Wines

Popping the Cork on Champagne

Popping the Cork on Champagne
Image credit: Pixabay.com
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Champagne actually has a "Day." This year, it was October 23.

But really, everyday should be #ChampagneDay.

It’s refreshing and fun and goes with just about anything you are eating. It just makes people happy and, yes, there are bottles you can afford for every day.

But first…

The Basics

Champagne is a wine that comes from the Champagne region of France, which is in the Northeast part of the country. The grapes have to be grown there and the wine has to be produced according to the rules of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne. Period. End of story.

There are sparkling wines made all over the world but only Champagne is from Champagne. It is actually illegal in some areas outside France to even use the world "champagne" when referring to a sparkling wine. That’s why a sparkling wine from Northern Italy is called a prosecco, one from Spain is called a cava, and so on.

The primary grapes used in the production of Champagne are pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. And again – these grapes must be grown in the Champagne region.

The Bubbles

Champagne requires a second production step -- or fermentation – which is often why it’s often more expensive. But that second step is where the bubbles come from.

The first step is to make wine out of the grapes.

During the second step, yeast and sugar are added. “The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, and because of the pressure, carbon dioxide is created, providing a shower of bubbles,” says Cyril Brun, chef du cave of Champagne Charles Heidsieck.

Yay. A shower of fun.

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The (Sometimes Confusing) Label

Champagne can be a blend of grapes, multiple years or a single vintage.

Only single vintages will have a year on the label. That mean the Champagne was made 100 percent from the year indicated.  These are rare bottles though, and are generally only produced three or four times a decade when the weather conditions are perfect.

Most Champagnes are “cuvees” which means “blends” in French and you may find that on the label. 

You may also see “NV,” which means non-vintage, a.k.a. a blend of years. As an example, “every bottle of Charles Heidsieck Champagne contains 40 percent reserve wines, which have an average age of 10 years,” says Brun. So the years of the grapes are all different.

The label may also say “blanc de blanc” – which means white wine from white grapes, a.k.a chardonnay – or “blanc de noir,” white wine from black grapes, like pinot noir or pinot meunier.

It can also say “rose.” In this instance, they may have added a little of the darker grape skins to the process or just they just added a small amount of regular pinot noir wine to the base wine before the second fermentation.

Either way you, you get pink Champagne. My favorite.

And one more confusing French thing on the label. The amount of sugar – or level of sweetness  -- is denoted. Listed from least amount of sugar to most:

·      Extra brut – much less sugar
·      Brut
·      Extra dry – (actually sweeter than brut though the name is confusing)
·      Sec
·      Demi sec (sweetest)

I know.  It’s totally confusing. I remember it like this: Brut reminds of Brutus, and men typically don’t like sweet wine. Sec reminds me of sex …which, well, is sweet.

You can come up with your own mnemonic.

Suggestions for Everyday

Try the Kirkland Champagne, says Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, master of wine and partner at winering.com.

Yes, from Costco, and, yes, it's real Champagne, she says. “I was ready to turn my nose up at it and it's a great everyday Champagne and well-priced!” she says.

Other non-vintage Champagnes are also perfect for every day, says Elise Losfelt, winemaker at Moet & Chandon.

She suggests the Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut NV, which will run you around $40.

The Piper Heidsieck Brut, for about $36, is a great choice, too.

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Special Occasions

It’s easy to blow it out of the water with Champagne. They get expensive pretty quickly.

“The Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, about $55, is my go-to,” says Simonetti-Bryan. (We got to talk and taste together a while back. You can listen here.) 

Otherwise you have to go with a vintage year. Some great years: 1980, 1985, 1989, 1995 and 2002

How About Food?

Champagne and strawberries is a traditional pairing (not because Richard Gere ordered it in Pretty Woman, because the berries often heighten the fruity flavors of the wine).

And it is often drunk before a meal when it is used to cleanse your palate and prepare your taste buds for what’s to come. 

But there’s no need to stop drinking it when the food comes.

“Champagne offers a bit of complexity but not too much to overshadow a meal so it is easily paired alongside a variety of foods, from pastas, seafood and cheeses to eggs, popcorn and potato chips,” says Brun.

Pringles and Champagne? Now you’re talking.

“Champagne loves oily, salty and fatty foods as they bring out the wine's fruitiness and freshness. White pizza, mac & cheese, and lobster are exciting new pairings to try,” suggests Losfelt.

See, Champagne is your new friend.

Some Tips on Drinking and Storing

Drink Champagne out of a white wine glass, like the French do, not a Champagne flute. It lets the wine to open up better.

Don’t store it in the fridge unless you’re serving it in the next few days, says Losfelt. Store it in a place with consistent temperature and little light.

Champagne should be served around 50° F.

“If you are in a rush, the best way to chill your bottle is to fill an ice bucket with ice and one-third water which will chill your bottle in about 20 minutes,” she says

Finally, a Health Note

New research suggests that three glasses of Champagne a week can help to improve your memory. Not to mention studies have shown that champagne may help the brain cope with the trauma of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

It’s practically vitamins.

John Maynard Keynes said, “My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink enough Champagne.”

You owe it to Keynes to drink more Champagne so we at least remember what he said.

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