WineInk: A Toast to the Future
The power of bubbles
It has been a year of living dangerously. In fact, nearly two years.
Against that backdrop, there perhaps has never been a more important time for us to try to maintain the rituals of celebration and joy that are a part of our culture and hallmarks of the season –the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner, the daily lighting of the candles on the menorah, and opening gifts at Christmas.
It also includes the toasting to our good fortune of the past and the promise of the future. And that’s where Champagne comes in. There are few things in our lives that spur our emotions like the sound of glasses clinking and the sight of bubbles rising in a flute at midnight as we ring in the New Year. For some, the emotions may be somber, remembering the trials and tribulations weathered in the preceding year. For others the optimism and view of a brighter future is personified by the rising of the tiny star-like bubbles in their flutes. Be it tears or smiles, Champagne – and other types of sparkling wines from around the world – impact our souls and leave a powerful impression.
Whether you’re spraying bubbles this winter at the cabin that is Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro on Aspen Highlands, sharing a romantic midnight sip in the Little Nell (see box) or simply pouring yourself a solitary glass at home as you ride out the troubles, the holidays seem incomplete without Champagne.
Champagne has been the beverage of choice for marking special moments and celebrating life’s finest occasions since the 1700s when Hugh Capet, the king of France, began pouring the sparkling concoction at the French Royal Palace. A Champagne toast not only brings in the New Year, it is poured with joy at weddings and – when a ship is ready for christening – a bottle is smashed on the keel to wish Bon Voyage. There is something so unique about opening a bottle of Champagne and hearing that “Pop!!”
Champagne is, in fact, perhaps one of the great brands of all time. For nearly four centuries, royalty and the landed gentry – first in France and then across Europe and into Russia – began to drink Champagne as a “luxury product.” A vintage Champagne was viewed as provenance of the rich and therefore highly valued.
Years before the Madison Avenue machine learned how to manipulate the masses by making them desire what the wealthy already had, the great Champagne houses of France were promoting their products as part of the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Extravagant bottles, limited availability and celebrity endorsements were all part of the package. To this day no wine, perhaps no other ingestible product in the world, is as closely associated with the good life as Champagne, the ultimate symbol of opulence.
Ah, but more than just hype, Champagne also is one of the great wine styles. Champagne comes exclusively from a cool climate region in Northern France of the same name. A part of its exclusivity can be traced to the region’s producers’ efforts to protect the name and their product. According to law (a law so sacrosanct that it was re-ratified in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War) Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is actually made in the region.
There are three main grapes used in the production of Champagne. Two, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, are “black grapes” while the third, Chardonnay, is a white grape. Most Champagnes use blends of these, but occasionally a house (as wineries are called in Champagne) might make a “Blanc de blanc,” or “White of white,” made entirely of Chardonnay.
The beauty of Champagne is in the bubbles. The bubbles are a result of the process in which Champagne is made. The original “Méthode Champenoise,” now called the “Méthode Traditionelle,” is the time honored way of making champagne. Sparkling wine starts by making of a still wine – one without bubbles. The grapes are pressed gently, and the juice separated from the skins. The juice from the different grapes is then blended to the wine maker’s specifications.
It is then placed in bottle and a shot of yeast and a shot of sugar are added to the blend. Once capped, the yeast and sugar begin to make magic as fermentation begins and carbon dioxide is formed. As the gas grows and the alcohol level begins to rise, the pressure in the bottle begins to increase dramatically. The wine maker will leave the wine in the bottles for an extended period of time, turning the bottles regularly and gradually dropping the head of the bottle downward so that the dead yeast will eventually settle in the neck of the bottle.
The wine bottles are then dipped into a freezing brine to separate the used yeast from the now sparkling wine and then opened, expelling the yeast. This is called disgorgement. It is then corked and, ultimately, sent out into the world to play its special role in our special occasions.
A good Champagne is a celebration in itself.
It will be clear and clean in the glass, preferably a tall Champagne flute. And the bubbles will slowly spring from the bottom and sides of the glass to the surface. On the nose, you may pick up hints of a variety of fruits. Melon, apricot and apple may stand out. The first sip, depending on the Champagne, may be bright and light with either sweetness or acidity or a combination of both. And a great Champagne will feel creamy on the tongue.
A glass or two, coupled with the joy of being with loved ones on special occasion may well go to the top of your brain, leaving you a little lightheaded. Go with the flow.
We are all richer when we drink Champagne. Have a happy New Year.
Frank Family Sparkling Blanc de Blanc and Brut Rose
It has been quite a Fall for Rich and Leslie Frank of Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga. In November it was announced that they will be selling their eponymous winery to Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates for $315 million. That would be in American dollars. Winemaker Todd Graff will continue to make the wines, including these fanciful sparklers that he made from fruit sourced in Carneros at the cool end of the Napa Valley. I love both of these bubbles and will open them in homage to Todd and the Franks on this eve of 2022. Made using the “Méthode Champenoise” (it says so right on the bottle, they keep it old school), the 2016 Brut Rosé has hints of red raspberries and is so pretty in pink in the glass that it captures your gaze. The 2015 Blanc de Blanc is bit more bracing. Made from 100% Chardonnay, this wine is lean and clean with a crisp finish.
And why toast just once when you can have a pair of bubbles for ’22?
A Holiday Pour
We thought a local look at Champagne would be useful, so we asked the The Little Nell’s wine director Chris Dunaway what he is pouring this holiday season.
“Krug Grande Cuvée is certainly my go-to. I believe it to be one of, if not the greatest multi-vintage Champagne on the face of the planet. Krug is the master of the blended style and this wine is always a blend of 10 different vintages and often over 100 base wines. Additionally due to the fermentation of their base wines in oak cask and the full malo (malolactic fermentation) they go through the wines tend to always be sublimely textured, rich, and incredibly complex.
One of my favorite insider secrets is that if you can find Grande Cuvée from the 70’s, those wines actually incorporated the fruit from their iconic single vineyard Champagne Clos du Mesnil up until the first vintage release of this in 1979. Though we don’t have those specific bottles we do have the 169th edition of this iconic multi-vintage Champagne and we’re not only featuring it by the bottle but currently serving this by the glass!”