Champagne. It connotes parties, fun, romance, and special occasions. But it's actually the name of a wine-growing area in France. The traditional belief is that a monk, Dom Perignon (after whom they name the Moet & Chandon wine), invented the wine during his service at the Abbey of Hautvillers in the last decade of the 17th century. Revisionists promote the idea that it was invented 20 years earlier in England, using juice of grapes from Champagne shipped across the channel in casks. Whatever the truth, the word "Champagne" now only applies to wine grown in a legally defined section of northeast France. Champagne is made by adding some sugar and yeast back to the wine when bottled to promote a second fermentation. The wine is then stored at an angle so that any solids in the wine gravitate toward the neck of the bottle. They periodically turn the wines in their rack to loosen the residue from the sides and help concentrate it at the spout. When the winemaker believes the wine is about ready, he or she removes the sediment. At this point, they add a sweet liqueur and seal the bottle. The bottles then remain in the cellar until the makers believe they are ready to drink. Then they deliver them to market and most are meant to be drunk rather than cellared.
Many people refer to all sparkling wines as Champagne, like we say Kleenex for tissues or Xerox for a copying machine. However, if it is not from this small area of France, it is actually a sparkling wine. Wines made in areas other than Champagne, but with the same process, are designated as Methode Champenoise. These wines use the same production method as Champagne and have the potential to be very good wines. The less expensive sparkling wines are generally made using either a charmat process or carbonation. The charmat procedure is similar to Champenoise but done in bulk instead of in a bottle. There are many drinkable examples of charmat bulk process wines, and they have the benefit of being quite inexpensive. Carbonated wines are made by injecting carbon dioxide into wine. Avoid carbonated sparkling wines unless you are addicted to headaches and hangovers. Your local wine store should be able to tell you which method is used for individual wines.
Sparkling wines come in a range of sweetness based on the amount of liqueur added. The dominant styles available in the U.S. are "brut" and "extra dry." In order to make our lives more confusing, "extra dry" is actually the sweeter wine. Brut is the dryer wine. Sparkling wines range from $3 to $160 per bottle. The upper end is composed of the wines from Champagne. The lower end is carbonated. The traditional favorites in the U.S. for the ultra expensive wines are Dom Perignon, Cristal, and Krug. My favorite in this range is the Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé (when I can afford it, which is almost never). In the entry level of Champagne, which is about $25-35 per bottle, I am a big fan of Pol Roger and Jaquesson. Dropping to the $15-25 range, California produces a couple of winners in Iron Horse and Roederer Estate. A newer entry, made in France but sold by California's Toad Hollow, is Amplexus ($15). This is a cremant style, with very tiny bubbles and a rich, toasty aroma. People often ask for a recommendation for an inexpensive sparkler, and I usually recommend Zardetto Prosecco from Italy ($10). Prosecco is a grape grown around Venice and used by Italians to make sparkling wine. While very different from the chardonnay-pinot noir-pinot meunier blend used in Champagne and California sparkling wines, it provides a yeasty punch along with some acid and fruit that light up the palate.
There is a great deal of concern among the wine houses as to what will actually be available at Christmas and New Year's. (Perhaps more importantly, how much will it cost?) John Rife from Glazers, one of the larger wholesalers in Austin, informed us that, although there are many sparkling wines in the stores right now, everyone will run out of the ultra premiums like Cristal and Dom Perignon. He thinks there will be plenty of Champagne available, but you may have to get a different brand than you wish.
Rob Moshein, the wine expert at Reuben's Emporium, has already completed all of his store's buying for the holidays. Like Rife, he thinks Reuben's will have wines in stock, though maybe not exactly what you want. They have stocked up on a few wines that they believe they will still have in the week between Christmas and New Year's. He is especially high on an inexpensive bottle from France called Francois Montand Blanc de Blanc (about $8). "This is a terrific value. It is clean, toasty, soft, and really well-made." In the entry-level Champagne, he likes Joseph Perrier Brut NV (NV means "non-vintage"). He finds this to be "elegant, crisp, and focused with light toast and yeasty notes that are really good for a $23 Champagne." At the upper level, he recommends Albert LeBrun Brut NV ($50), a wine he feels balances all the traditional strengths of Champagne. This wine is from a very small family house in Champagne and is all handmade.
Wiggy's on Sixth Street always has some interesting wines. Al Gilhousen, their wine man, also feels the Francois Montand is unrivaled at the price. In the mid-price range, he is a fan of Pacific Echo. This winery was called Scharffenberger until it was purchased by Cliquot, makers of Veuve Cliquot. Gilhousen likes both the Brut and the Brut Rosé. "The Brut has citrus, pear, and apple fruit that is adroitly balanced by doughy aromas and a creamy texture," he explains. "The Rosé has nice cherry and strawberry nuances. For the cost of a California wine, you get the Cliquot house style." From Champagne, he likes Delamotte ($36), the sixth-oldest producer in the region and renowned for using only the best Grand Cru grapes. Al also believes he will have Champagne and other sparkling wines available, but recommends shopping early.
The bottom line? If you want an ultra-premium wine, or if you have a favorite brand, go out and buy it today. Unless you want a very obscure wine, there is a good chance your favorite is disappearing as you read this. During the next 15 days, there will be Champagne and sparkling wine available, and some of it very good. But you may have never heard of it or tasted it. If you have your heart set on a specific brand, buy it today. Whenever you can! Champagne is always a wonderful aperitif. It is also an excellent way to end a rich meal. Though it is seldom used as such, it is capable of being one of the best wines for pairing with food. Champagne is a classic accompaniment to caviar. It goes very nicely with small blocks of good chocolate. The stylistic range of sparkling wines is so extensive that a wine can be found for almost any dish. But a good generalization is that, since Champagne is typically made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, pick foods that go well with both of those wines.
One of my favorite foods for Champagne is leek pie. The recipe is simplicity itself. Just clean some leeks, run them through a thin slice setting on a Cuisinart, and saute in enough butter to coat. Add salt to taste and a lot of fresh ground black pepper. Cook the leeks until limp, put in a double pie crust and bake at 350 until the crust is golden. Let cool for 30 minutes and serve with Champagne. The sweet-spicy-rich pie sets off the clean, yeasty tastes of the Champagne while the bubbles cut through the fats in the pie.
Getting the temperature right is the first step. Your goal is to have the wine at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Start by placing the bottle in your refrigerator for two hours. After pouring the wine, put it in a bucket with a mixture of two-thirds water and one-third ice. It is important to get the wine quite cool so that when you open it, it doesn't spray all over you and your guests and lose all those valuable bubbles.
How to Taste Champagne
Opening the wine is a simple process. As long as it is cold and not shaken, the cork should be controllable. Your goal is to have the opening be as quiet as is humanly possible. First, remove the foil. Then cover the top of the bottle with a kitchen towel. This is very important to protect you when you remove the wire retainer from the top in case the cork pops. There is occasionally enough force in the bottle to pop the cork quite dramatically, certainly with enough force to injure an eye. The weight of the towel will help in case of a violent, unanticipated pop. Reach up under the towel and remove the wire retainer. Withdraw your hand from underneath the towel and, using the towel, grab the cork tightly with the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand. Using your other hand, grip the bottom of the bottle and twist very slowly. When you feel the cork coming out, slow the twisting even further. Hold the cork tightly. The goal is to have the cork come out so slowly that all you hear is a hiss. You are now ready to pour.
Champagne and other sparkling wines should be drunk from a specific glass. The old-time traditional Champagne glass, wide and shallow, is the worst possible choice. It allows the delicate bubbles to disappear in the air and provides no focus for the nose. Worse, it enhances the opportunity to have the wine spill on clothes and furniture. The new version of a snap-together, wide-mouthed plastic glass is the worst of the worst. A fluted Champagne glass is the best choice. It has a narrow bottom to concentrate the bubbles and a small opening to spotlight the aromas. The consensus is that the best glasses are made by Riedel, but they are very expensive. Pier One, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Linens and Things all carry less expensive alternatives that are excellent.
Tasting Champagne can be a formal ritual or a simple pleasure. Generally, wine should be fun. But knowing a few things about the ritual can enhance the pleasure. The reason you buy Champagne is for the bubbles. The only way to know about the bubbles is to roll them in your mouth. Looking at them doesn't work because bubbles are generated by slight imperfections in the glass. Therefore, the more imperfections, the more bubbles. In the mouth, roll the wine around to see how strong the fizz becomes. Enjoy the feel and note whether the bubbles are fine or coarse. As you taste more Champagnes and sparkling wines, you will soon see the difference. This is not to say that the sight of the bubbles is not an enjoyable aspect. Do like the Champenois do. With a strong overhead light, place the filled flutes on a large mirror (they use tables entirely made of mirror) and watch the light dance off the bubbles and the mirror. Check the aroma's flavor based on what you like, not what someone has told you. There are some lucky people out there that truly prefer the taste of $12 sparkling wine to $120 Champagne. Be secure if you know what you like. Having someone else pick your wine is like having someone else pick your clothes. It doesn't work unless the other person is an expert on your taste.
Finally, treat yourself well this holiday. If you want some expensive Champagne, buy it; it's a time of great celebration. Can you imagine having this conversation with your significant other? "Joe and Betsy just had a child, let's get them a bottle of cheap sparkling wine!" Of course not. Buy something that excites you, pleases you, and helps enhance the fun and romance in your life.
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