A touch of the bubbly
November 23, 2007
The holidays just seem incomplete without Champagne.
It is the beverage of choice for marking special moments and celebrating life’s finest occasions. A Champagne toast brings in the New Year. Champagne is poured with joy at weddings. And, when a ship is ready for christening, it is done so by smashing a bottle of Champagne on its bow before it takes to the seas. 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. It was in the late 1700s and early 1800s that royalty and the 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 want 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. Just watch hip-hop videos and you’ll see the Dom and the Cristal flow, not for their value as wine, but rather as symbols of opulence.
Ah, but 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 World War I, 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”; 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.
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The beauty of Champagne is in the bubbles. The bubbles are a result of the process in which Champagne is made. The Methode Champenoise, the time-honored way of making Champagne and sparkling wine, starts with the making of a still wine. The grapes are pressed gently and the juice is separated from the skins. The juice from the different grapes is then blended to the winemakers 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 winemaker 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 occasions, 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.
Next week we’ll look at some Champagne options for your holiday celebrations.