Bubbles For Summer

Champagne isn’t only for New Year’s Eve, weddings of people you love and funerals of people you didn’t.  Here’s a quote from Lily Bollinger of the famous producer family of the same name, which perfectly captures all the reasons you should drink it:

“I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”

You probably already know or at least have heard of the big “marques” –  Champagnes made in the millions of bottles annually, such as Veuve Cliquot, Moet & Chandon (and it’s pronounced “mwet,” not “mo-way”), Taittinger, Perrier-Jouet, Krug and Pol Roger.  Most of these are non-vintage; that is, they are a blend of wines, typically from many different vineyards across Champagne, and from two or more years.  Why?  Well, they’re designed to taste the same year over year, so that you always knows what you’re getting.  That’s not always true, but that’s the idea.  And this consistency, supported by sometimes pretty expensive marketing, is supposed to make you become exclusively a “Krug (or whatever) drinker.” But that’s up to you.

My view? Champagne can be great stuff for a Tuesday night when you’re feeling a little down, or just because, well, it’s Tuesday night!

To help you appreciate Champagne I could write a few pages on how it’s made, about its different styles and relative levels of sweetness, and how some brands are known for toast, others for spice, some for body and richness, and others for a kind of steely austerity.  I’ll do that in the future, but for now here’s a quick explanation of what’s in that bottle, and a short glossary that will help you makes sense of what’s on your wine retailer’s shelf.

The Grapes

Most Champagnes are made from three grapes-Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  Some are made from just one of each (there may be Champagnes made from just Pinot Meunier but I don’t know of any; many Champagnes are a mixture of juice from two or three. See the glossary below.)  However, it’s a little-known fact that there are actually 7 grapes permitted in Champagne: the three above, as well as Pinot Gris (sometimes called Fromenteau), Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane.  And there are a few Champagne makers who actually do use these grapes, but their bottles are mostly sold on the French domestic market as far as I can tell.

Why the Bubbles?

Let’s take a “white” Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay.  It starts out as ordinary “still” wine – the juice is squeezed from grapes and placed in a big vat, some yeast is added, and the yeast turns the grape sugars to alcohol – oh, and creates some carbon dioxide, which is ultimately allowed to escape.  That’s called the base wine.  If we bottle that up at the end of this process, we have…just plain Chardonnay.

But we don’t. Instead, we fill the bottles with that wine, but leave a little space in the neck.  Then we add a little solution of sweet, unfermented grape juice and a tiny bit more yeast.  The yeast goes to town on the sugar once again, but this time the bottle is capped, so the Carbon Dioxide can’t escape.  Those bottles sit around for awhile, and instead of being bored or watching Oprah, the yeast is busy interacting with the wine and making it more complex and interesting.

When the winemaker says it’s time, the yeast is collected in the neck of the bottle and shot out, leaving crystal clear wine with all that carbon dioxide dissolved into it.  The wine is now really, really, bone dry, so to take the edge off, a little more of that sweet grape juice is added back, and then it’s corked and that little wire cage is added to keep the good stuff secure inside.  Now it’s your daughter’s first birthday, and while she’s busy covering herself with cream frosting, you pop that cork and this lovely wine comes forth, with all those pent-up bubbles now freed in your glass.

What could be nicer?

Here’s your glossary. Have a great Autumn, and I really hope you’ll include some Champagne or other sparkling wines in it!  If you’re looking for a California wine, look no further than Schramsberg, in my view the best of some very good American sparkling wines.

Blanc de Blancs is white Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay.

Blancs de Noirs is white Champagne made from Pinot Noir and sometime Pinot Meunier grapes.  There’s little or no color from those red grapes, though, because the juice is gently pressed and then fermented with no skin contact.  Sometimes you’ll see a slight hint of gray or pink in these wines.

Champagne Effect is the heady, romantic feel you get when drinking this great stuff, and there’s a very scientific, non-romantic reason for it.

Grower Champagnes are wines made by typically very small houses, producers that bottle relatively tiny amounts, say, 2000 cases a year.  They grow their own grapes in vineyards that they own, and while they’re usually very high quality, you’ve probably never tasted or even heard of them.  Typically a bottle of Grower Champagne will have RM – “Recoltant-Manipulant” somewhere on the label, which roughly translated means “Grower-Winemaker.”

Methode Champenoise. A term that describes the way Champagne is made, which was generally applied in the past – and found on bottles of – sparkling wine made in places other than the Champagne region of France. The Champenois (people who live and work there) didn’t like anyone else using this term, either, so you’ll usually see “Methode Traditionelle” on the label of those bottles today.

Mono-cru Champagne means the wine was made from grapes pulled from a single, named vineyard.   Many grower Champagnes are also mono-cru.

Rose Champagne is a pinkish-colored sparking wine made in one of two ways – either some red wine, generally Pinot Noir is added to white Champagne, or less typically, the skins of some pressed Pinot Noir and/or Pino Meunier are left with the juice to extract just a bit of color and flavor.

Sparkling Wine is wine typically made in the style of Champagne, but not from grapes grown there.  Some producers such as California’s Korbel refer to their wine as Champagne but it can’t be, by definition.  And recent agreements that the US is part of will make it illegal for US producers to call their wine Champagne in the future.  So, for example, the house of Moet & Chandon produces Champagne in France, but its US operation produces “California Sparkling Wine” in Napa under the label Chandon.

Vintage Champagne means that the wine was made from grapes from one or more vineyards but from a single year’s harvest. Vintage Champagnes don’t happen every year, but only in years when the winemakers think the crop is excellent, and then the vintage is formally “declared.”