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A Champagne Article After the Holidays? What is He Thinking?
By Michael Apstein
Jan 3, 2017
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To some it will seem odd to read a column about Champagne after New Year’s and the holiday season.  (My editor will say it’s because I’ve missed yet another deadline.)  After all, the vast bulk of Champagne and sparkling wines are purchased and consumed between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  Bob Harkey of Harkey’s Fine Wines, a top fine-wine shop in suburban Boston, notes that over 80 percent of his sales of fizz occur during that period of time.  Other retailers from around the country echo that statistic. 

Non-holiday consumption is usually reserved for special occasions.  In restaurants, sommeliers report that two-thirds of bubbly sales are because of celebrations, according to a Guild of Sommeliers 2014 survey.  By comparison, only a trivial amount of Champagne is consumed at other times.

And that’s a shame! 

First and foremost, what my friend Paul Wagner (one of the country’s top wine marketing experts) once said about Prosecco, “It’s a party in a bottle,” is true about Champagne or any sparkling wine.  Nothing enlivens an upscale dinner party, or even a simple pizza, as well as the pop of a Champagne cork.  Nothing says “welcome” to friends who stop over unexpectedly as that distinctive sound.  My advice: always--always--keep a bottle of bubbly in the refrigerator.

Second, what is most underrated about Champagne is its versatility with food. When you can’t immediately answer the question of what wine to serve with what food, open Champagne. You’ll be surprised how it enhances a meal. It goes perfectly with a remarkably wide range of dishes, from sushi or other crudo to a meaty steak.  The bubbles and acidity refresh and invigorate the palate.  I’ve consumed Champagne with pleasure throughout meals featuring everything from the trendy (and I hope soon to disappear) small plates presentation to tasting menus featuring so-called “fusion” cuisine to more traditional three-course meals.

Thirdly, for the quality and enjoyment it delivers, Champagne or sparkling wine is not expensive.  Sure, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne have three-digit price tags, but many superb non-vintage Champagnes can be found for $40 or less, and many superb sparkling wines weigh in at under $20 a bottle.  With white Burgundy and many California Chardonnays ringing up at twice the price, Champagne’s sticker does not shock.

A common misconception is that Champagne and sparkling wines go flat immediately after being opened.  Not true, especially if you use a simple Champagne stopper, which will keep the bubbles intact for at least a few days.

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Champagne, like all top French wine, takes its name from a place, in this case the eponymous region about 100 miles east of Paris.  By law Champagne must be made from two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, alone or in combination, that were grown in the region.  (A few other varieties are allowed, but rarely used.)  If made entirely from Chardonnay, the Champagne will be labeled, Blanc de Blancs.  If made entirely from the red grapes, it will be labeled Blanc de Noirs and be clear, not rosé, since the juice of these grape is clear.  Rosé Champagne comes from pressing red grapes gently to extract a hint of color, or by blending in a bit of still red wine.

Again, by law, the secondary fermentation, which creates the bubbles, must be performed in the bottle, not in a tank under pressure, as is the tradition for Prosecco, for example.  None of the other sparkling wines from Europe (Franciacorta from Italy, Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant from other parts of France, Sekt from Germany, fizz from anywhere in the European Union, for example) can be labeled Champagne even if made by the same method.  Since we in the U.S. do not subscribe to European regulations, California sparkling wines can still be labeled “Champagne,” though those produced by Schramsberg, California’s top producer, and the subsidiaries of French Champagne firms opt not to use the term.

Producers consider their non-vintage Champagne, despite being the least expensive of the line, to be their flagship because it reflects the house style consistently, year to year.   To make non-vintage Champagne, the winemaker blends still wine from the current vintage with still wines from previous vintages (reserve wines), which have been saved in hermetically sealed tanks, to achieve the house style.  The blended still wine is put into the Champagne bottle along with a little sugar and more yeast, and the bottled is capped.  The yeasts convert all the added sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide (the secondary fermentation). 

Unlike the primary fermentation, this time the carbon dioxide becomes trapped because the bottle has been capped--hence the bubbles. The resulting Champagne rests on the yeast for months, or occasionally years, before the dead yeasts are removed, a process known as dégorgement (disgorging). To disgorge a bottle, it’s turned upside down so the yeasts collect in the neck of the bottle, under the cork.  The neck of the bottle is then frozen, entrapping the yeasts in a plug of Champagne.  The bottle is rapidly turned upright, uncorked--the plug shoots out because it is under pressure--and the bottle “topped up” with wine and a touch of sugar, known as the dosage, depending on whether the Champagne is Brut (the driest), Extra Dry or Doux (the sweetest). Some producers bottle a Champagne labeled Zero Dosage, Brut Zero or Natur, by adding no sugar at this stage.  These Champagnes are not for everyone.  Many consumers, myself included, find these types of Champagne to be very cutting, bordering on aggressive.

When the climate produces particularly noteworthy grapes, producers use only those grapes (and no reserve wine) to produce a vintage Champagne.  Though the vintage Champagne continues to reflect the style of the house (Bollinger’s will still be big and bold, whereas Moët’s will be more delicate) it also transmits the character of the vintage.  Ed McCarthy, author of “Champagne for Dummies” and one of America’s top Champagne experts, considers 2008 (which is just coming onto the retail market), 2002, 1996 and 1985 as exceptional years in Champagne.  Like other great wines, vintage Champagne develops beautifully in the bottle with age, as exemplified by the 1996 Pol Roger I enjoyed with a dinner recently.

What about those Champagnes with three-digit price tags?  Most houses produce a Super Premium Champagne referred to as a Cuvée de Prestige or Tête de Cuvée.  In addition to the aforementioned Dom Pérignon and Comtes de Champagne, Louis Roederer produces “Cristal,” Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin makes “La Grande Dame,” and Pol Roger crafts “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.”  These wines are made only in “vintage years,” and only from the very best grapes (most, if not all, of which will have come from the company’s own vineyards).  Though these Tête de Cuvée Champagnes vary in style (Cristal is bolder whereas Dom Pérignon lighter), all are exceptional wines that benefit from prolonged bottle aging--the 1990 Comtes de Champagne is simply gorgeous, robust yet elegant, even now.

Though the so-called “grower” Champagnes have been around for decades, their popularity has soared recently as consumers seek “artisanal” production in all aspects of food and wine.  In contrast to the big name producers who buy a significant amount of grapes to make their Champagne, these growers produce Champagne solely from their own vineyards.  The big houses blend wines from many areas to achieve consistency of style.  In contrast, grower Champagnes reflect the specific area in which the grapes are grown, much like in Burgundy, because far less blending is involved.

Consumers often ask whether grower Champagnes are “better” than the ones produced by the big houses.  I don’t think you can generalize.  Grower Champagne will be less uniform--which is either a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.  They are certainly a welcome addition because they add another dimension to the category.

For 2017, put bubbles in you life.  First, buy a Champagne stopper.  If you still subscribe to the notion that you need “an event” to drink Champagne, celebrate Wednesday (or Thursday).  Try Champagne from a producer you’ve never heard of, perhaps André Jacquart ($55).  Or try Pierre Sparr’s Crémant d’Alsace Rosé ($20) or maybe Simonnet-Febrve’s Crémant de Bourgogne ($20).  Buy a bottle of Ca’ de Bosco’s Franciacorta ($35) or Ferrari’s Brut from Trentino ($23). Or why not Roederer Estate’s Anderson Valley Brut ($25)?

For more in-depth knowledge about Champagne, pick up a copy of Ed McCarthy’s “Champagne for Dummies.”  (Full disclosure, he’s a friend and a colleague here at WRO, but I assure you the book is not just for dummies.)

Nor is Champagne just for the holidays anymore.  And if you still can’t get your arms around that concept--then make every day a holiday!

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Email me your thoughts about Champagne and sparkling wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 4, 2017