It’s That Time of Year for Champagne: Part I

At the end of the year, thoughts turn to Champagne. This week, we’re devoting all three posts to the subject, including suggestions for some of our favorite bottles. Whether you’re watching a football game with a good blanc de blanc, enjoying a bit of social conviviality with friends over a bottle of brut rosé, or celebrating the New Year with a special prestige cuvée, bubbly is the wine of the season.

Champagne is unique among French wines in that it is named after the houses or marques that produce them. True Champagne only comes from the region of the same name, located some 90 miles northeast of Paris. It is either produced by large houses (marque Champagne) such as Veuve Cliquot and Möet & Chandon, who source from a vast number of estate and grower vineyards, or independent growers (récoltant Champagne).

Styles can vary depending on the grape makeup. Blanc de blancs are made entirely from white grapes, specifically chardonnay. Blanc de noirs are made entirely from dark grapes, usually from pinot noir, but sometimes with added pinot meunier, each of which has been fermented separately. Blanc de noirs are still “white” wines since little or no skin contact is allowed during production. Rosé Champagne, which has an appealing salmon or cherry color, can be made from any combination of pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier, but fine examples are crafted from 100 percent pinot noir in one of two ways to give it its festive color: some skin contact with the grapes is allowed in the fermenting vat before pressing, or a small amount of still pinot noir wine is added to the final blend.

Champagne may be either non-vintage or vintage. Non-vintage, which makes up about 70 percent of exports to the United States, is a blend of wines from two or more vintages fashioned in a consistent flavor profile. Vintage Champagne is only produced from a single harvest year and is often more expensive. Classic, great vintages include 2006 (not yet released), 1996, 1990, 1985, and 1982, while outstanding vintages include 2005, 2004, 2002, 1998, 1995, and 1979. Prestige cuvees such as Krug’s Grand Cuvée or Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siécle, are produced from the best vineyards, aged longer before release, and can be a non-vintage (multivintage) or vintage Champagne.

Consumers are often challenged in deciphering the categories of Champagne to suit their taste. I’ve written about sparkling wine for years, and still find the terminology displayed on the label confusing. For example, “Dry” Champagne is actually slightly sweet. These categories are defined by the amounts of residual sugar in the finished liquids. Fortunately, Brut Champagne is far and away the most common category and is the type most encountered in stores, thus simplifying a choice. Here are the five most common types:

  • Extra Brut (Brut Nature, Brut Zéro, Brut de Brut): very dry
  • Brut: dry (1.5 percent residual sugar)
  • Extra-Dry: more sugar than Brut, considered off-dry
  • Dry (Sec): slightly sweet
  • Demi-Sec: moderately sweet (3.3 percent to 5 percent residual sugar)

Champagne is rich with lore. Here are a few trivia facts you can use over the holidays to impress your friends:

  • The city of Epernay, the current self-proclaimed capital of Champagne, was burned, sacked, or pillaged at least 25 times in the thousand years before the 17th century.
  • Napoleon fought his last battles in Champagne.
  • The day before Epernay fell to Russian and Prussian troops in 1814, Napoleon bestowed his own cross of the Legion of Honor on the mayor of the city, Mean-Remy Möet. Then he left for Paris and abdicated the throne.
  • The term “beheading,” which dates from the time of Napoleon, refers to the way Napoleon’s officers opened Champagne bottles with their sabers.
  • Möet & Chandon is the largest Champagne house, with 90 million bottles of wine aging in its cellars at any given time.
  • Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house, dating to 1729.
  • The pressure in a bottle of Champagne is 90 pounds per square inch, about three times that in an automobile tire. The speed of a popped Champagne cork has been estimated at anywhere from 35 to 100 miles per hour when it leaves the bottle.
  • James Bond’s favorite Champagne was Bollinger, although Tattinger, Veuve Cliquot, Dom Perignon, and Krug have also appeared in Bond movies. For those interested, Bollinger is pinot noir dominated, and produced in a powerful style from the highest quality grapes. It has exceptional complexity and the Special Cuvée is one of the most age-worthy Champagnes in the marketplace.

In Part II on Thursday, I’ll discuss the aging and serving of Champagne, and share with you a listing of some recommended favorites.

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