CHAMPAGNE: Ten Questions, Some Answers
by Chad Arnold
Unless you've been there, you might not imagine that a landscape so seemingly desolate and dark would produce such a sunny and celebratory wine. But it does. The above 73 words only scratch the surface of the requisite 1000 said to be available for every picture.
Let's tackle a few important questions that make the whole project of buying and serving and drinking Champagne much easier.
1. "What is Champagne?"
"Champagne is, supremely, an idea." Says John Arlott. If this is so, then Champagne is many things. Where to begin? Champagne is first and foremost WINE - that is, fermented grape juice that makes every meal and social occasion at least a little better. It is wine made from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. It is also a bubbly beverage that undergoes a secondary fermentation during which natural carbon dioxide gas gets trapped in the bottle. It pops when you open it. It might also be the emblem of a celebration, social contract, or ocean liner launching - but not always (see #5 below).
2. "Where is Champagne?"
The region of Champagne is about 90 miles northeast of Paris. All that sparkles is not Champagne. Of course many wines with bubbles are scrumptious, but if they don't come from the region of Champagne, then we call them Sparkling Wine. Champagne is further divided into five primary growing areas:
*(1) The Montagne de Reims (the mountain of Reims), which is planted primarily with the two black (red) grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Besides Reims, you'll hear the names of villages like Verzenay, Ambonnay, and Bouzy (yes, really).
*(2) The Côte des Blancs, which is planted, as you might expect, with Chardonnay. Important villages include Épernay, Avize, and le-Mesnil-sur-Oger.
*(3) The Vallée de la Marne (the valley of the Marne river), which is planted mostly with Pinot Meunier.
(4) The Côtes de Sézanne - also planted with Chardonnay.
(5) The Aube, way farther south, which is planted with Pinot Noir.
Here we will concern ourselves primarily with the first three regions(*). Furthermore, the first two share all seventeen villages whose Champagne winegrowing is traditionally of the highest quality. But what does this mean? This question leads nicely into question #3.
3. "How do the Champenois differentiate which wines are good from those that are better?"
Here's the short version:
There are nearly two hundred grape-growing villages in Champagne, and of this rather large pool emerge 17 classed as grands crus and another 38 classed as premiers crus. The distinction is crucial: Only the grands crus receive 100 per cent of the price for grapes that's agreed on annually by the merchants and growers. The premiers crus receive between 90 and 99 percent, while the others receive between 80 and 89 per cent.
The key here is to understand that it is the villages that are classed - not specific vineyards (as is the case in, for example, Burgundy).
(There are of course specific vineyards that are recognized as being particularly special. The great walled vineyard of Le Mesnil is the best example.)
Most of the vineyards of Champagne are not owned by the approximately 110 Champagne houses, but by the 15,000 or so growers who have contracts with those houses. About 5,000 of these growers keep some of their grapes to make their own champagne. It is these growers and these wines that we are most interested in - bubbly we affectionately refer to as Farmer Fizz. Fortunately these champagnes are now more available in the United States, and they are among the very best wines to come from the region.
Ultimately, of course, you should drink what I recommend, Oh, I mean: Drink what you like. It is always the best policy to trust your own taste - not some numerical equivalence rendered by some unknown-quantity-of-a-critic.
4. "How dry is that champagne?"
The following chart gives the specific ranges of sugar levels for the terms you will find on the labels. Keep in mind that the ordinary (is that possible?) human being can reasonably be expected to notice some residual sugar when the level is around 1.5%
EXTRA BRUT: Very, very, very, dry. 0-0.6% sugar
BRUT: Very dry. Less than 1.5 % sugar
EXTRA DRY: Off-dry. 1.2-2.0% sugar
SEC: Lightly sweet. 1.7-3.5% sugar
DEMI-SEC: Sweet. 3.3-5.0% sugar
DOUX: Very sweet. More than 5% sugar
5. "When is a good time to serve Champagne?"
Duh. This is an easy one.
Champagne is, as I said above, wine first, and as wine, it should be drunk at any time.
Champagne is not in any way limited to a special occasion. What is a special occasion? Really, I want to know. Wouldn't Monday be better if you had a bottle of Selosse to accompany, well, whatever it is you are having for lunch or dinner? Duh, again. This proposition is predicated on the assumption that you like to drink wine with bubbles.
However ... a few practical applications. Serve Champagne before a meal. A crisp non-vintage ("NV") brut is a terrific palate awakener. Rich vintage champagnes go well with scallops, lobster, and monkfish. Older bottles are best served alone, so that their delicate graceful flavors are appreciated.
6. "Is Rosé Champagne wussy?"
No way, dude. Rosé is the way. It is not only beautiful in the glass, but OH the strawberries and the dirt, the zip and the bread-th. It is all that. Try the NV Billecart-Salmon at $53.00 - it is worth every penny. Year in, year out this is one of the very best rosés. On the palate, terrific persistence and drive provide a spiral of taut strawberry notes with earthy accents all revolving harmoniously around a solid core of firm acids. A splendidly rich mid-palate suggests and then delivers and long, long finish.
7. "How do I store Champagne?"
Another good question.
Champagne is rather delicate, though some bottlings would lead you to believe otherwise.
So. A cool, dark, damp environment. No vibrations, no fluctuations in temperature, and no foul language.
8. "Will Champagnes age?"
Yup. Some can age for 40 years or more. I've had 'em and I've loved 'em. Champagne changes quite a bit when it ages, perhaps more than still wines. For this reason it is best to try an aged one before investing in a case of wine to age. The 1996 vintage wines should age effortlessly for many years. Same with the 88's and the 90's.
9. "How do I open a bottle of Champagne?"
Carefully. Have the bottle well chilled before opening. Take off the foil capsule and unwind the wire basket, all the while keeping one finger on the cork itself (sometimes they pop off prematurely). Now tilt the bottle to 45 degrees and twist the cork with one hand, while holding both the top of the bottle and the cork. Pop. No spills. No ricocheting projectiles. Good times.
10. "How many bubbles are in a bottle of Champagne?"
56 million. No kidding. Damn project took near two days 'fore I finished.
Not that you asked but...
Here is a short list of my very favorite Champagnes. BuBBles at their Best.
Krug. Big, rich extracted flavors that are knit with apple lines that propel that palate forward on a lavish wash of fine acid. Really, the very best. (For the non-vintage: $67.50 in half bottles, $130 in regular bottles, and $205 in magnums.) This is it. Words may not due. We have a few bottles of the unreal (though they exist) vintage wines from this great house. Inquire.
Billiot. Again a big, rich style from Ambonnay and made with primarily Pinot Noir. These wines from Henri Billiot are supremely seductive. These wines nearly always fool me. The non-vintage is like a hot air balloon. I am happily taken in with the flying colors, but the fact that they are flying begs deeper inspection. What makes them fly? How does he do it? Here, then, is the meeting of art and science, and you get to drink it. The creamy forwardness of color hides the steel ribs of acid that support them. Certainly one of the best non-vintage Bruts available. ($36 for the non-vintage.)
Fleury. Another big, wonderful wine. Okay, you get a sense of my taste. But all of these wines have specific ZIP and impeccable balance. This incredible estate is now 100% biodynamic (that's like organic on steroids - organic steroids, of course). Try the Fleur de l'Europe if you want perfection with a bubbly blast. This is room-filling elegance. Saffron and butter, warm bread resting on cool stone, 10:00 a.m. ($43, for the Fleur de l'Europe.)
Agrapart. Easily the best deal in French Champagne. No question. And it's 100% grand cru. Dig that. This is party Champagne you can afford to serve to a pile of folks. The best thing about this wine is that it is essentially a drinking Champagne. This is the wine you open on Tuesday because every day is special. Every glass invites you back for another. This is a good thing. An absolutely superlative food wine, the ultra-fine balance accommodates a wide variety of flavors. A must try! ($25, for the non-vintage.)
Salon. Okay if you have never had an AMAZING Champagne, then you really must try at least ONE bottle. What to say? 100% Chardonnay from Le Mesnil. We have a few bottles of the 1985, the 1988, and the 1990. Not cheap, but sometimes expensive is worth it, and this is one of those times.
More Fun with Bubbles
by Mark Middlebrook
"Prosecco" is the name of a grape and a sparkling wine made from that grape in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. It's my second favorite sparkling wine after Champagne. Prosecco is a little fruitier, a little more rustic, and a good deal cheaper than Champagne. Good Proseccos - or "Prosecchi" for you Italian pedants - are Extra Dry (i.e., not quite as dry as Brut - see Chad's Champagne article) and exude a beguiling aroma of pears. We stock three kinds: Sorelle Bronca ($11.99), Ruggieri regular ($12.99), and Ruggieri 'Giustino B' ($17).
Crémant de Limoux
"Crémant" is wine made by the same method as Champagne (i.e., the secondary fermentation, which is what develops the bubbles, occurs in the bottle), but outside the Champagne region. "Limoux" is a town in south-central France, not far from the Pyrenees. "Crémant de Limoux" is sparkling white wine that bubbles like Champagne and tastes similar to Champagne, but costs less than Champagne. We've got two from Laurens: non-vintage ($11.99) and 1998 Brut ($16).
California sparkling wine
Handley Cellars Vintage Brut, 1997 ($20). Handley, in the cool-climate Anderson Valley, makes some of our favorite California wines. Handley is celebrating their 20th anniversary with a special price on their 1997 vintage Brut - it's normally $28. It's delicious and it also happens to be a real deal, so let's all celebrate with them.
More Grower-Producer Champagne (a.k.a., Farmer Fizz)
Pierre Peters 'Cuvée de Réserve' Brut, NV (Blanc de Blancs) ($32). John and I have dubbed this wine "Krug for when you're on a budget". It's all grand cru fruit from le-Mesnil-sur-Oger, all grown and made into splendid wine by François Peters (i.e., Peters fils) himself. When I serve this Champagne at home, it always impresses the Champagne neophytes and aficionados alike. There's a generous but elegant fruitiness for the masses and crisp, minerally firmness for those of us who want that racy snap. This wine is an astonishing bargain.
L. Aubry Fils. If you like your Champagnes sports-car-racy, then the Aubry twins, Pierre & Philippe, make the wines for you. Aubry Champagnes are lean and chiseled - we sometimes describe them as "almost austere" in order to warn off people who want a bigger, richer style. That's not to say that Aubry's wines lack anything in flavor intensity. It's just that they purr rather than roar. These are staff favorites - every time we open a bottle of Aubry or taste the wines at trade events, eyebrows raise and approving nods are exchanged. We have the Brut NV and Brut Rosé NV ($32 each). Try either one ... and hold on to your hat.
Chartogne-Taillet 'Cuvée Sainte-Anne', NV ($29). Here's classic, zingy, spicy, brioche-y Champagne for under $30. Elisabeth & Phillip Chartogne make this lovely wine from 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, and 20% Pinot Meunier grapes that they grow in the shadow of Reims. The result is 100% deliciousness and a good time for everyone involved.
by Paul Cortright
There was one tasting though that was especially eye opening - and not so rarified as to be unavailable to ordinary wine drinkers. The group I was touring with was invited to a dinner with the winemaker of Château La Cabotte (whose 2001 Côtes du Rhone we sell for $7.99.) Before dinner we tasted 13 vintages of Côtes du Rhone dating back to the mid-1980s. To my surprise, all the wines were delicious, and the better of the older vintages had developed layers of secondary and tertiary flavors that I had never realized could come from such a simple wine.
Wine is unique in its ability to develop over time. Some people find this process of aging the most fascinating thing about drinking wine, but many more of us are uncertain about the alchemy of older wines. We're intimidated by the idea of building and maintaining a "cellar". The holidays are the perfect time to experiment with holding back bottles of your favorite wines, and a bottle that will benefit from aging is a great gift. As my experience shows, you don't have to drop a lot of coin in order to get a bottle that will benefit from time. On the other hand, it's not always obvious how to pick a suitable bottle. It's our job here at PMW to help you find the right bottle of wine for any occasion, so ask us for guidance. Here's some info to help you make an informed decision.
Let's start with definitions of two things that can happen to wine if you hold on to it for awhile: it ages or it keeps. A wine that ages gets better over time. A wine that keeps doesn't go bad, but doesn't get better, either. (A wine also could become spoiled or dead, but we're thinking positive here.)
Most any wine will keep for several years, meaning that a wine stored properly won't go bad in the bottle. When a wine ages, it changes in the bottle from the primary fruit flavors of a young wine to the savory, less-fruity, secondary and tertiary flavors and aromas of a mature wine. A simple, low acid wine like a Beaujolais Nouveau will retain its flavors in bottle for a year or two and not change much. A good Burgundy, however, will start off as a bright and fruity wine with flavors of cherries and spice, but with time will develop many layers of flavors, such as mushroom or slate.
The key difference between the two types of wine is how they pay off when you pop the cork. A young fruity wine is best served when it is just that, young and fruity. That Nouveau will keep for a few years, but it's not going to improve (and in fact, what you get two years later isn't going to be nearly as charming as when it was fresh). An age-worthy wine might be perfectly pleasant to drink when young - think Riesling or Burgundy - but with a little bit of patience, it can turn from something young and charming into something deep and contemplative. Still other wines can be harsh and "hard" when young (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon based wines and vintage Port) - only with some time in bottle will they show their true charms.
There are a bunch of clues to look for in determining if a wine is worth cellaring. The first and simplest is track record. The wines of Bordeaux have been known for hundreds of years to improve with age, and certain producers in every region have the reputation for making wines for the long haul. In the glass there are several traits that hint at age-worthiness. Tannins in red wine act as a powerful antioxidant that preserve the wine throughout its development. Not surprisingly, many of the red wines that have reputations for long-term aging are made with highly tannic varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and the Portuguese varietals used to make Port. Acidity in both red and white wines also hints at longevity. Many high acid varietals, such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chenin Blanc can make wines that will age beautifully. Alcohol is another preserving agent in wine, but there's a tricky balance between having enough alcohol to preserve flavors and so much that it's all one can taste when the primary fruit flavors recede. Port and Sherry are both fortified wines whose higher alcohol content can allow them to last for ages.
Sweetness is another sign of a wine worth holding onto. Lots of dessert wines lacking in one or more of the aforementioned traits will still develop wonderfully with time, and a select few (think German Trockenbeerenauslesen and French Sauternes) are know to last for centuries.
So what about storing the wine? Fancy, temperature-controlled cellars are great for those with unlimited funds and rare bottles. For the rest of us, any old space will do, as long as it's moderately cool, dark, and free of vibration. Wine snobs may tell you that you need to have a cellar that's exactly 55 degrees, but in reality, anything between 45 and 70 degrees will work fine. The important thing is to avoid wide temperature swings. Fortunately, we're blessed with a moderate climate here in the Bay Area. Many closets basements, and crawl spaces serve as perfectly adequate wine cellars. Spaces in the middle of your house or apartment are ideal. Avoid spaces next to sun-lit walls, furnaces, stoves, dryers, washers, and other sources of heat, light, or vibration. If you're not sure about the temperature stability, buy a min-max thermometer and do your own testing.
Once you've selected a space, store the wine bottles on their sides or upside down. (The idea is to keep the wine in contact with the cork - otherwise the cork can dry out and shrink, which might allow air into the bottle.) You don't need fancy shelves to store wine. Ordinary cardboard wine boxes work well, and they also give an added measure of insulation. Consider where the bottles might fly in an earthquake, and consider securing them against breakage.
There are lots of ways to give wine that keeps on giving. If you're buying a gift for someone, find out if they have the patience to hold on to a bottle of wine. Consider putting together a few bottles or a case of wines that will benefit from aging, along with the instructions in this article and suggestions for when to start opening the bottles. It's a good idea to buy two or more bottles of each wine so that there are more opportunities to enjoy it and watch it evolve. (There's nothing more disappointing than opening your only bottle of a great wine, only to find that it's still too young.) Try various styles - maybe three whites, three reds, three dessert wines or champagnes, and a few bottles to drink now. Older wines can be a great theme for a dinner with friends or family. Set aside a few bottles of a favorite and return to it a couple of years later with a dinner made especially for the bottle. Older, more complex wines are a natural with simple, slow-cooked foods like stews and roasts. At PMW we really enjoy helping customers pick out bottles to cellar and suggesting foods to accompany them, so just ask.
Special bottles almost always gain distinction with time - age-ability is part of what you're paying for with these wines. But even an inexpensive wine can have a lot to say if you just give it some time. Do yourself a favor: Hold onto a few bottles for several years - you won't regret it. And giving a bottle that will develop with time is a cool way to celebrate enduring relationships.
Slow Wine: Vintage Port
by Mark Middlebrook
And yet, there's no denying that, with bottle aging, vintage Port evolves into something considerably grander than "utterly satisfying" - Amazing? Awesome? Sublime? At this point, adjectives seem beside the point. "Just drink the wine and pay attention" seems like the best thing to say. At that 2000 vintage tasting, the sponsors were kind enough - and shrewd enough - to trot out some of the older vintages: First 1994, then 1977, then 1955, then 1945 (the "victory vintage"), then 1900. Yes, you read that right. I was drinking 102-year old wine - for free. (This job does offer a few perks.) In this world dominated by fast food and "Internet time", it is a remarkable and inspiring thing that a few human beings still labor to craft things that will last - and improve - for more than a century.
I don't plan to be around when the 2000 vintage Ports are 102 years old, but I've stashed a few bottles in my basement, because I know that they'll be a magnificent in a decade or two (or three or ... vintage Port is the ultimate test of one's self-control!). I've also stored one bottle labeled with the name of my niece, who was born in 2000. I'm hoping that some day, when she's a beautiful, middle-aged woman and I'm a doddering, drooling old fool, she'll consent to drink it with me.
Okay, enough shameless sentimentality. The purpose of this article is to get you to come into the store and buy some vintage Port - especially 2000 vintage Port. Buy it for a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, or third cousin who was born in 2000. Buy it for someone who graduated from college, high school, or traffic school in 2000. Buy it for a friend who was engaged, married, or divorced in 2000. Hell, buy it for yourself because you survived 2000 (that's my excuse).
My favorites of the 2000 vintage are Smith Woodhouse ($49) for its plummy-berry lusciousness and early accessibility, Quinta do Vesuvio ($68) for its floral aromas and elegance, and Taylor Fladgate ($96) for its astonishing depth, power, and age-ability.
In case you can't dream up a suitable year 2000 occasion, we have vintage Ports from 1999, 1997, and 1994 as well. We also stock half bottles, which are cheaper and mature more quickly. If you're in the mood for some Port now while your vintage bottles age, we have plenty of tawny and other Port styles that are ready to drink right now. Our current offerings start at $8.50 for a half bottle and $11.99 for a full bottle, so there's no reason not to cavort with Port early and often.
Attention, Last Minute Shoppers
- There are lots of choices in all price ranges: We're here to help you narrow down the options.
- It comes in several sizes: We carry, in addition to standard 750ml bottles, lots of half bottles (they fit in stockings) and a few magnums (they fit in parties and wine cellars).
- It's easy to wrap: We have gift bags ranging in price from free to $3.25.
- It almost always brings pleasure: And if the recipient opens it in your presence, both of you get to enjoy it equally.
- It doesn't hang around taking up space after the recipient has enjoyed it.
- At Paul Marcus Wines, we do wine and leave the wine tchotchkes to others. We do carry the essential accessories, though:
- Corkscrews that really work and that don't cost a fortune ($4.99-$20).
- Stoppers that conserve the bubbles in Champagne and other sparkling wine ($4.99).
- Private Preserve - an inert gas that you spray into an opened bottle in order to slow down oxidation ($9.99).
- Steve Edmunds's CD Lonesome on the Ground ($15).
Because of space limitations, we don't carry glassware or books. We do have opinions on which wine glasses and books are worth buying, and we're happy to share those opinions with you if you come into the store and ask us.
Tuesday December 24th: 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Wednesday December 25th: Closed
Thursday December 26th: 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Friday December 27th: 10:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Saturday December 28th: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Sunday December 29th: 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Monday December 30th: 10:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Tuesday December 31st: 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Wednesday January 1st: Closed
Thursday January 2nd: 10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Friday January 3rd: resume normal hours