CHAMPAGNE - THE WORLD’S MOST CELEBRATED SPARKLING WINE
Pierre Lanson, whose family founded the Lanson Champagne House in Reims was dining in a famous Parisian restaurant when his host suggested he try Kir Royale (Champagne and crème de cassis liqueur) he responded , “No, thank you my friend . I would no more have crème de cassis in my champagne than I would have a slice of lemon in my fine red Bordeaux wine.“
The comment amounts to a reminder: A bottle of fine champagne is much more than something to shatter against the bow of a shiny new ship, or a suitable mix with orange juice. Champagne is likewise more than the world’s most popular sparkling wine. It is also a great wine, produced with as much expertise and finesse as the legendary wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire, and Rhone Valley.
Any wine connoisseur certainly judges the quality of a champagne from the driest ( brut sauvage ) to the sweetest ( doux ) and every degree in between. The centuries-old mystique begins with Dom Perignon, the cellarer and steward of the Benedictine Abbey near the village Haut Villiers in Champagne. During the early 17 hundred the monk is said to have been the first to perfect the in-bottle fermentation method that resulted in the crisp frothy wine which has grown to be a world wide symbol of refinement. Italian researchers claim to have found evidence that Roman winemakers successfully produced sparkling wines in bottles in the fourth century. Be that as it may, the French version sounds more credible since the Abbey still stands complete with the cellar, albeit only opened for media tours.
Since the good monk’s invention, millions of Christmas celebrations, New Year’s greetings, weddings, job promotions, and engagements were made memorable, and many an old person felt rejuvenated after imbibing the sparkles.
Champagne truly is an invention that has been promoted and marketed superbly bu producers.
Today many champagne houses are either owned by luxury-good conglomerates
(Louis Vuitton, Moet, Hennessy comes to mind), or they own other wineries. At any given year, there are 500 to 600 million bottles in Champagne cellars ready to be shipped. Of course, it ahs been a long time since Dom Perignon’s in-bottle fermentation has been mechanised. Today, bottling, labelling, riddling and disgorging are performed by sophisticated machines, but a visitor will never see these modern techniques in use.
Champagne houses still sell the romance and laborious production notion, but there are small producers who adhere to old methode champenoise techniques. Most Parisians like to buy their New Year’s champagne from their preferred, small, family-operated producer by driving the 140Km. from home.
Still, even today the winemakers of huge producers continue to make important concessions to tradition, as well as a lot of progress in creating superbly crafted wines that display finesse and elegance.
An enormous honey comb of more than 200 Km. of chalk pits lie below the soil of the trerrain known as Montagne de Reims . These crayeres, as they are called, are still, considered the perfect places to create champagne. Incidentally, Roman legionnaires were the first to dig cellars in Champagne, some as deep as 60 feet.
The vines are still pruned and harvesting is done manually by seasonal workers who come annually to perform the task. Mechanical harvesting was tried a few years ago, but quickly abandoned since experts concluded that machines damage and oxidize the fruit.
Once the juice is fermented and clarified, the winemaker along with the management decided the proportions of the blend called Cuvee. The cuvee is then bottled along with a little sugar and yeast to initiate the in-bottle second fermentation. During this stage the hundreds and thousands of bottles must be rotated in their racks. This remuage, as it is called, is still performed largely by hand in many champagne houses, but a number of large manufacturers employ automatic “ riddlers “ that accomplish the task much less expensively. Experienced “ riddlers “ can rotate up to three bottles a day. Considering the temperature in these cellars and the arduous nature of the task, this is an achievement.
Most of the better-known houses are located in Reims, Epernay aŮd Ay. Many offer extensive tours, and even regal you with a glass of their champagne, while the countryside provides beautiful vistas of vineyards, imposing manor houses that give you the impression of being in a wealthy region of the country, and the food in restaurants is always delicious. The hilltop restaurant overlooking the valley just outside of Epernay serves exquisite food, and practically all champagnes can be found on the wine list. If you ever happen to be in Paris you should make a point to visit Reims and see for yourself.
Famous champagne houses:
Moet et Chandon, Veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin, G.H. Mumm, Krug, Lanson, Deutz, De Venoge, De Castellane, Piper Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck, Nicolas Feuillatte, Mounier, Ayala, Roederer, Canard-Duchene, Menetou Salon, Abel Lepitre
All of the above produce a number of brands and bottle耠sizes ranging from 375 ml to 20 litres.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu