Champagne is the perfect any-occasion wine, but most often Americas turn to champagne during the holidays.
True champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France, situated some 100 miles north of Paris. Romans first planted vines here.
Three grapes are allowed in true champagne: chardonnay and two red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier (mur-nee-yay).
Champagne made entirely from chardonnay is blanc de blanc – white wine from white grapes.
The opposite of blanc de blanc is blanc de noir – white wine from red grapes. The art of making white wines from red grapes was invented in Champagne.
True Champagne is labor-intensive. Champagne goes through two fermentations, the first in barrel, the second in bottle. The second fermentation creates the bubbles, leaving behind spent yeast and sediment to be removed before the wine is permanently capped.
These labor-intensive production steps, performed by hand, separate true champagne from mere sparkling wine.
Generally speaking, true champagne is more expensive than common sparkling wine because of production costs – but history, mystique and marketing also drive the price.
The history of the Champagne region predates Roman occupation by some 60 million years, when waters covering the area receded, leaving mineral-laden soils and chalk deposits that today contribute to champagne’s character.
The region has been the site of many conflicts and invading forces, from 80 B.C. to World War II. It started with the Romans, Vandals and Huns and ended with the Germans, who surrendered to Eisenhower in the Champagne city of Reims ending World War II.
In the 5th century, King Clovis, the first French king, was crowned in the Cathedral of Reims, establishing precedent for subsequent French kings to hold coronations at this site and partake of regional still wines. This is how champagne became known as the “wine of kings.”
Champagne did not bubble until the late 16th century. Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, is often credited with inventing champagne, but Mother Nature was the culprit.
For several centuries, the region was so bitterly cold that wines ceased fermenting when put down to age. As weather warmed, fermentation resumed, trapping carbon dioxide and creating bubbles. Pérignon spent his entire life trying to keep bubbles out of the wine.
All champagnes are blends, even the costly vintage ones. Owners decide, though not unanimously, when to declare a vintage as being exceptional. Bottles carrying vintage dates contain only blends from the declared exceptional year.
The most popular champagnes in America are non-vintage Brut-style wines. Style has to do with wine sweetness. Extra Brut is the driest style, with the least residual sugar. Brut is only slightly less dry, with a bit more sweetness. Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut but still dry. Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux are progressively sweeter.
Champagnes reaching America are from big producers like Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, and Piper Heidsieck. Though excellent wines, there are also hundreds of producers in the area whose wines rarely make it to our shore. This is unfortunate, because smaller champagne houses produce moderately priced, exceptional champagnes, consumed mostly by the French.
Try these locally available excellent champagnes from big producers:
Dom Pérignon 2002. A vintage prestige cuvee, the top wine of the Champagne house of Moët and Chandon. Ironically, named for the man who hated bubbles. $154 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs.
Veuve Clicquot Brut NV Yellow Label (which is actually orange). America’s most popular champagne. $47 range at both Tyson and the Wine Cellar on Quintard.
Moët and Chandon Nectar Imperial. Delicious. $42 range at both Tyson and the Wine Cellar.
Moët and Chandon Nectar Imperial Rose. Pretty pink bubbly, made predominately from pinot noir and pinot meunier. $61.50 at the Wine Cellar.