I know of no beverage which more successfully mitigates my worries while simultaneously and emphatically reminding me of all that is right in the world than Champagne does. I’m not alone in this, and this is at least part of the reason so many dinners start with a Champagne reception. Certain styles are also the perfect aperitif, their crisp, bubbly acidity blowing the cobwebs off of your palate while improving your appetite. Other types pair beautifully with many foods and the biggest styles are almost a meal in themselves.
Champagne is a region in France which is the birthplace of sparkling wines. While very good sparkling wines are produced in other places, notably California and Spain, real Champagne, from Champagne is still, across the board, consistently some of the very best. There are many reasons for this. One is experience; they’ve been making it there for 300 years. This long period of production has resulted in, among other things, a very broad range of styles, something not evident in other regions. Other reasons for Champagne’s success with Champagne are its climate and soils. If these weren’t so propitious for this type of wine, the wine makers there would have figured it out long ago and moved on to another kind of wine (or maybe grain or pottery). Another reason for Champagne’s overall great quality is the region’s exclusive use of what is known as Méthode Champenoise.
Méthode Champenoise describes the procedure used to make sparkling wines in Champagne as well as (sometimes) in other places. First, the grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) are harvested, delicately pressed and fermented for two to three weeks in tanks. Next they are blended, with the key points here being the grape type, the vineyards and the vintages. These blends are then put into the bottle that you will eventually purchase them in. At this point the Liqueur de Tirage, a mixture of sugar and yeast are added to each bottle which is then sealed with a metal cap. The Liqueur de Tirage starts a second fermentation which creates the wine’s bubbles, since the bottle is sealed and the gasses can’t escape. The wines are now aged for varying amounts of time, depending on what style the winemaker wants to produce. During this ageing period the bottles are manipulated in such a way that the yeast sediment works its way to each bottle’s neck. This process is called remuage. Now the necks are frozen, the caps are removed, and the frozen blocks of dead yeast fly out. Really. This is called dégorgement. At this point the dosage (sugar) and more wine are added to give the product the winemaker’s desired level of sweetness and to fill the bottle. Champagnes range in dryness depending on their dosage, from Extra Brut (rare, and very dry), Brut (“normal”), Extra Dry (still fairly dry), Sec (medium sweet), Demi Sec (sweet) and Doux (rare, and very sweet). Finally the wine is recorked with the familiar mushroom-shaped cork and metal cage.
Much more fun than knowing how Champagne is made is knowing how it tastes. It’s good to realize that Non-Vintage Bruts are the most definitive expression of a Champagne house’s style. It is through the blending of different grapes and vintages that a Champagne maker achieves, year after year, the consistent product he demands and his audience expects. In this way Champagne is a lot like Cognac. Rémi Krug, one of the most renowned Champagne makers has said, “Champagne is like music. It has to be identified by name. You don’t say ‘I’ve listened to music,’ you say ‘I’ve listened to Beethoven, Mozart or Berlioz.’ It’s the same with Champagne. You need to know who is behind a label.”
The best way to get to know the different personalities and qualities of various Champagne houses is by tasting their NV Bruts. Begin with some of the more delicate, clean and crisp varieties, such as Laurent-Perrier ($31) or Perrier-Jouët ($37). These wines are the perfect start to any meal and go beautifully with anything from caviar to crab tostadas. Next, try fuller, more complex interpretations of the winemakers art, such as Veuve Cliquot ($40) or Roederer Brut Premier ($35). More weight, structure and a fuller flavor allow these wines to go well with almost any food. If you’re having a grilled rib-eye and your friends are having boiled shrimp, roast duck and seared trout, this style of wine is one of the few that will make everyone’s meal more enjoyable. Finally, try a weighty, rich, elegant wine like Krug Cuvée ($150) or Bollinger NV Special Cuvée Brut ($46). These wines are not cheap dates, but are actually worth the money for a special treat.Redolent of freshly baked, buttered toast and perfectly balanced, these wines are fulsome but ethereal, aristocrats in the best sense of the word. Wine doesn’t get any better than this.