Champagne and Sparkling Wine
Champagne is one of the most versatile drinks — there’s always a good excuse to open a bottle for a party or as a very special aperitif.
Champagne is still superlative among all the sparkling wines. It has a cachet unmatched by any other wine, and yet it is no longer the most expensive by any means. Even the really illustrious Champagnes — Laurent Perrier Cuvee Grand Siecle, selected from three best years blended together, or Moet & Chandon’s Ddm Perignon, or Diamant Bleu from Heidsieck Monopole — no longer begin to approach the most sought-after Clarets in price. In fact, they are liable to be a great deal cheaper than the first-growth Clarets of any year that matters. Even so, Champagne can never be cheap, because of the care given to its production and the time required for it to reach maturity.
WHEN TO DRIN CHAMPAGNE
One of the great things about Champagne is that it’s always good to drink — at breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, mid-afternoon, at weddings and christenings, as an aperitif, with dinner, or to soothe the nerves on a ‘plane. It makes a party go. It’s for toasting, for launching ships, for seeing in the New Year. It makes an occasion: it never needs to wait for one.
THE CHAMPAGNE AREA
The Champagne area forms a rough circle round Epernay, in north-east France (to the north and north-east of Paris). Many of the famous Champagne Houses are located there, or in Rheims. Owing to its geographical location, the area has been much fought over; the windmill at Verenzay, for example, which is owned by Heidsieck Monopole, was used as an observation post by both sides during World War I. Even so, vinification has survived from ancient times in this most northerly winegrowing district in France.
Champagne as we know it today owes much to two people: Dom Perignon and Madame Clicquot. Dom Perignon, a contemporary of Louis XIV, became Cellarer of the Abbey of Hautvilliers in 1670, but the records of the Abbey were, alas, lost in the French Revolution. However, it is generally accepted that Dom Perignon transformed the wine from one reputed to be pinkish and fermenting unpredictably, so that bottle explosions were not uncommon, into a mature aristocrat, well-balanced, golden and sparkling. Important factors in this evolution were the production of a strong bottle and the use of a cork wired onto the bottle instead of wood and hemp as a stopper. (Madame Clicquot’s part in the story comes a little later).
THE MAKING OF CHAMPAGNE
Champagne is actually made from more black grapes than white. Under the strict rules governing its making, only three types of grape are permissible: Pinot Noir and Meunier (black) and Chardonnay (white). Some Champagne is made from white grapes only, and the resulting wine, which is rather more delicate and lighter in style, is referred to as Blanc de Blancs. Pink (or Rose) Champagne is produced by allowing the juice of the black grapes to remain in contact with the skins for a few hours. To give you an idea of why Champagne costs so much, here is a brief outline of its manufacture.
In the vineyards, great care is taken (by means of expert inspection by women) to ensure that the selected grapes are undamaged when they go to the presses, so that the white juice from the black grapes is not coloured by the skins. In the early stages, the making of Champagne is similar to the vinification of white wines elsewhere. The ‘must’ (the clear white juice) is put into casks, where the first fermentation takes place. Then it is ‘racked’ — transferred to new casks — during the winter, leaving behind the sediment cast off during fermentation. The new wines of different pressings are then blended to obtain one standard wine. This ‘assembly’ (cuvee) of wine requires a highly skilled operation, in the charge of the Chef de Caves, who is consequently responsible for the style and taste of the finished product.
In spring the blends for the year’s vintage (if any) wines, and non-vintage wines are transferred to bottling vats, a little sugar syrup is dissolved in the wine (liqueur de tirage), yeast cultures are added (levurage), and the wine is bottled with a temporary — perhaps a crown — cork. A second fermentation then takes place and the bottles are left in the cellars to mature, usually for two or three years if the Champagne is non-vintage, perhaps for five if it is vintage. Two important ‘mtthode champenoise’ processes are ‘remuage’ — the gradual tilting of the bottle and regular expert rotating to ensure that the sediment eventually lies on the cork, and ‘degorgement’, which means the disgorging of the sediment. Today, this is usually achieved by freezing the neck of the bottle; the pressure when the stopper is removed ejects the small lump of frozen wine containing the sediment. The old method involved the use of the thumb, and it demanded a high degree of skill. This is where Madame Clicquot comes in. Left a widow at 27, she carried on her father’s business (founded in 1772), and discovered the essential principle of remuage. The gap left by the ejected sediment is topped up with wine and sugar syrup (without which Champagne would be undrinkably dry). The dosage, as it’s called, varies according to whether the wine is to be Brut, sec, demi-sec, or doux:
DRY: Brut, Natur, Extra Dry, Extra Sec, Tres Sec
MEDIUM DRY: Dry, Sec
MEDIUM SWEET: Demi-Sec
SWEET: Doux, Rich
The words describing the various types of Champagne tend to sound drier than the wines actually are. Drier Champagne is currently in fashion and the British prefer it, but the French enjoy sweet Champagne at the end of a meal. Vintage or non-vintage Extra Dry Champagne is delicious as an aperitif, or at the beginning of a meal, especially with hors d’oeuvres and fish, and a Demi-Sec or Doux wine goes well with the sweet course.
A wine from the Champagne area is Cremant — not so sparkling as usual, and with a delicate flavour.
Vintage Champagne is made from the blending of the wines made from the vine crop of an exceptionally good year (which is stamped on corks and labels). It is probably at its best when it is between 7 and 12 years old, and it should be richer and more full of flavour than the non-vintage kind. The demand for it is so great (with Britain and the USA well in the lead) that a large amount of it is drunk when it’s younger — most of the famous Houses introduced the 1966 in 1972, for example, because the 1964 vintage had largely disappeared.
A very old Champagne may or may not be worth drinking. In recent years I’ve sampled a 1911, which was deep yellow, hardly sparkling, but not disagreeable, and a 1926 (a good year) which was still working (bubbling) industriously, and which had remained fruity and delicious. Some of the vintage Champagne from one year is kept for blending with the wine of other years to make the non-vintage Champagne. The aim here is to blend different years that are consistent in flavour and quality, and this can be done with such skill that only an expert could distinguish the result as a non-vintage wine. The only problem is that Champagne can deteriorate over a period of time (say, 4 or 5 years), and since non-vintage Champagne carries no year, there is just the chance that you could be drinking a wine past its prime.
Drink non-vintage Champagne when it’s young, and don’t lay it down. (There’s not much likelihood of doing that, anyway, in these days of high demand.)
How to Open and Serve Champagne
OPENING A BOTTLE
After all the care that has gone into its making, Champagne deserves — and requires — thoughtful opening. Don’t jiggle the bottle; put two glasses ready in case it’s lively, and have a clean napkin handy, to mop any spills and — more importantly — to protect your fingers from wire; do not point the cork at people, or at valuables — or at your chin. Remove the foil and the wire holding the properly ‘aimed’ bottle with the napkin, then grasp the cork, and turn the bottle steadily. (N.B. The bottle, not the cork.) The aim is not to produce a cannonade, or to waste half the bottle, but rather to hear a very, very gentle ‘phut’.
HOW TO SERVE
Champagne should be served cold but not iced, so don’t leave it in the fridge too long. Its ideal temperature is about 9 CC (48 °F). Drink it from a tulip-shaped glass or any ordinary wine glass if you haven’t any of the tulip ones, but preferably not out of the saucer-like coupe, which is a silly shape, when the idea is that you should be able to see the lovely bubbles rising up through the golden liquid. Unlike most French wines, Champagne is known by the names of the Houses who make it, rather than by the names of the vineyards. The House names are referred to as ‘Grandes Marques’.
Some of the great Champagne Houses:
Bollinger, Heidsieck, HeidsieckDry Monopole, Irroy, Krug, Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, Moet& Chandon, Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger, Pommery & Greno, Roederer, Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot.
OTHER SPARKLING WINES
These are all excellent for parties, or as a base for summer coolers. Although none of them may be called Champagne, they are made either by the methode champenoise, or by secondary fermentation in closed tanks, and they come mainly from France, Italy and Germany. France produces a number from districts other than Champagne, notably the Loire and the Rhone.
The Loire’s Sparkling Saumur has enjoyed wide popularity for a long time, particularly for parties. It is clean and fresh, and much of it is somewhat sweet, though there are dry ones, like Saumur Soleil. Sparkling Vouvray is also rather sweeter than Champagne, but it is admirable for ‘young’ occasions, and much used at weddings, although some people find too much of it rather ‘head-achy’.
Rhone’s deservedly popular light sparkler, Blanc de Blancs, comes from Seyssel, a small town on the Rhone near Annecey. Strictly speaking, it is an Haut-Savoie wine, and it makes a delicious aperitif.
Burgundy, too, supplies some sparkling wines, both white (extra dry) and red, which have had a small but devoted following for a long time.
Germany: production of Germany’s sparkling Hock and Moselle, called Sekt, has soared in recent years — from under 10 million bottles in 1952 to 135 million in 1969. One of the leading wines is Henkell-Trocken, from Wiesbaden. Others, whether from the Rhine or the Moselle, range from dry to sweetish and appear under a variety of names, among them ‘Sparkling Crown of Crowns’, ‘Schloss Reingarten’ ‘Kupferberg’ and ‘Sparkling Hock Deinhard Cabinet’.
Italy’s Asti Spumante is claimed to be the only sparkling wine which benefits more from secondary fermentation in tank than it would from the miihode champenoise, as this better preserves the fragrance of the Muscat grape. Spumante is sweet, but it is possible to obtain a dryish Asti sparkler.
Portugal: The region of Vinhos Verdes produces the unique red and white ‘green’ wines • the ‘green’ in this case referring to the wine’s youth and liveliness and not to its colour. Vinhos Verdes are light and fragrant and they all have a slight suggestion of sparkle. Other sound sparkling wines come from the Bairrada region, from Oporto, and particularly from Lamego, on the edge of the Douro region, all of them produced by the mathode champenoise.
Australia produces some excellent sparkling wines, the most distinguished being Seppelt’s Great Western Imperial Reserve.
The USA has two main wine-producing areas, from both of which come sparkling wines — California and New York State. Some are made by the Champagne method, some by the cuve clos method, and some have carbon dioxide pumped into the wine, but these must carry the description ‘carbonated’. The Taylor wineries are the largest ‘Champagne’ producers in the States.