“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” – Winston Churchill
This much Churchill had in common with Russian oligarchs and Chinese magnates: Champagne is a special wine. The par excellence companion wine for unique occasions, Champagne’s glorious reputation dates back centuries. The proximity of the region to Paris, its past association with royalty (for 600 years 27 French kings were crowned at the cathedral of Reims; one of the region’s most iconic towns) , and the complexity/expenses of the process are some of the aspects that have set it apart from other quaffs.
Champagne was not always synonymous with sparkling wines. Up until the 1600’s, the wines of Champagne were “still” and reddish (more like onion skin colored). CO₂, one of the byproducts of fermentation and the gas that gives the wine its effervescence, could not be properly “captured” as glass bottles were not yet manufactured to withstand the pressure of up to 90 lbs. per square inch. It was not up until the work of Dom Perignon (a Benedictine monk) and the invention of strong glass bottles by the Brits (verre anglaise) that Champagne as we know it came to be.
To the French’s chagrin, the English were crafting bubblies earlier than the first sparkling wine intentionally produced in Champagne in the late 1600’s. Thus, as opposed to popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wines. Instead during his lifetime in the 1600’s he provided many of the technical advances that allow for the producing of this wine as we know it today. Subsequent to our good monk other characters such as Madame Clicquot, who took over her husband’s wine business after she widowed at 27 years old, brought forth important innovations in the development of the techniques that would eventually result in the “Methode Champenoise”. Interestingly, widowhood gave its start to many legendary Champagne houses such as Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier, and Pommery because in the France of bygone days, unlike other women who were the property of a father or a husband, only a widow could become a CEO.
Champagne is typically made from 3 grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. This can be from a great year (Vintage Champagne) or from a combination of years (Non-Vintage or NV). After a base wine is made, some more sugar and yeast are added to create a second fermentation in the bottle so that gas is created and captured in solution. After a legally prescribed aging period the spent yeasts are expelled, and a certain amount of sugar is added before the product is finally committed to bottle. The most popular level of sweetness is Brut (the second less sweet level) and it represents 80-90% of production. 80% of Champagne is exported.
There has always been a certain pageantry to the wines of Champagne. In the 19th century Champagne used to be opened with the loudest pop possible and served from some height in order to create lots of foam. Nowadays, the “proper” technique is to mitigate the pop to sound more like “the sigh of a content lover” or a “nun’s fart”. The cooler the wine, the less explosive it will be. It should always be opened with your hand on the cork (it can be expelled up to 30 MPH) and pointing away from people. To open give the little wire ring 6 turns and then twist the bottle while you hold the cork. If some unruly foaming were to occur after opening, tilt the bottle about 45 degrees to mitigate any waste. If you feel like “sabering” (yes, as in a sabre/sword) …please make sure you know how to do it!
Champagne should be served chilled and onto a tall glass (flute) or a shallow wide mouthed vessel (coupe). While the latter is easier to clean and something you see in soap operas from the 70’s, a flute will preserve your bubbles longer. But then again, the lore that tells the apocryphal story of how coupes were designed based on the size of Mary Antoinette’s breasts is sort of sexy.
Depending on the adjusted levels of sweetness, Champagne tastes can be bready (from the yeast contact), apple/lemon, or riper fruit. They tend to be crisp and have good acidity. These are all factors that make Champagne a great companion for dishes that can benefit from “palate cleansing” such as creamy cheeses and even fried chicken.
Finally, bubblies do go to your head quicker. It has been studied that sparkling wines tend to raise alcohol blood levels faster. This seems to be a function of the CO₂ increasing alcohol permeability.
So, as it turns out, that great philosopher and compatriot of mine, Ricky Martin was right when in “Living La Vida Loca” he sang: “She never drinks the water, makes you order French champagne, once you've had a taste of her, you'll never be the same. Yeah, she'll make you go insane”
Then you end up with 5 boys.
Please be careful.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.