A Champagne Primer
By Martin Pilkington
No other wine, no other drink, is so closely fixed in our consciousness with celebration and success—Champagne moments. Nor perhaps with sophisticated seduction. Seduction and celebration: not bad activities with which to be associated.
A Few Killer Facts
It was not the French, but apparently the British (hurrah!) who invented Champagne. Specifically Christopher Merret, who in 1662 first documented the use of sugar in wines to induce secondary fermentation. Dom Pérignon arrived in Epernay six years after Merret published his paper on the topic, though the French Benedictine monk did refine the concept with handy introductions like a wire collar to retain the cork. There are 100 or so Champagne houses, and 319 wine-making villages in the region, though an additional 40 settlements are likely to be added soon. And as well as the ‘core’ grape varieties used—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay (the authorities now proscribe the planting of anything but those except as replacements for grubbed up old vines)—various others from existing vines may be vinified: the almost unheard of Arbanne or Arbane (a mere 2.5 of the 76,000 acres of vineyards in the appellation) and rarely encountered Petit Meslier; plus Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and two obscure relations Pinot de Juillet and Pinot Rosé.
You’re in Good (-ish) Company
Champagne makers were into marketing before the discipline was invented. In the macho-world of wine in the 19th century they cleverly targeted women drinkers—the wine was generally sweetened until the middle of that century, with the brut (dry) style introduced to suit the (yes) British palate in 1876. Around that time royals, aristocrats and stars of the stage were recruited to endorse Champers, Laurent-Perrier leading the way.
That trend continues: take James Bond for instance. In the novels, Taittinger is his preferred fizz, but since 1979 we have seen Bollinger in the movies, at times with the subtlety of a cork hitting you in the eye. Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favorite—he enjoyed quantity as well as quality, his household supposedly shifting 500 cases in his last 10 years on earth. That’s more than a bottle-and-a-half a day. No wonder he once impressed on WWII British troops that they were not just fighting for France, but for Champagne.
But Do it with Style
Perhaps unsurprisingly rap and hip-hop artists have taken to Champagne of the bling variety, displaying the restraint associated with the genre, a boost to high-end brands with shiny bottles like Cristal, and Cattier’s Armand de Brignac. A decided oddity here is Luxor’s Champagne with gold flakes in it. Enough said.
And while we are investigating the world of conspicuous consumption, does anybody else on seeing sportsmen and women spray Champagne about think they look stupid? Apparently Mumm doesn’t agree, as they sponsor Formula One and provide the giant bottles the tiny drivers waste after every event.
But that’s not the pits (see what I did there) of such behavior. In Sweden the gilded youth, banned from spraying the liquid in clubs for legal or safety reasons, substituted ‘sinking.’ They buy two bottles, and tell the barman to pour one down the sink. We can only hope daddy loses all his money very soon.
But What About Drinking the Stuff?
The French find the British obsession with vintage Champagne—wine from a specific year deemed by the house to be particularly excellent, and kept for at least 39 months—strange, preferring by and large the consistency you get in non-vintage Champagne thanks to the blending involved, opting for a Cuvée Prestige by preference for big occasions, blended but from the very best. The grand-daddy of those is Louis-Roederer’s Cristal, originally made for the Czar, with more recent rivals including Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon.
In the 1920s the British survivors of WWI, or at least the well-heeled officers, took to drinking Champagne at every possible occasion, thus each course at dinner accompanied by a glass. America, in spite of the Volstead Act, saw a similar obsession. Though obviously limiting this is not quite as idiotic as it sounds, as there are many styles of Champagne with different characters.
First, we have diverse degrees of sweetness, from doux (very sweet and not often encountered) and via demi-sec (though it translates as half-dry this is to most palates sweet) to brut (dry) and extra brut (very dry).
Then there are the different blends of grapes. Most Champagne is made from differing percentages of three grapes, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But two rather more distinct styles merit attention: Blanc de Blancs (white of whites), made with 100-percent Chardonnay (though strictly speaking Arbanne and Petit Meslier also qualify), and Blanc de Noirs, (white of blacks) made with black (for which read red) grapes, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Fascinatingly Champagne Moutard have made a blend using six varieties, the standard three plus Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc, the same house a source too of a 100-percent Arbanne Champagne.
And of course Champagne is not just Champagne-colored. We have the romantic Rosé; pink Champagne. Even here there are two types, the first where the color comes from briefly macerating the wine on the skins of black grapes, the second by blending a little red wine (Pinot Noir based, often made in the aptly-named village of Bouzy) with white Champagne. Billecart-Salmon is a house renowned for its pink Champagne.
What you look for in a Champagne is a matter of taste. In the very broadest terms, blanc de noirs tend towards bigger fruitier flavors, while blanc de blancs is steelier and subtler, with more mineral and herbal notes. If you have the cash, great examples of the styles are Salon for the BDB, and Mailly Grand Cru for the BDN, though Fleury has a wonderful and rather more affordable version with loads of bold raspberry flavors; very accessible. A common thread with so many Champagnes across the board is a flavor often described as biscuity or toasty, something for reasons it is impossible to define that just feels elegant.
All that said, there are some really lousy cheap Champagnes about—bottles better suited to pickling than drinking; bottles that have a horrible taste of greyness; and even the occasional corked bottle. Just because it’s Champagne doesn’t make it good—but it does make it a celebration. So for something nice to sip on a summer’s evening without denting the wallet check out New World alternatives, or a decent Cava. But to mark big occasions go Champagne. And for Valentine’s go pink Champagne; more fun than flowers.
Dos and Don’ts
Lovely though wide and flat Champagne coupes are as objects (legend has it the style based on the shape of Marie-Antoinette’s boobs, or one of them) the greater surface area means rapid loss of fizz, and it is tough to nose the drink. Better to use long-stemmed (so your fingers don’t touch the bowl and warm the wine) flutes, into which you pour with the glass tilted so you are sliding the liquid down a slope, not dropping it vertically to the bottom, which creates an eruption of bubbles and means flat Champagne soon thereafter. Serve the wine well-chilled, as this helps retain the fizz, too. And the very starting point, open by holding the cork steady and turning the bottle. If you don’t you may have problems, and dropping the bottle is—as Chekhov made the subject of a short story—bad luck (der).