Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
December 16, 2010
No matter how good or bad your 2010 may have been, the final week of any year should be a time of celebration. And, as we all know, the official drink of celebration is Champagne.
Why has Champagne come to hold this esteemed (and profitable) position as the wine we pour at weddings, anniversaries and special occasions? Lovers of bubbles would state that the answer is obvious: Champagne tickles the nose, it comes in prominent and prodigious bottles that go boom when opened, and the slightly elevated price point gives it more panache than, say, your everyday Chardonnay.
Those who are a bit more cynical might cite the ability and aggressiveness of those who market France’s most prestigious contribution to high living as being the main reason. Regardless, there is no denying that a sip of Champagne from a fluted glass makes even the most mundane event a little more splendid.
So, if you are going to buy a bottle for this holiday season or partake in a glass of someone else’s, then there are some things you should know to maintain your richly deserved image as a bon vivant.
First, Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France. Period. Other places produce sparkling wines using both methode Champenoise and the same grape varietals that are used in Champagne, but they cannot, must not, according to law, be labeled as Champagne. The growers in this northernmost wine region of France have put a lock-down, a trademark, and have established a long-standing tradition of calling their wines, and their wines alone, Champagne.
About some of those other wines: one can drink a great Prosecco from Italy, or a perfectly creamy and bubbly Cava from Spain, or even a dead ringer for Champagne made in New Mexico from the Gruet family. But these makers must refer to their beverages as sparkling wines. And that’s the way it is.
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Next, there are only three grapes that can legally be used to make Champagne, and two of them are black grapes. Pinot Noir adds structure and body to Champagne. Pinot Meunier the other dark grape, is generally used in smaller quantities to provide floral notes and help smooth the marriage of Pinot Noir with the white Chardonnay grape. It is the Chardonnay that introduces delicacy and subtlety to Champagne. The blending of these three grapes, which thrive in the cool climate of the Champagne region, are just one part of the equation that makes this such a special and unique wine.
The real secret of Champagne is a result of the previously mentioned methode Champenoise that winemakers use to create the bubbles, and the magic of Champagne. All Champagne basically begins as still wine, meaning the wines from the different grapes are made as any other non-sparkling wine would be. These separate wines are then blended according to a winemaker’s specifications into what will eventually become the final product. This blend is called a cuvee.
Yeast and sugar are introduced to the cuvee and the alchemy begins. The yeast consumes the sugar and, as it does, produces carbon dioxide gas, the stuff that manifests itself as the tiny bubbles that float from the bottom to the rim of your glass.
Some Champagne, those that are products of very special years, are called “Vintage Champagne.” This means they are, like any other wine, designated by the year its grapes were harvested. But not every year is a vintage year in the Champagne region, and winemakers frequently use grapes, and the still wines they have made from them, to blend and produce NV, or non-vintage Champagne. A non-vintage Champagne can be terrific, so don’t be dissuaded about purchasing a bubbly that is not designated by its vintage.
Finally, when you open a bottle of Champagne, remember that refinement and class are more appropriate attributes than bravado and bodaciousness. Some feel the occasion calls for the rowdiness of a Super Bowl locker room and that the loud “pop” of a flying cork and the subsequent flow over the top is the best way to open a bottle of Champagne.
Au contraire. When you have a gem of a Champagne, simply untwist the wire that surrounds the cork, wrap a towel around the neck of the bottle and slowly twist the bottle, then the cork, and then the bottle again until you feel the cork about to go. Pause, and slowly pop the cork, keeping it close to the bottle. Then pour.