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Tasting Stars – In Praise of Champagne (July 17, 2009)

Champagne, the French say, is the beverage a young man drinks on the morning after his first mistake. Yet champagne is usually associated in the public mind with celebration rather than remorse or recrimination.

There is a very good reason for the sense of elation we experience whenever a champagne cork is popped. First, the sound alone is a harbinger of incipient festivity. The sight of those tiny bubbles streaming up from the bottom of an elegant flute can only lift the spirits and the tickling sensation of the mousse on the tongue promotes laughter. And more importantly, when you swallow champagne, as opposed to still wines, the bubbles pass immediately through the stomach wall, carrying alcohol vapours directly into the blood stream and thence to the brain, putting you in party mode.

Of all beverage alcohol, champagne is the most versatile. You can have it for breakfast and no-one is going to look sideways at you. You can have it before lunch, with lunch or after lunch, the same with dinner. Madame Lily Bollinger, who managed that famous champagne house for thirty years until 1971, summed up the eternal appeal of this unique wine: "I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty."

Of all wines, champagne is the most abused. Successful Formula One drivers spray spectators with large-format bottles and winning hockey teams shampoo each other with the stuff in locker rooms. Nor is this abuse confined to the sporting fraternity. Consumers keep bottles in the fridge against a time when they might get lucky; and New Year revellers delight in creating as much noise as possible when opening bottles of bubbly. Then there's the "right occasion" syndrome: couples who keep a bottle from their wedding party to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild; by the time they open the bottle it will taste like skunky beer.

Champagne deserves a better fate. The winemakers of Champagne have laboured long and hard to get the bubbles into the bottle. So avoid those saucer-shaped glasses that have become the symbol for sparkling wine, because they're the worst receptacle for it – only slightly better than serving it out of a Wellington boot. (Those bird-bath-like glasses, incidentally, were invented for Queen Victoria, for whom the gas did not sit well. The English also invented for their monarch that abominable instrument, the swizzle stick. When opened, it looks like a tiny umbrella without the covering and by twirling it in the glass you get did of the bubbles that the French have so lovingly created.)

One piece of advice: don't hang on to non-vintage champagne for years. You don't have to. The producers have already aged their wines for four years, which means you can drink it as soon as you buy it. Unless, of course, you're English and you enjoy the flavour the French call le gout anglais: the slightly maderized, nutty flavour of old champagne.

Now repeat after me: only wines coming from the designated Champagne region in northeastern France, located 160 kilometres east of Paris, can be called champagne. All other wines with bubbles, even from other regions in France, are merely vins mousseux (sparkling wines).

Champagne is made from a blend of grapes: Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (black). If you see the term Blanc de Blancs on the label it means the wine was produced only from Chardonnay grapes, while Blanc de Noirs refers to use of only the black grapes. A rosé champagne can be made by macerating black grape skins with the wine for a matter of hours during fermentation to reach the requisite shade of pink. These days it is more likely made by blending red and white wines to the desired shade of pink and then putting that blend through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Small amounts of still white and red wines are also made in the Champagne region; they are called Coteaux Champenois. There is a famous light red wine called Bouzy Rouge from the town of that name.

The bubbles in champagne are made by a secondary fermentation in the bottle. A solution of yeast and sugar is added to the still wine, which is then sealed with a crown cap. The fermentation that occurs creates carbonic gas that gets trapped in the wine because it has nowhere to go. The dead yeast cells have to be removed by a process called riddling. Originally done by hand over a series of weeks, in most champagne houses the cleaning process is now accomplished by a mechanical device that tilts the bottles in a large wire case. When the debris has collected under the crown cap, the bottles are immersed in brine to freeze their necks. When the cap is removed, the pressure of the gas (60 to 90 pounds per square inch) forces out a plug of ice containing the dead yeast cells. At this point the house style of the producer's champagne determines the amount of sweetening wine that is added to top up the bottle. The label will tell you the style.

  • Brut Natural or Brut Zéro: less than 3 grams of sugar per litre
  • Extra Brut: less than 6 grams of sugar per litre
  • Brut: less than 15 grams of sugar per litre
  • Extra Sec or Extra Dry: 12 to 20 grams of sugar per litre
  • Sec: 17 to 35 grams of sugar per litre
  • Demi-Sec: 33 to 50 grams of sugar per litre
  • Doux: more than 50 grams of sugar per litre

As I have mentioned, non-vintage champagne is ready for drinking when you purchase it. These products can be a blend of reserve wines from as many as seven different years. Vintage-dated champagne, which is made in good years, contains wines from a single year and has the possibility of being aged.

Champagne is also the cruellest wine for the host. If your glasses are not scrupulously clean – residues of washing-up detergent, for example – fat, lazy bubbles will stick to the side of the glass. Under no circumstances wet glasses and put them into the freezer to frost. When you pour champagne into them not only will the wine go flat but you'll dilute the flavour. And finally, if you want to ensure a steady stream of bubbles, make a tiny scratch with a sharp knife at the bottom of your glass. The rough edge will create a very active beading.




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