Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why Champagne?

Not that anyone has ever actually asked me this question, but I thought perhaps it is something we could delve into, what with my upcoming True Champagne tasting at wineLIFE. (hope you are registered already!)

Just to clarify, at the risk of sounding cliché, all champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is champagne. Champagne is a place, a region defined by three towns that form sort of an acute triangular slice a mere 100k east of Paris. The towns, cathedral-and-cobblestone-clad Reims, the even smaller Epernay, and the southern satelite of Aÿ create a triad that contains some of the most valuable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards in the world. The other triumvirate of Champagne is the trio of featured grapes - the two aforementioned, joined by a much more obscure Pinot Meunier in a blended bubbly that varies in style from house to house depending on its recipe.

Here in Champagne exists the greatest anomaly of the wine world: vintage wines are the exception, not the rule. Not only are the wines a blend of grapes, the traditional practice in champagne is to reserve wine in stainless steel tanks every vintage, usually over about 5 years, so as to blend across vintages to achieve the house style. Most champagne sold in the US is non-vintage brut, at around $30.00-$40.00 a bottle - Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier and Pol Roger are some more recognizable ones.

Vintage champagne is only made when the conditions are perfect - not a common occurance in this cool, northerly region. They are given the lofty title Tête de Cuvée, the top pop (tête = head) and fabulous names like Veuve Cliquot’s La Grande Dame, Moët’s Dom Perignon, Laurent Perrier Le Grand Siecle (literally “the great century”) and Louis Roederer’s now highly unpopular but still astronomically priced Crystal. Their price tags and packaging always match their status - a Tête de Cuvée starts at around $100.00 and soars upwards of $250.00 from there.

Champagne comes in a small but intriguing variety of styles that you could have fun exploring. If you like pink, try some brut rosés, the best of which is made by Billecart Salmon and is quite tough to come by! The anomalies continue - champagne is the only rosé that is actually made by blending red and white wines, not by the saignée method (literally bleeding, referring to the steeping of the skins of red grapes in the vat with the juice so they will impart color), and here again, the non-vintage version is less expensive than the vintage version. You can also try creamy Blancs de Blanc (translates literally as white of white) champagnes that are 100% Chardonnay or Blancs de Noir, romantically fragrant wines that are made of 100% Pinot Noir, but are indeed, as their name suggests, white bubblies.

You’ll also notice that sometimes I spell champagne with a lower case c and sometimes with a capital C. Capital C refers to the region, lower case c refers to the wine. But I still haven’t really answered the question have I? Why champagne? Because while there are many great substitutes that are much less costly - I’m a huge fan of Prosecco, I don’t balk at Cava, and I enjoy tasting sparkling wines from a around the world that are made in the traditional method - champagne is the originator of the style - sparkling wine was invented here! As an American wine drinker, who’s market is bursting with cases and cases of fabulous high end champagne (in contrast to England, where cheap champagne lines the shelves of supermarkets nationwide) I can’t help but quote Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell: Aint nothin’ like the real thing, baby, aint nothin’ like the REAL THING!

Stay tuned for Why Champagne? Part Deux - Growers

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