Nothing says ‘Tis the Season” more than the pop of a cork and the sizzling effervesence from a glass of your favorite bubbly. We’re talking about Champagne, which is both a region in France and a holiday wine favorite. Common inquiries from readers include “How do I buy it? How do I serve it? What do I pair it with?” All good questions, and fear not, there are answers…although most of them are not relevant. Why? Because Champagne is associated with fun and celebration, and when folks are enjoying a glass of their favorite fizzy, they generally don’t care about any of the tradition or etiquette. And let’s be honest – isn’t it more fun that way?
CHAMPAGNE: WHAT IT IS, AND WHAT IT ISN’T
Champagne is a sparkling wine which is made by completing secondary fermentation in the bottle, which ultimately produces the carbonation effect and the happy little bubbles that make this wine so much fun. The name for this sparkling spirit comes from the Champagne region in France, where it was originally produced. Only the carbonated wine produced in this region may legally be called Champagne; all others are typically called sparkling wine. Champagne first gained world attention because of its association with the anointment of the French monarchy. Royalty from throughout Europe spread the message of the unique sparkling wine from Champagne and its association with luxury, power, and influence. The leading manufacturers devoted sizeable resources to creating a history and identity for their beverage, associating it and themselves with nobility. Through marketing and packaging they sought to associate Champagne with high luxury, festivities and rites of passage. Their efforts coincided with an emerging middle class that was looking for ways to spend money on symbols of upward mobility and affluence. Whatever the motivation and regardless of occasion, Champagne is a perfect compliment.
CHAMPAGNE: IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS
The process of Champagne making, of course, begins with the grapes. To satisfy Champagne’s cultivation regulations, only three grape varieties are allowed in the production of authentic Champagne:
- Pinot Noir: A black grape variety with white juice grown mainly on the slopes of the Mountain of Reims and Cote des Bar. It gives Champagnes their aromas of red fruits, as well as their strength and body. Ok, show of hands – how many of you were aware that red grapes were used to make Champagne? Just another interesting tidbit of information to help you get the conversation started at the office party.
- Pinot Meunier: Another black grape variety with white juice. It is grown mainly in the Valley of Marne and is characterized by its suppleness and spiciness. It gives Champagne its roundness and fragrance.
- Chardonnay: A white grape variety mostly planted in the Cote des Blancs. It provides the wines with their finesse as well as their floral, and sometimes mineral overtones.
CHAMPAGNE: NOT JUST ANOTHER FLAVOR OF THE WEEK
There are several varieties of Champagne produced, each with its own characteristics and corresponding designation:
- Brut NV (Non-vintage): usually a blend of wines from several years and a number of ‘crus.’
- Vintage Champagne: produced exclusively from the wines of a single harvest. As a result, producers will only declare a vintage in exceptional years.
- RosÈ Champagne: produced by macerating the black grapes or by adding locally produced red wine to the blend.
- Special CuvÈe: made from the most subtle and distinctive wines, whether vintage-dated or not.
- Demi-Sec Champagne: differ from Bruts in their slightly sweeter taste.
- Blanc de Blanc: A blend of white grapes only.
- Blanc de Noir: A blend of black grapes only.
Already learned way more than you wanted to know? There’s plenty more to learn. But for now, let’s get to the most important part…how to enjoy it.
CHAMPAGNE: FROM BOTTLE TO BELLY
Champagne should be served cold, around 48′F. this equates to about 20 minutes in a bucket filled with water and ice, or about three hours in a standard refrigerator. Do not EVER chill Champagne in the freezer. Not only will the temperature mute the flavor, but Murphy’s law says you will inevitably forget about where you put it until you actually hear the bottle explode. Unless you’re going only a few blocks for an occasion or you intend to serve right away, don’t buy the pre-chilled bottles. Taking them from the chilled conditions in the store to the trunk of your car, then back to the refrigerator or chill bucket, then into a glass creates too drastic of a temperature change and introduces too great a risk that you’re going to ruin it. This is true for all wines, incidentally, not just Champagne.
CHAMPAGE: PAIRING FOR THE PALATE
All the varieties of Champagne mentioned above pair very well with strong cheeses, or flavorful appetizers such as salmon or crab cakes. Most varieties pair well with your traditional holiday turkey, as well as duck, goose, or cornish hens. Champagne pairs well with shellfish such as lobster, shrimp, and crab, as well as seafood dishes with light sauces. Pairing Champagne with oysters is a personal favorite of yours truly, although it takes a unique combination of both the wine and the oyster to make it just right. Sushi is also an excellent companion for Champagne; frequest your local sushi bar and you’ll see it being served right alongside the saki. Of course, Champagne is a natural accompanyment to desserts consisting of fruit or fruit-fruit based creations including pastries, pies, and seasonal fruit plates. It also seems to do very well with creme puffs, should you happen to have any lying around the house on Thanksgiving.
We raced through the basics here, so thanks for hanging in there. HAPPY NEW YEAR.