Food & Drink

Champagne & Sparkling Wine

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Chalk Cave in Champagne
Chalk Cave in Champagne

Although for many of my friends there is never a reason needed, nothing at this end of the year holiday season seems more festive than champagne, at least in the alcoholic beverage realm. Oh yes, there’s eggnog, but how much of that can you really drink without feeling sated, and, besides, it’s terrible with smoked salmon or foie gras. Whereas a good bottle of champagne can see you right through an entire celebratory feast.

Contributing to the reputation, romance and fun of champagne is all the history and lore surrounding it. Consider this bit of folderol. Evidently it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 19th century that England, the largest importer of champagne at the time, gave up its penchant for sweet champagne and began drinking it dry. A diehard hanger-on to the old tradition, anxious to launch a scathing remark, would scoff at the more stylish with the observation, “He’s a man who would say he likes dry champagne.”

You may go ahead and think of me as foppish as I recall a moment not too many holidays ago when a friend arrived at a pre-Christmas party delightedly bearing a platter of fresh Wellfleet oysters and two bottles of champagne. My heart sank as I caught a glimpse of the label. What I feared was then confirmed by the first sip. It was not a dry champagne. So here is my first bit of advice: unless you truly enjoy some sweetness with your oysters, don’t grab the “extra-dry” out of the cooler. Remember that “brut” is the designation for a dry champagne.

Another choice you have to make is whether you’d just as soon have one of the many sparkling wines that are alternatives to champagne. There are many good ones at a range of prices and some recommendations will follow. But there truly is nothing quite like the real thing. What is it that makes champagne so unique?

The first thing is the thick layer of chalk, up to as much as 650 feet, underlying the thin layer of topsoil on which the grapes are grown and which plays a significant part indeterming their quality. This is the same chalk out of which are carved the extensive cellars that most champagne firms use for storing their stocks in an appropriately cool temperature. And what is meant by extensive? Well, at Mercier’s headquarters they use a small electric train to negotiate their 18 kilometres of cellars. Moet & Chandon’s stretch for 28.

In the Champagne region, everything is done according to the strictest regulations. The vineyards themselves are rated, the highest constituting the grands crus, the next level the premiers crus. Each year the price of the grapes is determined by a governing board, and this is what the growers receive based on the rating of their vineyards. The regulated process continues. The amount of yield from the vineyards is set every year, and then the amount of juice that can be produced with each pressing.

Champagnes are a blend of still wines from three grape varieties, chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, and from a number of vintages (thus the importance of good storage conditions). These are carefully “assembled” by an experienced cellarmaster. The wine eventually goes through a secondary fermentation in those necessarily very heavy bottles. It is these sorts of labor intensive steps that justify the price tag of a true champagne

The champagne producers themselves so jealously guard their reputation that they even brought a lawsuit against that icon of French fashion, Yves St. Laurent, enjoining him from naming his latest perfume “Champagne.”

Some of us have attachments to a particular Champagne for any of a variety of reasons. You may have had a particular bottle on an especially happy anniversary. An American friend of mine who lives in Paris always buys Louis Roederer because she finds the quality consistent. Besides the fact that it’s good, I like buying Pol Roger because it was Winston Churchill’s favorite.

It’s also good to discover something new (to you, that is). Earlier this year I had Ayala Champagne for the first time, which I found to be aromatic and graceful, something I will surely drink again. On the other hand, about a year ago I was served Mumm Cordon Rouge, which I used to think of as an old standby but hadn’t had for years, and was delightedly reminded of how good it is.

Bollinger, with its long history of one-family control, ownership of a high percentage of the vineyards that supply its grapes (many houses buy the major portion of their grapes from growers) and a high proportion of pinot noir in their blend, which gives a fuller-bodied wine, is another favorite of mine. Besides, James Bond drinks it. In the lighter-bodied range of the spectrum, Perrier-Jouet is a pleasing choice.

Most of these Champagnes in their non-vintage bottling will cost about $40 at this time of year. Vintage Champagnes, produced only in years considered to be good enough, will cost more. At the top are the “tetes de cuvees” such as Roederer’s Cristal and Moet’s Dom Perignon, which I recently saw for $129.

However, if you’re giving a large, informal party, like drinking bubbly everyday, or just can’t justify the expense of Champagne no matter what the occasion, take heart. There are lots of happy alternatives.

Among the best, lowest priced French sparklers is Brut d’Argent which I’ve been served at several benefits in the last couple of years, but never seem to find in a store. I did just see it on a price list at a store in the Boston area for $8.

Spanish Cavas can be very good choices. For whatever reason, year after year, though I also drink others, I find myself going back to Segura Viudas (about $9).

The sparkler indigenous to Italy is Prosecco, which is also the name of the grape they are made from. Coming from the area around Venice, the Veneto, it’s the absolute requirement for the Bellini, the legendary cocktail from Harry’s Bar. But it’s quite fine all on it’s own, thank you. This year my favorite is Zardetto, with an aroma and taste that show notes of asian pear and hazelnut accompanied by a concise focus (about $15).

Not to be overlooked are some great finds from the southern hemisphere. De Bortoli (about $8) and Jacob’s Creek (about $12) are made from grape varieties used in Champagne, the latter pinot noir and chardonnay, the former just chardonnay, and perhaps this is one reason they’re so good. The same is the case for Graham Beck from South Africa (about $17).

If I had to pick one sparkling wine from the U.S., I think it would be one from Schramsberg in Napa Valley. They produce an array of sparklers, the Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and Rose all sell for about $40 a bottle.

California, though, is not the only state to turn to. New Mexico has a winery, Gruet, founded by a French family that makes wonderful sparkling wines (about $13). And here in Massachusetts, we should be proud to have Westport Rivers whose Brut sells for about $23.

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