“Brothers, brothers come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”
These famous words, supposedly uttered in 1668 by Dom Pierre Pérignon, cellerier of the Hautvillers monastery when he discovered champagne, have a miraculous quality about them that seems fitting, for so does the beverage they describe.
Champagne in the U.S. is most often associated with weddings, the New Year, and special celebratory events. In Europe, however, champagne is much more common as an everyday wine, albeit one that sparkles. Two more fun quotations: All champagne is wine, but not all wine is champagne. And, All that sparkles is not Champagne.
What exactly is champagne? Champagne is a place. Specifically it is a region in the north east of France, an hour’s drive from Paris, that just happens to have the perfect terroir (soil, climate, topography…) to make the world’s pre-eminent sparkling wine. To bear the label “Champagne” the wine must come from this area and it must be made in the méthode champenoise. The Champenois (inhabitants of Champagne) have fought hard to win this battle. There are, therefore, no American champagnes or Spanish champagnes or Australian champagnes. Champagne comes from France, from this small region within France. This is not to say that there are not wonderful sparkling wines elsewhere in France and around the world. There are, but they must be called vin mousseux, or spumante, frizzante, cava, sekt, sparkling, espumoso and so on.
What is the méthode champenoise?
A labor intensive, time consuming method of turning tart-tasting, sour, still wine into one of the most sumptuous creations in all the world of wine. It consists of the following steps: 1. Harvest – Usually late September or early October. 2. Pressing – Only three pressings of grapes are permitted, and the first produces the highest quality champagne. 3. Fermentation – The same for all wines, where the grape juice is converted to alcohol. 4. Blending – The most important step in champagne production. The winemaker decides what grapes to blend, from which vineyards, and what vintages should be blended. 5. Liqueur de Tirage – After the wine is blended and placed in its permanent bottles, the winemaker adds the Liqueur de Tirage, a blend of sugar and yeast, to begin the secondary fermentation. 6. Secondary Fermentation – This is what changes the still wine into sparkling. During this fermentation the carbon dioxide stays in the bottle. Voilà, the bubbles.
Next New Year’s try a champagne from one of the lesser-known producers. I find there is more depth and quality for the price. There are hundreds of champagnes you’ve probably never tried because the big houses (Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouët*, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Pol Roger, Tattinger, the Heidsiecks, etc.) have more advertising dollars. For a sublime champagne experience:
Pouillon – The second highest rated Brut Non-Vintage. “Rich and sumptuous. Fills the mouth with vanilla, toast, chocolate and honey flavors. Fine-textured finishing with a hint of ginger.” $38.99
*The “t” is pronounced in both “Moët” and “Jouët,” as in “get” and not “ ā” as in “hay” as is commonly thought. Folks may look at you like you don’t know French, but smile and keep on talking. We know a thing or two out here in Nelson.
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