In my experience, few things are as clear a signal that life is about to change for the better than when the next thing on my agenda is to take a sip from a glass of Champagne. Whether I need to be distracted from difficulties, celebrate success or just enjoy what is one of the most consistently pleasant wines in the world, Champagne is just the ticket.
First, let’s clear up any confusion about just what Champagne is. All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. When a sparkling wine comes from the Champagne region in France, where all the wine is made by what is known as the “traditional method,” then and only then can it be properly called Champagne. So, what is the traditional method? This winemaking technique, formerly know as méthode champenoise, is the very best of several ways of getting bubbles into wine. Besides being the exclusive method used in Champagne, it is also seen in many other parts of the world when a winemaker’s goal is to make the best sparkler he or she can produce.
I’ve always been amazed at what this process entails. After harvesting the grapes (in Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) the first tricky part is to press them delicately enough so as to not let the grape skins darken the white juice – two of the three grapes used are black. (All grapes, whether white or black, have white juice. It’s contact with the skins of black grapes that make the juice for red wine red.) Then, as with still wines, the juice is fermented. This still wine is then typically blended with others, with the desired characteristics of the blend being determined by the grape type, the vineyards and the vintages used. Here’s where we really start to deviate from normal, non-sparkling winemaking. Liqueur de Tirage, a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast, is added to the blend. This blend is then put into the bottle in which you will eventually purchase the finished product. The bottles are sealed with a metal, beer bottle-style cap, and the sugar/yeast mixture starts a second fermentation inside of each individual bottle. Since the bottles are sealed, the carbon dioxide produced by the second fermentation is dissolved into the wine.
The wines are now aged, allowing contact with the spent yeast cells, called lees, for varying amounts of time depending on what style of Champagne the winemaker wants to produce. The more time the wine spends on the lees, the more complex the flavor of the wine will be, and the more costly the process will be for the winemaker.
To avoid cloudy wine after the aging is complete, two processes, remuage and dégorgement, are used to remove the lees. Remuage entails shaking the bottles while gradually moving them from horizontal to an inverted vertical position, so that the lees all end up in the neck of the bottle on top of the cap. This used to take six weeks when done by hand, but now takes three days using a specially designed machine. As if this all wasn’t weird enough, the necks are then frozen, the bottles set upright and the caps removed so the lees fly out as a frozen pellet. This is called dégorgement.
The bottles are now topped off with a mixture of wine and sugar syrup call dosage. 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) to Doux (rare, and very sweet). Finally the wine is recorked with the familiar mushroom-shaped cork and metal cage.
It is interesting to note that, although they’ve been making wine in Champagne since the late fifth century AD, until the 17th century all the wines produced there were still. Even throughout most of the 18th century, Champagne’s sparkling wines were considered inferior to their still wines. The modern sparkling wine industry in Champagne didn’t get it’s start until the early 1800s when Madame Clicquot made the most of improvements to remuage, corks, bottles and a better understanding of the second fermentation.
More fun than learning how Champagne is made is picking one out and drinking it. There is a very large variety to choose from, all of which are worth seeking out. Blanc de blancs are made exclusively from Chardonnay. These wines vary in color from very pale straw to light amber, and range in taste from light and crisp to rich and creamy. Depending on the maker and the wine’s age, they can be tropical or have complex aromas of hazelnuts, not unlike white Burgundy – another French wine made 100% from Chardonnay. They have great aging potential. A nice one to try is Jean Milan à Oger Blanc de Blancs Brut ($48). Blanc de Noirs are made exclusively from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. They tend to be fuller, reminiscent of raspberries and slightly golden in color. One of my favorites is Pommery NV Wintertime Blanc de Noirs Brut ($44). Pink or rosé Champagne is made by either adding a little red wine to the blend or allowing the juice to stay in contact with the skins of the red grapes during fermentation long enough for them to pick up some color. They should in no way be considered inferior or tacky. Good pink Champagne will be delicate, floral and delicious. If you have any doubts, try a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé ($40.)
A Champagne maker’s most definitive statement of their house style can be found in their Non-Vintage (“NV”) Brut. 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 has more in common with Cognac and other spirits than with many other wines. 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, pure and crisp varieties, such as Laurent-Perrier Brut LP ($31) or Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut ($37). These are great aperitifs, as well as perfect matches with anything from caviar to crab tostadas. Next, try fuller, richer, more complex interpretations of the winemakers’ art, such as Veuve Cliquot Brut ($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 companion is having poached shrimp, roasted chicken or fried oysters, this style of wine is one of the few that will make you both happy. Finally, try a weighty, rich, elegant wine like Krug Grand Cuvée ($150) or, for a relative bargain of a treat, Bollinger NV Special Cuvée Brut ($46). These wines are absolutely a special occasion in a bottle. With aromas of buttered toast, dried fruit and roasted nuts, and being rich, complex and beautifully balanced on the palate, these are real aristocrats of the wine world.