Monday, September 9, 2013

Champagne - Yes, You Deserve It!

By Amanda Schuster

Scene: A cellar in Aÿ, France. Two winemakers working for Lord Pierre Gosset are despondent that their white wines could never rival the reds of Burgundy. Then an idea:

“Eh, mon vieux! (That roughly translates to “dude!”) I have this idea.”

“Quoi? Wha - hic! What?”
“Take the red grapes. But make white wine out of them.”
“Shut. The Cellar. Door. That sounds formidable!”
“I know, right?”
“Just don’t leave the skins in long enough to stain the juice. You’ll get all the flavor, but not the color.”

And thus (more or less), some time in the 16th century, the technique of Vin Gris, slowly pressing “black” grapes to make white wine, came to be. Then other winemakers discovered that a blend of this Vin Gris would be delicious when mixed with juice from white grapes. And so was born what would eventually become part of the key grape trifecta (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) of juice for what most people consider to be the world’s ultimate sparkling wine. The one drink that in itself signifies luxury. The wine that is practically synonymous with celebration. Champagne!

We know, of course, that eventually what started as still wine was given bubbles, which were thought to improve taste, and also raise its alcohol levels. By the 17th century, Champagne became a favorite with the English court, and by the 18th century, considered fashionable in France as well - the toast of high society.

The 17th century monk known as Dom Perignon is credited with “inventing” what has become the refined tradition of Champagne. However, this is a process that should really give props to all the area winemakers who, mostly by trial and error, each contributed to the process of what is now the Méthode Traditionelle (a.k.a. Méthode Champenoise) which includes blending the choicest grapes from select vineyards, knowing how much sugar to add to the fermenting wine and perfecting the second fermentation process in the bottle to achieve its fine bubbles, not to mention discovering the right kind of glass for the bottles to keep the whole lot from exploading in the cellar…

Because of its association with luxury and sophistication, the word “Champagne” began to be used interchangeably to label any wine that has a little fizz to it, no matter where it came from (other parts of France, America, Spain…). In the late 20th century, the name Champagne became a protected label, restricted only to sparkling wines produced within the Champagne region of France.

I could geek out more here about the official rules of Champagne-making, all the restrictions and traditions, and which villages grow the grapes, but there are lots of other articles online about that. This is about finding and knowing your bottle. You already know that if the label says something is Champagne, that’s the good stuff, right? But there are still a lot of confusing words and conditions that go into selecting the bottle that’s right for you. 

Some useful terms:
Vintage: Champagne made from grapes harvested in a specific year

Non-vintage: Champagne made from a blend of grapes from different harvests
Cru: a vineyard, or group of vineyards  
Blanc de Blancs: Champagne made only from white grapes
Blanc de Noir: Clear Champagne made only from red grapes
Rosé Champagne: pink, red grapes were given more prolonged contact with skin, might also include juice from white grapes
Grower Producer (Récoltant manipulant): a grower who makes wine from his/her own grapes, which many wine enthusiasts prefer for its indie street cred reputation.
Négociant manipulant: the corporate companies that buy grapes from select vineyards (these include most of the major labels) for their wine. Not necessarily a bad thing at all when care and attention is paid to the process.
Préstige cuvée: what producers put on their label referring to what they consider to be their best or most special wine from their portfolio.

And then there are the levels of sweetness, known as the dosage:

    Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per liter), the absolute driest
    Brut (less than 12 grams), the most common. The level of dosage in a Brut Champagne varies according to the producer. Though “Brut” is on the label, some do still contain a distinctly sweet finish.
    Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams)
    Sec (between 17 and 32 grams)
    Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams)
    Doux (50 grams)

And the sizes of the bottle. Keep in mind that secondary fermentation can only take place in bottles magnum sized or smaller since they must be “riddled” (turned) in the cellar periodically while fermenting. Anything larger and the Champagne is transferred to the bottle after second fermentation. Also, interesting choice that the larger bottles are named for Biblical figures. Anyone know why? Please feel free to comment!

    Split (350 ml) a.k.a. half bottle
    Standard (750 ml)
    Magnum (1.5 L) a.k.a. double the standard, 2 bottles in one
    Jerobaum (3 - 4.5 L) a.k.a. a double magnum
    Rehobaum (4.5 L)
    Mehuselah (6 L)
    Salmanazar (9L)
    Balthazar (12 L)
    Nebuchadnessar (15L) those big ass bottles you sometimes see on display in certain wine retailers, requires some sort of crane-like device to actually pour from it

So how to find your favorite bubbly? Taste! Taste! Taste! The world of Champagne is vast and exciting, and each one has its own personality. Sure, it costs a little more to experiment, but it’s worth finding your special bottle. Because things happen in life - a new job, a new addition to the family, a wedding, a new friend, a new year, a special dinner, or just a day that deserves a little extra treat. Find your Champagne. Keep some on hand for life’s just-in-case-moments. It’s worth it.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.

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