by Chris Mauch
With New Years being the time for toasting with Champagne, I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain Champagne.
The strictest definition of the word is the European version which states that only ”sparkling wines” from the Champagne region of France, approximately 90 minutes northeast of Paris, can be labeled as such. The region can also limit the release of champagne to market in order to maintain prices. It even goes as far as to regulate what grapes that can be used to make it …. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Chardonnay for elegance and freshness, Pinot Noir for body and depth, and Pinot Meunier for its pleasant fruitiness. Most Champagnes are blends of the three, though some houses produce Champagnes that are 100-percent Chardonnay, which yields a lighter, creamier style called blanc de blancs,…white from white or all Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which produces a more robust, toasty style called blanc de noirs….white from black.
Although the French monk Dom Perignon (1638-1715) did not invent champagne, he did develop many advances in its production including holding the cork in place with a wire collar to withstand the fermentation pressure. He pioneered the use of stronger glass, which prevented the bottles from exploding as the wine acquired its bubbles. The truth is, an English scientist and physician Christopher Merret noted that with the addition of grape juice to a finished wine, he created a second fermentation. It is this second fermentation that the bubbles come from, almost six years before Dom Perignon even set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented champagne.
There are different ways ”sparkling wines” are made. . . .
“Methode du Champenoise” or ”In the method of Champagne,” is where a second fermentation in the bottle creates the bubbles in sparkling wines and is an expensive, labor-intensive process. And the smaller the bubbles, the better — the more bubbles available to release the flavor and aroma.
The little bubbles pick up flavor and aroma molecules during their celebrated ascent, pulling them along until the bubbles literally explode onto the surface of the liquid, creating the sensory fireworks that are generally associated with a good tasting, refreshing champagne. The Transfer Method – or 2nd fermentation – happens in the bottle, but instead “riddling” (that’s another story if you want to know!) the wine is returned to a tank, filtered and rebottled for your consumption. It is bottle fermentation, just not in same bottle you buy.
Another method is called Charmat. Developed around 1910 by Eugène Charmat of France. This is when the second fermentation takes place in large tanks. This is also called Bulk Process, and can be ready in a few weeks. While it does produce more bubbles, but they are not produced naturally and tend to lose their bubbles quickly.
There are different types of Champagne. Brut is the driest. If you want to get”great” Champagne, go for a Brut. Extra-dry is less dry than Brut. Germany has Sekt, and Demi Sec. Sec is sweet, and Demi Sec is even sweeter. Spain calls its bubbly Cava. South Africa uses the term Cap Classique or Cape Classic. Of course there’s always Asti Spumanti or Muscato d Asti from Italy!
Champagne is more sensitive to temperature and light than most other wines. For that reason, it is typically bottled in dark green glass. Champagne should be stored between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and may be kept upright or horizontally. Champagne should be served at about 45 degrees. A few hours in the fridge should bring the temperature down, but never store opened wine for more than a few days in the fridge. Serve your Champagne in tall, narrow-necked glasses, called flutes. Do not use wide-brimmed glasses – they cause the drink to quickly lose both bubbles and flavor. Unlabeled or non-vintage bottles are from a blend of years. Non-Vintage or “NV” Champagne makes up 85 to 90 percent of all Champagne
Rosé Champagne accounts for about 5% of Champagne produced. However, even in a good year, only a fraction of the total Champagne made is declared as ”Vintage Champagne.”
The trick to opening a bottle of Champagne while maintaining its integrity is to avoid “popping” the cork and send it flying across the room. Begin by removing the foil around the base of the wire cage. Then, carefully untwist and loosen the bottom of the cage, but do not remove it. With a tea towel or napkin in one hand, enclose the cage and cork while holding the base of the Champagne bottle with your other hand. Twist both ends in the opposite direction. As soon as you feel pressure forcing the cork out, try to push it back in while continuing to twist gently until the cork is released with a whisper and not a pop. Large Champagne bottles are named after biblical kings Jeroboam, 4 bottles Methuselah, 8 bottles, Balthazar 16, Nebuchadnezzar 20 and Melchizedek 40 bottles.
Heidsieck Champagne, makers of Monopole Blue Top Champagne was the official champagne aboard the Titanic. When they were bringing up salvage from the boat a few years back, they brought up some Heidsieck Monopole and it was reported that it tasted terrific. In Champagne the saying goes that a magnum (double bottle) is the perfect amount of Champagne for two people as long as only one is drinking!
Cheers! Chris Mauch
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