of a bottle to launch a ship. Indeed, no romantic occasion is complete – wedding, New Year’s Eve, or anniversary – without uncorking a bottle of treasured Krug, Veuve Cliquot, or Dom Perignon, the hallowed names of Champagne. However as much as special celebrations call for a flute full, Americans are catching on to what the French have known for generations: Champagne is a perfect beginning to any meal. Everything from a business lunch (and no, they are not always three hours long in Paris, sadly) to a family dinner at home begins beautifully with a tickling, pleasing, and energizing glass of Champagne.
How did Champagne get its snobby reputation as anything but an everyday drink? It likely began because of its price. While it is possible to stop by the local wine shop and pick up a perfectly acceptable bottle of Italian red wine for $20 to go with dinner, the comparable amount would buy a “sparkling white wine” that bears only the vaguest resemblance to the Veuve you have come to lovingly associate with the name Champagne. In fact, a decent bottle of bubbly only begins in the $40 range and goes upwards rather steeply from there. It is not always price that serves to differentiate between an everyday Champagne and a no-holds-barred-most-important-night-of-your-life bottle to remember. What to consider when choosing the right bottle? Let’s go through the basics and tour a few premium houses and vintages. You might be surprised by what you discover. Of course, no discussion of the world’s finest drink would be complete without a taste test, so why not take your Champagne expertise to France and see where it all comes from.
Although sparkling white and rosé wines are harvested in Italy, Spain, and California, only wines from a vineyard in the Champagne region can properly be called Champagne. Proséccos and Cavas can be exceptional drinks, but they are not Champagnes. The region of Champagne itself was legally defined in 1927 and its total area consists of only 3 percent of the total area under vine in all of France. Given these percentages it is easy to understand the supply and demand that sets Champagne’s premium price. The primary areas of harvesting include the Montagne de Reims, a large flat plateau, thickly carpeted with vineyards that slope gently towards the valleys of the Vesle and the Ardre to the north and the Marne to the south. Also prominent in the region is the Marne Valley, which extends from Saucy-sur-Marne in Seine-et-Marne to Tours-sur-Marne beyond Epernay. The picturesque vineyards line the flanks of the valley that slope more or less gently towards the banks of the river and nestle into smaller valleys on either side. Each vineyard is divided into plots of land that are meticulously classified according to their agricultural potential. Even though the Champagne vineyard is small, only the optimal land is used to grow the most exceptional grapes.
Not unlike a trip through the Napa Valley, the best part of a leisurely drive through the Champagne region is stopping at the individual vineyards for a tour and taste. Unsurprisingly, Champagne growers are particularly proud of what they do, which they, as do many French, see as more than harvesting a beloved product but rather creating and exporting culture itself. The French think of Champagne as not just a beverage but also a lifestyle. To journey along “La Route Touristique de Champagne” is to experience first-hand its origins, and inevitably, to fall rapturously in love with the Champagne lifestyle. After harvesting the grape, the characteristics of the bottle are determined by choices made during the blending and dosage stages. The character of the Champagne is decided initially in the blend, which is of still wines from different growing areas, the three grape varieties, and different years. After the predetermined aging period, the winemaker removes the yeast from the bottle and adds a signature solution of wine and sugar to determine where on the scale of sweetness the Champagne will fall - anywhere from extra dry to sweet.
The key to choosing the Champagne to suit your taste is decoding the label, which is actually quite simple after defining the key terms. The brand name is naturally a key factor for most buyers, who gravitate towards familiar names. While it may be helpful to know that a Krug is generally revered, smaller houses such as Laurent Perrier and Henriot produce exceptional Champagnes that may suit your palette even more. The label also defines the level of dosage, commonly brut or demi-sec. Brut Champagnes are dry while demi-sec Champagnes have a sweetness that make them appropriate to pair with a cheese plate dessert. Each Champagne is either a non-vintage, meaning that still wines of different years are blended together, or a vintage, meaning the wine used is simply from a single year. A winemaker will choose to produce a vintage only when he wants to showcase an exceptional harvest on its own. Otherwise, the house style is maintained and displayed through the blend of its reserve and current harvest. Champagnes can also be defined as Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs, an expression of the grape variety used. Only three varieties are permitted – Pinot noir, Pinot meunier, and Chardonnay. Traditional brut or demi-sec Champagnes utilize all three varieties, balancing them out or playing with proportions for effect. A Blanc de Blancs Champagne is made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape, which gives it what connoisseurs refer to as “finesse.” A Blanc de Noirs can be made from either Pinor Noir and/or Pinot Meunier grapes and are often characterized by fruitiness. When a winemaker, or in this case a “Champenois” wants to show off, he will create a prestige cuvèe, an original creation based on either the growing area or cru, the long aging period, and the grape variety or the year, thus creating a vintage Champagne.
Though you will not usually see it through the bottle, by the time you pour your chosen Champagne the color will be evident. Unless it is a rosé, the color can be any variety of gold from pale yellow to amber, to greenish or grey. Wines darken as they age, so darker wines will reflect a longer aging period and, usually, a more powerful, intense flavor. Winemakers create rosé Champagne by adding red wine to white wine. Though they suffered a bad reputation in America as the floozy cousin of traditional Champagne, they can actually be as refined as traditional bottles. In fact, rosé Champagnes are acquiring a cachet well beyond just being the novelty of “pink Champagnes.”
Whatever your preference – dry or sweet, break the bank or stock the fridge, or for anytime – today’s Champagne makers create enough variety to satisfy a multitude of tastes. It is always worth considering some tried-and-true bottles known for quality – if not, in many cases, value. Dom Perignon’s creamy rosé may definitively convince anti-pink purists that the girly color does not have to mean reduced quality. Krug’s 1995 Clos de Mesnil is a most coveted Blanc de Blancs, because only slightly more than 12,000 bottles were produced; and at $750 a bottle, one of the most expensive out there, it is consumed only by the true Champagne enthusiast. For the crème de la crème of Blanc de Noirs, a Bollinger Blanc de Noirs Vieilles Vignes Francaises 1997 is an excellent choice – if you can manage to get a hold of a bottle. The French treasure it so much that only 40 cases cross the Atlantic to the United States market. Other than the more hyped brands, sommeliers swear by smaller houses with strict attention to detail and dedication to the Champagne craft, notably Laurent-Perrier, Henriot, Pol Roger, and Salon. The Laurent-Perrier Grande Siecle is an exceptional bottle, made without Pinot Meunier grapes, just Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Their rosé is also without question a delightful bottle. However, this is only a starting point – there is only one real way to choose personal favorites. So, head to your local wine shop – or, better yet, straight to France – and start testing.
Remember the single serving bottles of POP champagne that were all the rage a few years back? If you’ve ever dropped a straw into one and enjoyed fizzy sips or if you’ve ever felt particularly flush and partied by the magnum, you know that champagne bottles come in more than the standard 75 cl size. But have you ever treated your VIP table to a Jeroboam or hosted a cocktail party with a Balthazar? Take a look at the different size bottle capacities, and all of a sudden popping open a regular bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal will not seem quite as decadent a way to start the evening. It might be time to take the party up a notch.
- Quart: 20 cl
- Half bottle: 37.5 cl
- Bottle: 75 cl
- Magnum: 2 bottles
- Jeroboam: 4 bottles
- Methuselah: 8 bottles
- Salmansar: 12 bottles
- Balthazar: 16 bottles
- Nebuchadnezzar: 20 bottles