WineInk: A bubbly night
Champagne for the New Year
In all the world of wine, nothing is quite as satisfying as the celebratory raising of a glass of Champagne on New Year’s Eve and the toast that comes with it. Whether you look to usher out the old year or greet the new year to come, it is a tradition that ties us all together on this one special night. And, if you are sipping great Champagne, the experience is even better.
There is that frothy feel in your mouth, the creamy texture on your tongue, and the undeniable tipsy sensation bequeathed by the bubbles. All combine to make a flute of Champagne the perfect medium to mark the past and toast the future ahead. Yes, Champagne is the elixir that is most closely associated with the turning of the calendar and the ways we revel in change than any other.
And, as we all know, there is nowhere better to be at the dawn of a new year than in Aspen — high in the Rockies and close to the stars.
It is rumored that when Dom Perignon, the monk who was an important player in the early production of Champagne in the 1600s, first tasted the sparkling wines of the region, he exclaimed, “Come quickly, I am tasting stars.” While that may be just lore, tasting the stars in Aspen on New Year’s Eve is easy … just look up and open your mouth.
For this holiday and for this year in particular, let’s all commit to drinking not just any sparkling wine but rather the “real” Champagne. By that, I mean Champagne from the Champagne region of France, which is the only place in the world where one can legally label a sparkling wine as Champagne. Got that?
There are dozens of other sparkling wines in the world, ranging from Italian Prosecco, to Spanish Cava, to Australian sparkling Shiraz, to the great sparkling wines made by outposts of French Champagne houses in places like Argentina and California. All can be wonderful in their own right, and many use the same “méthode champenoise,” which calls for a secondary fermentation of the grapes in the bottle that is both the tradition and the law in Champagne.
But, to be actual Champagne, the grapes must be grown in the Champagne AOC, or appellation, which is in the heart of northern France; be made from just seven approved grape varieties (pinot noir, pinot meunier, pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbane and petit meslier); and be vinified using the aforementioned method in wineries located in Champagne. There are other laws about things, like how the vines are pruned and how the grapes are pressed, that are somewhat “inside bubbles,” but, suffice it to say, that Champagne is unique in the world of wine.
Once you’ve decided to go French, there are still a myriad of choices to make, but the most important is the style of Champagne you wish to drink.
Do you prefer a white or a rosé Champagne? Do you want a wine made from 100% Chardonnay, which is a Blanc de Blanc, meaning “white from white?” Or, one that is made from the darker grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier, a.k.a. a Blanc de Noir?
Do you prefer a Vintage Champagne, which means that the juice hails from a single year’s harvest, was aged for at least three years, and bears the year of that vintage on the label? Or, do you want an “NV,” or non-vintage, Champagne that is an assemblage of wines from different years that have been blended together to make the Champagne? The NVs can be just as tasty — though, by law, they are only required to be aged for 15 months.
I know that sounds like a lot of decisions. However, if you have the time and resources, the best way to learn about the beauty of bubbles is to taste as many as possible. Maybe New Year’s Eve is not the best time to educate yourself about the differences between Champagne from different Cru vineyards or the subtleties of the different “Grower Champagnes” (Those wines that are family-made in the region), but it can serve as a good place to start. 2023 is a great year to expand your knowledge. Open up a book or two, or go to your local wine shop to explore some of the more obscure labels and flavor profiles. Have some fun.
There are about 100 major Champagne houses, and almost all make wines worthy of celebration. In recent years, certain Champagnes from large houses — like, say, Moët & Chandon (Dom Perignon), Veuve Clicquot (La Grande Dame), and Louis Roederer (Cristal) — have become synonymous, and rightly so, with the finer things in life. More than simply outstanding bottles of bubbly, they have become brands or status symbols.
That’s all fine and good for those who market Champagne, but, to drink great Champagne, one does not need to be a superstar athlete, rapper, or billionaire. There are values to be found from the large Champagne houses, and there are a number of small, family-made wines, those “Grower Champagnes,” that are making their way to our shores. For $50 to $60, you can find an outstanding bottle for your New Year’s celebration. Do yourself a favor, and ask questions of those in your local wine shop when you go to make your purchase. You may save some money and come away with both a story and a great wine.
Finally, when you are ready to pour, to get the most from your bubbles, be sure that it is chilled (between 42 and 50 degrees is the sweet spot). Chill your bottle for at least two hours in the fridge, or place it in a bucket of cold water with ice for a half-hour or so. Do not put it in the freezer. You might forget it there in the revelry and end up with a bottle of frozen CO2.
And, to make it truly special, use fluted glasses for your Champagne, so that you can see the dance of the bubbles as they race to the top. And, most importantly, look your lover in the eye when you make your toast.
Happy new year, everyone. Enjoy the stars.
A Hand Full of Bubbles
I asked a few friends in wine what bubbles they might drink to celebrate the holiday. Here’s what they had to say:
Víctor Gallegos/VP/GM, Sea Smoke:
“If I am completely out of Sea Smoke SeaSpray, my first choice would be Vouette & Sorbée Fidèle. Biodynamically-farmed and pure bliss.”
Ed Kurtzman/Wine Maker/Owner, August West Wines:
“I would choose the ‘96 Salon, if I had an unlimited budget. It’s the greatest Champagne I’ve ever had. It has the perfect yeastiness, acidity, balance, body, and super long finish. I wish I could try it one more time.”
Brian Loring/Winemaker, Loring Wines:
“My pick is Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs — any vintage. The Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs delivers in every way. It’s the bright, fresh, lemon/brioche style I prefer, it’s remarkably consistent in quality from vintage to vintage, and it’s probably the best “value” to be found at the Grand Marque Champagne level.”
Pete Cheroske/Wine Director, McGuire Moorman Lambert Hospitality:
“Champagne Jacques Lassaigne ‘Les Vignes de Montgueux’ Blancs de Blancs, Extra Brut. The chalky soils of this white wine only growing region of Montgueux produce some of the purest expression Blanc de Blancs ever seen.”
Sonya Lutgring/Wine Director/Sommelier, Steakhouse No. 316:
“Love, love Egly Ouriet ‘Les Vignes des Vrigny’ 1er cru Brut, Ambonnay NV.
This wine is so exciting and rich and round and spicy. 100% Pinot Meunier — always is magical and special.”
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV. And then, there is the Aspen standby. From the Champagne house that invented the riddling rack, where wines are given a quick turn every two days to shake the sediments, one of the great traditions in Champagne. Today, the Yellow Label is recognized globally as a brand of pure pleasure. And, the perfect wine at Cloud Nine.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.