champagne Champagne

It is said that, “Champagne stimulates the appetite, dispels timidity, overcomes sorrow. It is a friend for life – at weddings, christenings, everywhere and anytime life bursts into song.” Champagne has long inspired the feeling that something special has happened or is about to happen. Just think of celebrating an engagement, a big promotion or the launching of a new boat and what image comes to mind? Of course, it’s a bottle of the bubbly stuff. But whether champagne conjures up special memories or is seen as just another prop in a James Bond movie, there is no doubt that anyone in the food service industry needs to know a bit about the bubbles.

The first and foremost rule to keep in mind is that champagne is one of the most versatile wines there is and it pairs very well with many a cuisine. Champagne can be enjoyed with the fanciest of French meals as well as a simple soup and salad. Some might even drink it with pizza!

The second thing to remember is that true champagne comes only from the Champagne region in France – all else is sparkling wine. This special region of France is blessed with a chalky, acidic soil. The limestone found there provides excellent drainage and, the white in the soil reflects light back up to the vine making the perfect growing conditions. The decree that champagne could only be made in this region became law in 1911 after several riots. So, in honor of the well-fought battle, remember that anyone requesting champagne should be given the bubbly from France.

Champagne is produced from the first pressing of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. During exceptional years, some champagne will be made with only grapes grown that year. These are the vintage types and they must be held for at least 39 months before being sold. Non-vintage champagnes are made up of grapes from a variety of years and must be stored for a minimum of 15 months before sale. The vintage vs. non-vintage type doesn’t necessarily mean one champagne will taste better than another especially since the different champagne houses decide for themselves what determines a vintage year. These champagnes may cost more but again, they are not necessarily the better ones to drink.

After the first pressing, the grapes are fermented then blended with other wines. Yeast is added and the wines continue to age. At just the right time, they are bottled and fermentation continues. Riddling, which is so critical to the champagne making process, was invented in the early 1800’s by the widow La Veuve Cliquot. Up to that time, champagne was drunk from frosted glasses because the champagne itself was cloudy. Madame Cliquot angled the bottles downward – basically standing them on their heads – and during the aging process she would slightly turn the bottles just enough to nudge the sediment down towards the cork.

The final step is the disgorgement process where the neck of the bottle is frozen and the sediment is removed and replaced with a cork. At this time (well before the cork is replaced!) a bit of sugar is added to provide the final determination of sweetness (this process is called dosage). Disgorgement and dosage are done very quickly and once the cork is back in place, the bottle is shelved and ready for the market.

While there may be many factors influencing a champagne’s flavor including the grapes used, how they are blended, number of pressing, etc., it is the sugar content or dosage that is referred to as its “style”. Champagnes can be either very dry or quite sweet and typically a person will like one style and not the other.

The driest champagne is Extra Brut with very little sugar. This type is very uncommon and only one or two houses widely distribute any Extra Brut champagne. Brut is the most common champagne available. The sugar content is still low enough to make this wine somewhat dry (as compared to other styles) and not overly sweet. Sometimes the grapes are sweet enough on their own to not require any dosage or added sugar. Sec usually means dry but in reference to champagne it means “slightly sweet” and Demi-Sec is slightly sweeter still and is often served with dessert. Blanc de Blanc is made with only chardonnay grapes (“white white”) and Blanc de Noir is white wine made with the black grapes.

Champagne styles might seem a bit confusing but that is all crystal clear when compared to the bottle types! Most often champagne will be purchased in either a bottle or a magnum but it doesn’t hurt to know that there are several other sizes as well. The mnemonic “My Judy Really Makes Splendid Belching Noises” is used to remember the bottle sizes.

Magnum = 2 bottles
Jeroboam = 4 bottles
Rehoboam = 6 bottles
Methuselah = 8 bottles
Salmanazar = 12 bottles
Balthazar = 16 bottles
Nebuchadnezzar = 20 bottles

Now that the type, style and bottle size are selected, it is time to get the bubbly open. Perhaps this process intimidates many first-timers as much as the selection itself! Worries about poking out someone’s eyeball or breaking a window are certainly valid but with a few secret tips, one can easily pop the cork and get to the goods inside!
First, remove only enough foil to reach the wire hood. Untwist the wire but do not remove it. Second, hold the bottle at a 45° angle with the mouth nearest the first champagne glass. A gentle suggestion at this juncture would be to make sure none of one’s guests are also in line with this 45° angle! The next step is where most people go wrong – hold on to the cork and gently turn the bottle in one direction. That is turn the bottle NOT the cork. Those who pry the cork off with their thumbs while pointing at the ceiling are going about the whole thing in the wrong way. It is written that, “the ear’s gain is the palate’s loss.” So no popping of that cork! Keep your hand on it until it gently gives from the bottle. The sound of a properly opened bottle is a gentle sigh.

Store champagne in a cool cellar until ready to drink. Resting the bottle in ice for 20 or 30 minutes prior to serving is all that is needed to chill it to 40°. Champagne doesn’t store well in the refrigerator because the cork can dry out and all the bumping around with the door opening/closing doesn’t help either. Also remember that champagne does not get better with age like still wine; once it has reached the market, it is ready to be enjoyed. Old champagne will not be at its best.

Champagne costs vary as much as style, bottling and the champagne houses. Great tasting champagnes can be purchased for $30 up to several hundred dollars. Champagne can also be purchased for as little as $5 a bottle and this too can still be consumed without gagging. It is all a matter of personal taste and how much one wants to spend. For a special occasion, spending $20, $30 or even $50 on fine champagne is certainly doable for most. Dom Perignon is credited with being the “father of champagne” and legend has it that the blind abbey cried upon tasting his first successful bottle, “Brothers, come quickly, I am drinking stars!” How can one put a price on that?

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