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Americans tend to treat Champagne, always spelled with a capital C, with undue respect, saving it for extra special occasions, whereas it is actually the ultimate beverage for all seasons. The French have a much more informal relationship with the drink. For them it is normal to have it with dinner.
There are tricks to buying, imbibing and storing this bubbly drink, and more Americans are becoming familiar with them. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve sees 40 percent sales of this beverage in the U.S.
France-based Piper-Heidsieck, in business from the late 1700s, is one of the top production houses. Cecile Bonnefond, CEO, points out that while Champagne is a sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Only the wine produced in the eponymous region in France has the right to be called by this name. The cool climate, sporadic sunshine, steady rain and unique soil enable the cultivation of this extraordinary wine.
Surprisingly, the region is challenging to grow grapes. The area is a dry ocean bed, and the white chalky soil, gives the grapes their minerality. It is also the reason why the terrain is so difficult. It is an extraordinarily complex wine to make and that reflects in its price tag.
Champagne is made only from chardonnay, pinot meunier or pinot noir grapes. It is produced in the traditional “methode champenoise” style, where it is fermented for a second time in the bottle when sealed closed, which produces the bubbles. Approximately 49 million bubbles live in a standard bottle. The bottles are aged in the cellar for a minimum of 15 months. A great vintage is identifiable by the size of the bubbles, the finer the bubbles the higher the quality.
There is a huge variety available worldwide. There are 358 brands on the U.S. market and over 500 worldwide, from 1500 growers. The label on every bottle identifies the origin of the grapes.
There is a right and a wrong way to handle, serve, drink and store Champagne, the ultimate beverage. It should not be drunk too cold. Most Americans chill their Champagne in a refrigerator or ice bucket to just over 35 degrees, whereas it should be consumed at 45 to 50 degrees. Warmer temperatures release better aromas, whereas chilling subdues them.
Contrary to belief, the cork should not be popped while opening a bottle. It ruins the taste and is likely to cause injury, as its velocity is about 40 mph, due to the pressure in the bottle, which is equal to the tire of a London double-decker bus. The foil has to be removed first, then the wire cage is twisted clockwise precisely six times to loosen it. The thumb should be placed on the cork, while the bottom of the bottle is rotated. The cork should pull out with a slight hiss.
Not all Champagne flutes or even coupes are suitable for serving. A white wine glass or specially designed Champagne glass is recommended as it allows the wine to breathe. Tulip-shaped wine glasses help to concentrate the aromas while allowing the bubbles to oxidize.
Champagne can be decanted prior to serving. The taste opens up the longer it stays decanted. The true essence can be tasted when it actually goes flat. The bubbles make it seem more dry and acidic than it actually is.
Unfinished bottles of wine can be sealed with a stopper or even left open overnight in the refrigerator. The more wine in the bottle, the less oxygen gets in to ruin the bubbles.
Champagne ages well, though it is not necessarily better simply because it is old. When it ages, it integrates better with its own layers. This gives a richness to its palate.
Champagne complete in itself. It is also the wine of choice for many with dinner, especially because different varieties can be paired with a range of dishes. Its rich flavor allows it to accompany a huge variety of foods, even snacks like gourmet popcorn. Champagne also goes well with savory, spicy foods such Asian cuisine.
Champagne truly is the ultimate beverage for all seasons due to its versatility, its variety and its special cachet. It should be brought out of the wine cellar and enjoyed more often and at all times of the year.
Opinion by Bina Joseph
Photo by Pug Girl – Flickr License