When you look at all the steps involved in the production of this wine, it’s a wonder that Champagne is ever produced. With all the variables involved, it’s an uphill struggle even in a good year. But the end result is always worth it. It makes any occasion better, adds an element of elegance and romance to even the simplest meal…why don’t we indulge in this simple pleasure more often? I guess my work is still cut out for me when it comes to helping to boost consumption in this category.30 years ago when I got into the business, 90% of champagne was consumed essentially from Xmas thru New Year’s weeks. Since that time, the time frame has expanded to include the Thanksgiving period all the way through to Valentines and Superbowl….must work harder…must sell more champagne!
The trilogy of holiday meals and the related parties during November and December give us that golden opportunity to try something different in the sparkling world or maybe try one for the first time. I’m the first to admit that it’s an acquired taste. And cost is certainly a factor, but not necessarily the only one. But with some basic information, and an awareness of the different styles, you too can achieve the bliss that is truly methode champenoise. The best descriptor I can share is the story of the legendary Benedictine monk Dom Perignon when he first sipped champagne. His response was “I am tasting the stars”. Now factor in the element that the good monk was blind, and you have a beautifully eloquent description.
Let’s start with the basics…all champagne is sparkling, but not all sparkling is champagne. This conundrum comes from the fact that the French are extremely proprietary about this appellation and the process, even with other areas in France. The Holy Grail for champagne lover is that specific district in France (appellation), just north of Paris that produces the best sparkling wine in the world. The actual method of making champagne (methode champenoise) is now used all over the world, but started here almost 500 years ago. The primary elements are the secondary fermentation in the bottle and the use of primarily 3 specific grapes. Other parts of France (and the world) produce their own versions (sometimes utilizing different grapes) that cannot legally be called champagne (hence the term sparkling, cremant, cava, or prosecco, etc), but are made in the traditional champagne manner. For the sake of simplicity, in the remainder of the article, I’ll use the term champagne in its generic sense. I hope this disclaimer keeps the French wine police at bay.
Champagne styles vary primarily in how the finished product is ranked in terms of sweet versus dry, and also the grape composition. The basic progression (from sweet to dry) is from demi-sec to extra-dry to brut. There are also some marketing terms like “riche”, “natural” ,”prosecco” ,”nectar”, and others that you will see on various labels…just ask your wine guy/gal for clarification. And a quick story on the origin of the term extra-dry, easily the most confusing term in the world of champagne. When the French started shipping this new style of wine in the 1600s to their #1 export market (England), the customers complained that it was too dry in style. The French, in their typical manner, created a new medium dry style that they christened Extra-dry…and the confusion continues to this day. The other aspect of style is the grape composition. Blanc de Blancs (white from white grapes) are made with 100% Chardonnay, while the Blanc de Noir (white from black) is produced from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Rose is increasingly popular and is beautiful in the flute. This style is generally off-dry, and is made by adding a small percentage of red wine to the final blend. Lastly, if there are no budget constraints, is the cuvee de prestige, or the very best champagnes they make….think the Belle Epoque or flower bottle from Perrier-Jouet…each producer has their own version.
Taking all this into account let your personal taste and budget dictate your purchases. And, as in almost every aspect of our lives, there are values to be found around the world. The value leaders are the sparkling wines of Spain, generally referred to as Cava’s. Some of the brands to look for are Paul Cheneau, Cordorniu, and of course the little black bottle…the Freixenet series. These are perfect for the first time champagne drinker or those who enjoy sparkling wines year round. A special bottle to look for from this producer is their cuvee de prestige designation… Segura Viudas. They also make this premium package in a magnum size (equivalent to two 750ml bottles) with a delicately shaped bottle with a pewter base. I love to share this on special occasions with a large group and have everyone sign the bottle with those special pens that write on glass (Moon Mippy in Boerne stocks these)The perfect accessory for the champagne lovers is the resealer or stopper made especially for these types of wines. The one we sell in the shop is simplicity itself (has only 3 moving parts) and retails for $4.99. This keeps the wine fresh for up to 10 days from my personal experience, and is perfect for saving those last glasses to enjoy for the weekend.
Australia has been experimenting for the last few years with their version, which is a sparkling Shiraz…beautiful red color in the flute and great flavors for those looking for something a little different. Chook sparkling Shiraz is one of the best that I’ve sampled lately, and there are more than a few producers to choose from. The other districts or appellations in France are starting to get some of their regional champagnes into the local market. Look for the designation Cremant from the Loire, Alsace, Burgundy, and other areas. The Bichot Brut Rose from Beaune in the Bourgogne appellation is a consistent seller year round. California offers some great values, both for their homegrown wineries, and for the Cal-European versions. Iron Horse is one of the oldest producers, and illustrates how diplomatic this winery is. When the owner Joy Sterling was invited to show her wines at an international wine trade show in Paris many years ago, she took great pains to describe her wines as California sparkling wine, rather than to describe them as champagnes as many of the other producers did. The result was that Joy became the “belle of the ball”, and today France is one of the best export markets for this family owned winery and sparkling producer!
The international collaborations make sense on so many levels. For France especially, the region is almost 100% planted to vine, whereas land is available to plant in California for a fraction of what it would cost back home. Combine the centuries of experience applied in the new world and you have a recipe for success. The house of Mumm was one of the early pioneers, and their Domaine Mumm series of sparkling offers French quality and tradition, with California pricing…generally half the price of their French counterparts.
Another producer to look for is Domaine Carneros by Taittinger. It’s certainly different to be tooling around the back roads of Carneros, crest a hill, and see a beautifully built replica of a French chateau there by the side of the road producing magnificent sparklings. My personal favorite is the Gloria Ferrer winery in Sonoma. This is done in partnership with the Freixenet group in Spain, and pays tribute to the modern patriarch of the family which goes back over 600 years…Gloria Ferrer. Great wines and sparklings at even better prices. Even Texas is in the hunt. Our good friend Kim McPherson (McPherson Cellars) is producing a very nice sparkling that is worth tracking down.
Last, but not least are the true French champagnes. Nothing really beats the original. All the big houses produce a very nice product, but the fun part is discovering the smaller, more boutique producers, and generally family run operations. Some of the better big names are Mumm, Perrier Jouet, Heidsieck, and Taittinger among others. Just remember the different styles and price levels and let your personal tastes and budgets determine the best fit. Some small producers I’ve tried recently are La Maison, J. Lassalle, and Veuve Fourny. They may be a little harder to find, but well worth the effort in terms of quality and price. A quick reminder that we are happy to special order any item any time for our customers.
And my holiday wish for all of you is to step back, take a deep breath, and enjoy what this holiday season is all about…family, friends, and celebrating all we have to be thankful for!