Champagne: Not just any bubbly

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By Ron Drinkhouse

“The night they invented Champagne ... they thought of you and me. ... No woman or a man has ever been as happy as we are tonight.” — From 1958’s “Gigi,” starring Leslie Caron.

However, for your information, all that bubbles is not Champagne. Effervescent wines are made all over the world, but authentic Champagnes, spelled with a capital “C,” come only from a designated area 90 miles northeast of Paris. It is France’s nethermost wine-growing region, consisting of some 75,000 acres cultivating three principal grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and meunier.

So Ron, if the rest of those sparkling wines are not made in France, what are they called? Dear reader, you answered your own question: They are “sparkling wines.” The delightful tiny bubbles are the result of a second fermentation that takes place within the bottle.

Remember the simple formula for making wine: yeast + sugar = carbon dioxide and alcohol. Anecdotal history relates how a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon discovered quite by accident the secret of making still wine sparkle, and is reputed to have exclaimed at the moment of tasting, “I think I am drinking stars.”

The way winemakers get the wine to fizz begins with a process called “riddling.” The bottles of still wines are put into a framework and ever-so-slowly turned while positioned upside down. This allows the suspended yeasts to accumulate at the bottom of the thick glass containers. Riddling can be done by hand, but today most Champagne makers use machines.

At long last, when the accumulated yeasts (“lees”) have finally settled, the bottles are dipped into a freezing brine solution — a process called “disgorging.” The bottle is then quickly held upright, blowing out the remaining plug of solids. Immediately it is topped off with a mixture of more wine and sugar, capped with an expanding cork, and caged with a bit of wire to prevent explosions. The amount of sugar added to this final mixture (the “dosage”) will determine the level of sweetness of the Champagne or sparkling wine.

After all this effort, Champagnes are classified by the degree of sweetness (residual sugar) starting with the driest, brut, on to extra-dry (actually a tad sweeter.) There are sweeter Champagnes, but we don’t see them here. A small percentage of Champagnes today are labeled “sauvage” or ultra-brut, all of which are bone dry. Zero sugar is added. When I can find them, they are my preference — clean, crisp and enjoyable.

The orthodox technique of making Champagne or sparkling wine is called “Methode Champenoise,” even for those fizzy wines made in the United States. It is a laborious process, and one of the reasons the stuff is so expensive. There are other ways to make wine sparkle, but they do not concern us here.

Champagne is not simply one wine, but actually comes in a range of flavors, from light (Lanson), light to medium (Taittenger), medium (Piper-Heidsick), medium to full (Veuve-Cliquot) and full (Louis Roederer).

All of these will run from about $25 to $50, and are NV or non-vintage. Vintage Champagne with the harvest date listed on the label will average about $50 and up, and I have never found them to be worth the extra price. Finally, there is the top-seeded premium or “prestige cuvée,” such as Krug, Dom Pérignon, and Cristal, which run into hundreds of dollars.

I mentioned above that Champagne is made using three types of grapes, and 90 percent are this sort. “Blanc de blancs” Champaign is made entirely from white Chardonnay grapes. “Blanc de noir” is created from red grapes such as pinot noir (remember, the juice is a neutral color), and finally we move on to find the aristocratic rosés, considered by connoisseurs to be the “crème de la crème,” fashioned from blends of red and white grapes employing the skins to provide color and added flavor.

All this said, if you do not have a craving for the real McCoy, there is first-rate sparkling wine from California — dozens of them, in fact — and well as cava from Spain, and Italian spumante. Just ask the wine consultants to help. These good folks are happy to assist.

Bev and I wish a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to you and yours. Bottoms up!

Oak Ridge resident Ron Drinkhouse was a buyer and seller of wines in his native Connecticut. He welcomes inquiries, and can be reached via email at ronoct9@aol.com or via telephone at 352-445-0328.