BLOG- Wine Tasting-Champagne
A primer Volume 3
By Leonard G. Logan, Jr.
This blog is a continuation of two previous blogs on wine tasting posted here.
A recap- The three essential and different steps to tasting wines, your evaluation of a wine’s appearance, smell and taste were previously discussed. We now proceed to particular varietals.
Technically a sparkling wine produced in areas other than the French region of Champagne, even those produced by the méthode champenoise (The traditional method of making sparkling wine developed in France’s Champagne Region, a region of France located northeast of Paris.), should be called sparkling wine and not Champagne. True Champagne comes from the Champagne province of France, a region that produces grapes in a shorter season with a higher acidity than other regions. Acidity gives Champagne its incredible freshness and contributes to its longevity.
Champagne bubbles and premier sparkling wines are the result of secondary fermentation in the bottle occurring when a small amount of yeast, with a combination of sugar and wine, is added to the initial still wine. The yeasts eat the sugar forming more alcohol and discharging carbon dioxide gas which is trapped in the bottle.
The bottles rest in cellars for at least a year but cannot be released because the sediment from spent yeast makes the wine cloudy and gritty. To remove the sediment the bottles are placed in A-frames called pupitres where professionals called rémueurs or riddlers slightly turn and upend the bottles a fraction. When the bottles eventually are moved to an upside down position all of the yeast will collect in the bottle’s neck.
The neck is placed in a brine solution which freezes the contents of the bottle neck. When the bottle is quickly turned upright and un-capped the frozen plug of yeast shoots out – a process called dégorgement. A liquid of wine and sugar is added to fill the missing plug space in the neck intended to bring the sugar level up to the desired level. Most other sparkling wines are made in tanks and later transferred to bottles.
There is a reason Champagne and premium sparkling made by the Méthode Champenoise is more expensive. It takes many years to make Champagne or a premium sparkling and only a few months to make a low cost sparkling.
There are “famous” luxury Champagnes such as Salon, Bollinger Grand Anne, Dom Perignon, Cristal, Veuve Cliquot Grand Dame, Krug and vintage Champagnes produced during premier years. While these luxury and vintage Champagnes are exceptional and would be an excellent selection for a really important dinner, I wouldn’t recommend them for a reception or large dinner- unless you have recently won the lottery and want to impress the peasants.
The choice instead should be a non-vintage Champagne or a sparkling wine made by the Méthode Champenoise process. Non-Vintage Champagnes are more typical of the house style than vintage Champagnes and are much less expensive.
Over 75 percent of all French Champagne is non-vintage. The choices are great with some exceptional wines available.
Champagnes are identified by their degree of sweetness. Extra Brut is the driest followed by Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux, from drier to sweeter. I always recommend a medium bodied Brut which usually is liked by most people. If all your guests like sweet wines such as white zinfandel buy the cheap sparkling and provide guests with plenty of aspirins.
The most common Champagnes are made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Small productions of Blanc de Blancs Champagnes made entirely from Chardonnay are produced by a few houses. The best are produced by Tattinger, Krug and Salon (who invented the process.) Salon’s Le Mesnil and Krug’s Clos du Mesnil are considered the most extraordinary of all Champagnes and should be tried at least once in every Champagne aficionado’s lifetime. Rosé Champagnes are considered by wine writers as the crème de la crème of all Champagnes. Very rare, comprising only about 3% of all exports, Rosé is made by either allowing the wine to come in contact with the pinot noir red skins or adding a small amount of pinot noir prior to secondary fermentation. These wines are rich and full-bodied.
There are excellent non-vintage Champagnes at reasonable prices and hosts should seek them out and resist the temptation of serving a cheap sparkling wine. There is no other way to let your guests know that they are important than to serve Champagne.
Less than ten percent of sparkling wines in the United States are made by the Méthode Champenoise process. A few sparkling wines we recommend are Iron Horse 1998 Russian River Cuvee Brut Sparkling, Argyle 1996 Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Knudsen Vineyard, Schramsberg 1998 Blanc de Blanc, 1997 Blanc de Noir, 1995 Brut Reserve, and an incomparable 1996 J. Schram.
Elizabeth’s offers over 60 different Champagnes – come try a bottle or glass on the porch or in the garden or join us for dinner where we begin our wine dinners with Perrier-Jouet Champagne.
© Leonard G. Logan, Jr.