The world drinks about one and a half billion bottles of `champagne’ a year. Some of it is sublime, some of it is foul, most of it is utterly indifferent. From Khazakstan to Kansas City, Champagne is emblematic of everything that’s good in life.
But what is Champagne? Traditionally, Champagne is a wine produced only in the Champagne region of France. All other ‘champagnes,’ be they from the Loire region of France, Spain or California are, alas, imposters. Claude Taittinger president of the Grandes Marques (a group of about 30 major firms), as well as head of the venerable firm of Taittinger -told me that other sparkling wines “may be fine products, but they are not Champagne. You would never call bordeaux, burgundy. So why should they call their wines Champagne? We are a distinct product. Perhaps one day, they will be proud enough to have their own names.”
Wherever generic champagne is made (most of the best non-French fizz comes from Spain or California), the methods, attitudes of the makers, and the taste of the wine all aspire to the French model. Even though most of the world’s sparkling wine is made by variations on the bulk method-in which the bubble-producing second fermentation of the wine takes place in huge tanks-all of the best sparkling wine is made by the “Methode Champenoise”: the slow, expensive, time-honored and vastly superior system in which the Champagne is born in the bottle.
Tucked into the Northeast corner of France, the provence of Champagne is the spiritual home of all sparkling wines. Reims, the ancient cathedral city and capital of Champagne, was the coronation site of all French kings from 814 to 1774. This succession of royal events helped to give the early non-sparkling wines of the region a certain cachet.
The Champagne that we know and drink today was developed in the seventeenth century. By whom remains unknown, but there’s little doubt that Pierre Dom Perignon, the blind cellar-master of the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, was a key figure in the technical development of sparkling wine.
By the early eighteenth century, Champagne was one of the preferred drinks of royals and aristocrats in France and England. Those years saw the establishment of many of the most famous Champagne houses: Ruinart, Moet, Taittinger, and Heidsieck. (The reason, by the way, that so many Champagne houses have German names, is partially due to Champagne’s proximity to the Rhineland and to German skill in the science of fermentation.) By the Victorian era, Champagne was an international business with huge consignments being shipped to Russia and the United States. It was the dawn of international competition, too: the first Spanish Champagne was produced in the 1870s. Today, Champagne-type wines are produced in every wine-making country in the world.
WHEN TO DRINK CHAMPAGNE
In spite of its luxurious associations, Champagne is one of the most democratic drinks in the world, a mainstay at all celebrations. For those who can afford it more often, Champagne is one of the most versatile wines made. It makes a splendid aperitif; less palate numbing and appetite deadening than whiskey and soda, for example. It goes well with most first courses and if carefully chosen (that is, balancing the heaviness of the champagne against the heaviness of the food), can be served throughout lunch or dinner. Various Champagne cocktails have gained in popularity over the last few years and although it would be folly to use one of the best Champagnes when making them, you might like to try Champagne with orange juice and a dash of grenadine (Buck’s fizz), with Guinness (Black Velvet), blenderized peaches (Bellini) or creme de cassis (Kir royale).
HOW TO DRINK CHAMPAGNE
There is a lot of nonsense talked about the proper temperature for serving Champagne: six degrees to eight degrees centigrade is the ideal temperature, and this can be produced by thirty minutes in an ice bucket or several hours in the refrigerator. Don’t over-chill a fine Champagne as the cold will deaden the flavor, but on a hot day you might want your Champagne to be just a little colder. Avoid using the freezer as a rapid chiller: extreme cold isn’t good for the wine and forgotten bottles tend to explode.
To open a bottle of Champagne, hold the bottle firmly at a fairly steep angle with one hand, and twist the cork counterclockwise with the other. Keep a firm grip on the cork, and let the bottle open with the gentlest possible pop. Forget everything you’ve seen in MGM musicals and do not serve Champagne in shallow saucers-they dissipate the bubbles and the bouquet. The tall, thin Champagne flute is an excellent glass, although, in Champagne, they often drink from large tulip-shaped glasses. Traditionally, a bottle of champagne will do for a gentleman and a lady, and a magnum for two gentlemen.
Most Champagne houses produce non-vintage, vintage and cuvee de prestige wines in ascending order of price. A non-vintage wine from a celebrated house may be a better value and a better wine than a vintage wine from a lesser establishment. In theory, the cuvee de prestige wines are the ultimate product of Champagne-the best wines from the best vintages in the most luxurious bottles. You will also sometimes see Blanc de blancs (Champagne made only from white grapes-most Champagne is made from white and black grapes). Sweet Champagne is no longer fashionable, so most of what you drink will probably be brut-that is, containing the mimimum amount of sugar. Champagne comes in a thousand styles: pale, thin, voluptuous, golden, modern, old-fashioned and so on. You must choose the style which suits you best. And don’t be a label snob: some little-known firms turn out excellent wines.
Bollinger N.V. Special Cuvee
“Bolly” is the preferred Champagne of the English upper class, consumed in immense quantities at Henley, Ascot and Glyndebourne. It has a strong, clean flavor, a big nose and a seductive gold hue. A top-notch aperitif wine and one of the best non-vintage Champagnes on the market.
Dom Perignon 1981
This cuvee de prestige produced by Moet Chandon must be the most famous wine in the world. Introduced first in the U.S. in 1936 and then in France in 1949, it was the first deluxe Champagne produced, and has, ever since, remained the hallmark of luxurious drinking. DP (it is one of the few Champagnes to have a nickname), is a big, powerful, complicated wine. Although it is often ordered as a status symbol, this Champagne has one of the world’s most remarkable and distinctive flavors. Less extravagant tastes are well catered to by the considerably less expensive-and alas less interesting-Moet N.V. Premier Cuvee Brut.
Krug Grande Cuvee Brut
Some people find Krug almost too grand a drink-it is, I suppose, the noblest Champagne: old-fashioned, full-flavored and just a touch austere. It tends to be a very big, rather commanding wine which demands respect.
Laurent Perrier N.V. rose Brut
Along with Piper Heidsieck, Moet & Chandon and soon, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier in a joint venture with Almaden, makes wine in California; but its star products remain traditional ‘Champagnes.’ This lively, stylish rose is surprisingly cheap and utterly reliable-it’s one of the best celebratory wines on the market.
Louis Roederer Cristal 1981
This is like drinking history. Cristal was first blended for Czar Alexander II in 1876 as a sweet wine and put into its now-famous clear bottle. The label still bears the Russian imperial coat of arms, but today’s Cristal is a dry wine. Nonetheless its richness and honeyed bouquet neatly conjure up autocratic times past.
Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne
This cuvee de prestige wine comes bottled in an art-nouveau extravaganza designed by the master glassmaker Emile Galle in 1902. It is to my taste, one of the most elegant and drinkable Champagnes made. It has a light bouquet, a pale gold color and a subtle carbonation that are all reminiscent of the wit and glamour of the Belle Epoque. A very refreshing wine with that lightly biscuity taste of the great Champagnes of France.
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Sauvage 1979
The profusion of Heidsieck labels-Piper-Hiedsieck, Charles Heidsieck, Heidsieck Monopole confuses many buyers: The three companies are historically related but completely separate and independent. This wine is one of the few Champagnes on the market made without any added sugar. (Most Champagnes have at least a remaining process.)
As you would expect, this is an extremely dry and modern-tasting Champagne with a strong biscuity nose, pale golden color and very light carbonation.
Schramsberg Blanc de Noir 1981
This California champagne (made from black grapes), is the state of the art American sparkling wine often described as the Krug of California. It has a powerful flavor with perhaps a slight inclination towards brashness and a lovely hint of pink in the color. Schramsberg Champagne is admired in France and often served at the White House.
Taittinger Comte de Champagne Rose 1976
Most Champagne drinkers rank Comte de Champagne as the apotheosis of Champagne-it is indeed one of the most remarkable products of the chardonnay grape, but I slightly prefer the rose made entirely from pinot noir grapes. With its wonderfully complex bouquet, ravishing pale-pink color and tremendous suavity, it is as close to being the best Champagne in the world as anything can be. President Mitterand agrees: they drank 800 bottles of it at the Elysee Palace on Bastille Day.