New Year’s Eve approaches, and there is no better way to toast the coming New Year than with a glass of Champagne. Here is a quick guide to understanding this most magical of drinks!
Champagne is both a region of France and the name of the wines made there. Only sparkling wines made in Champagne are Champagnes. Other sparkling wines can be quite good, but they are not Champagne. A small amount of non-sparkling wine is made in Champagne and carries the designation “Coteaux Champenoise”, but we will concentrate on the more familiar “Bubbly”.
The climate of the Champagne district is cool and the grapes grown there, even when fully ripe, have a pronounced, crisp acidity. This trait is what gives the wines of Champagne their clean, focused tastes and what makes them such a wonderful match with so many foods.
Champagne can be made from any one, or any combination of only three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir (which produces the red wines of Burgundy) and Pinot Meunier. Champagnes made from Chardonnay only (a white grape) are often labeled “Blanc de Blanc”. If made from the other two, black grapes, “Blanc des Noirs” often appears on the label, meaning a white wine from black grapes. The black grapes are pressed gently and their skins are not left in contact with the juice, so the wine is white. Pink or Rosé Champagnes are most often made by adding a splash of red still wine to the nearly finished wine in the bottle.
Champagne is unique in that is goes through a second fermentation in the bottle. This is the “Champagne Method”, also called the “Methode Champenoise” and “Mothode Traditionelle”. The wine maker adds a small amount of yeast and a touch of sugar for the yeast to convert into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. This is where Champagne gets its bubbles from. After the yeast has done its job, the sediment it leaves behind is removed from the bottles in a process called dégorgement. Dryness or sweetness is then adjusted by the (optional) addition of a small amount of sugar. The familiar cork and wire bail is attached, the foil capsule added, the bottle is labeled and packed and shipped, ready for your enjoyment.
Most Champagne is labeled “Brut” for dry, meaning low in sugar. Even dryer in taste is “Brut Zero”, Brut Sauvage” or “Brut Natural”, and these are Champagnes to which no sugar has been added after the second fermentation. “Demi Sec” is “off dry”, showing a faint bit of sweetness, and is fine with brunch or at the end of a meal with fruit or plain cookies. Champagnes marked “Doux” are sweet and, while hard to find, are well worth the effort of locating, for they are wonderful wines to drink with desserts.
Each Champagne house has its own style, which shows through in each of its different wines. I feel that the best expression of the individual style of any Champagne house can be best tasted in its Non Vintage Brut, which is made by blending wines from dozens of vineyards and several years. The wine maker uses these wines he way an artist uses colors, to make a finished wine that will taste the same, year after year. Non Vintage Champagne makes up about 95% of all the Champagne made, and represents the best value. A vintage is declared in Champagne only in years when conditions are outstanding, and the wine from the best vineyards is bottled without adding wines from other years.
Join us between 2 and 6 PM to meet our good friend Mario Rinaldi, and to taste the Champagnes from the house of Paul Goerg that he imports. Paul Goerg Champagnes range from a bone-dry Brut Absolut, through Blanc de Blancs, Cuvée Lionel Hampton, Brut Tradition (my current favorite!), a wonderful Cuvée Fabergé and a delightful Demi-Sec.
Fine wines, great spirits, no attitude! (Excellent Champagnes, too!)