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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - December 29, 2004
Mark R. Vogel -     Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel


In the James Bond movie “Goldeneye”, 007 and the villainess are playfully racing down a scenic mountain roadway. Bond’s passenger is a young female coworker sent by M to evaluate him. Having no stomach for his perilous antics she orders him to stop his Aston Martin immediately. Bond complies and proceeds to seduce her, but not before opening a secret chilled compartment revealing a bottle of the 1988 Bollinger Grand Annee Champagne. An outstanding choice, and not just for romance.

     Another New Years Eve is upon us and countless people the world over will celebrate it with Champagne, or should I say sparkling wine? OK, let’s clear this one up right from the get-go.

     REAL Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France. Much like real Burgundy arises from the Burgundy region of France. All other effervescent wines, (even ones from France but not from Champagne), are called sparkling wines, (or Spumante in Italy or Sekt in Germany).  As I’ve professed ad nauseam before, French wines are named for the geographic location they hail from, not the grape. Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, etc., are all places.  This is important because certain locations, for a variety of biological reasons, are better suited for growing particular grapes, or at the very least, producing a unique style of wine that can not be cloned by vineyards elsewhere. Thus, Champagne refers to a specific type of sparkling wine that although imitated, cannot be exactly duplicated anywhere else on earth.  The same would be true of Argentinean beef, Prince Edward Island mussels, Florida oranges, or Italian San Marzano tomatoes.  So it’s not just a “French” thing for those of you poised with accusations of snobbery on the tips of your tongues. 

     But to take the distinction one step further, Champagne also refers to a precise method of making the wine, known as the “Methode Champenoise”, which with some exceptions, is only practiced in Champagne.  More on that in a moment.

     The chalky soiled Champagne region lies 90 miles northeast from Paris.  Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, both red grapes, and Chardonnay, a well known white, are the primary grapes grown.  The colder climate prevents the grapes from fully ripening.  This produces higher acid levels which is perfect for sparkling wines.  Champagne can be made from solely red grapes, known as blanc de noirs, solely white grapes, blanc de blancs, or more commonly, a mixture of both. With the exception of rosé, Champagnes appear white, even if made from red grapes.  The juice of grapes is clear. The color comes from their skins.  Limited contact with the skins during fermentation renders a whiter looking wine.  Rose Champagne is made by adding red still wine to the final blend or allowing greater contact between the juice and the skins.

     Dom Perignon, a 17th century monk and cellar master, is mistakenly credited with inventing Champagne.  Although famous for originating the practice of blending wines from different regions to improve flavor, historical evidence suggests that Champagne was actually invented in England in the 1600’s. The Methode Champenoise is rather complicated but in a nutshell, here’s the deal:  The grapes are pressed, fermented in stainless steel vats, and then put through a series of processes to clarify the wine. The wines are then blended to make the “cuvee”, the signature blend of a particular Champagne house. Although a few single vineyard Champagnes exist, most are blends from a number of vineyards. Sugar and yeast are added and a second fermentation occurs in the bottle, up to two years or more for better quality Champagnes.  The bottles are kept in special racks so the sediment and dead yeast cells collect at the neck. When the time arrives, the sediment is frozen.  Releasing the cork (known as degorgement), allows the internal pressure to expel the sediment. Wine and sugar are added and it is then re-corked and ready for sale. The amount of sugar added determines the dryness/sweetness of the Champagne.  From driest to sweetest are brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec, and doux. The last two are used as dessert wines.

     Regular wine is made only from the grapes of that year’s harvest, which is denoted on the bottle annually.  If a Champagne bottle touts a year, it is a vintage Champagne, which is only produced in exceptional years. Eighty percent of the grapes will come from that year’s harvest.  In average or below average years, the Champagne houses make their “non-vintage” champagne, which is a blend of champagnes from various years. High quality vintage Champagnes are at their best with eight to fifteen years of age. Even high quality non vintage Champagnes will improve for four to five years.  There is a big difference in quality as you ascend the Champagne price ladder.  Only a small percentage of Champagne’s vineyards produce top quality grapes and naturally, they are more expensive. The best producers rely on these premier vineyards.  Non vintage Champagnes from the best houses will run about $35-$45 while their vintage Champagnes will cost two to three times that. 

     While Champagne in general is named after the region of France, individual Champagnes are named after their producer.  Champagnes vary from light to full bodied.  For a lighter style I recommend Taittinger and Perrier-Jouet, for medium corporeality Moet & Chandon, and for a full bodied Champagne, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Louis Roederer, and James Bond’s and my personal favorite: Bollinger.

     Americans only equate Champagne with celebratory toasts but it is a very food friendly wine.  While Champagne with caviar or raw oysters are the classic and sublime combinations, it pairs exceedingly well with shellfish in general, sushi, foie gras, cheese, and chicken.  It even complements many Asian dishes. The sweet ones are great with strawberries and other fruit based desserts.  So break out the bubbly for hors d’oeuvres and dinner as well as ringing in the New Year. 

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