Champagne: 10 Questions
by Chad Arnold
1. “What is Champagne?”
“Champagne is, supremely, an idea,” says John Arlott. If this is so, then Champagne is many things. Where to begin? Let’s say Champagne is wine first, and then a social contract, a highpoint of French viticultural geography, and whatever else it might actually be. It is most certainly a bubbly beverage that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle; during which natural carbon dioxide gas gets trapped. It pops when you open it. But all that sparkles is not Champagne. Of course, many wines with bubbles are scrumptious.
2. “Where is Champagne?”
The region of Champagne is about 90 miles northeast of Paris. We will primarily concern ourselves with the following three regions: The Montagne de Reims (the mountain of Reims) which is primarily planted with the two black (red) grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier, the Cote des Blancs which is planted, as you might expect, with chardonnay, and the Vallee de la Marne (the valley of the Marne river) which is mostly planted with pinot meunier. The remaining two— the Cotes de Sezanne, primarily planted with chardonnay and the Aube, which is planted with pinot noir are not of particular importance and go beyond the intent and scope of this article.
3. “How do the Champenoise differentiate which wines are good from those that are better?
Good question. There are nearly two hundred villages in Champagne. Of this rather large pool emerge 17 classified as grand crus, and another 38 that are classified as premier crus. The distinction of grape pricing classification for villages is crucial: only the grand crus receive 100 per cent of the price agreed annually by the merchants and growers. The premier crus receive between 90 and 99 percent, while the others receive between 80 and 89 per cent. This pricing classification is no longer law but still practiced, and continues to reflect the cost and quality of grapes in various villages.
The key here is to understand that it is the villages that are classified, not specific vineyards. (There are of course specific vineyards that are recognized as being particularly special. The great walled vineyard of Les Mesnil is perhaps the best example.)
The vineyards of Champagne are not owned primarily 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 and not some numerical equivalence rendered by some unknown-quantity-of-a-critic. And I am neither critic nor drunk (now.)
4. “How dry is that champagne?”
Another good question. The following ‘super-chart’ will give the specific ranges of sugar levels for the terms you will find on most labels. Keep in mind that the ordinary (if s/he exists?) human being can reasonably be expected to perceive some residual sugar when the level is around 1.5%.
BRUT NATURE/ BRUT ZERO
For all intents and purposes, these wines are bone dry, less than 3 grams of sugar per liter or 0-.3% sugar.
Very, very, dry. 0-6 grams per liter or 0-.6% sugar
Very dry. Less than 12 grams per liter or less than 1.2 % sugar
Off-dry. 12-17 grams per liter or 1.2-1.7% sugar
Fairly dry to slightly sweet. 17-32 grams per liter or 1.7-3.2% sugar
Sweet. 32-50 grams per liter or 3.2-5% sugar
Very sweet. More than 50 grams per liter or 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 anytime you want a glass of wine. Champagne should not be limited to special occasions. What is a special occasion? Really, I want to know. Wouldn’t (any) Monday be better if you had a bottle of Agrapart multi-vintage bubbly to accompany whatever it is you are having for lunch or dinner? Duh, again. This is predicated on the assumption that you like to drink wine with bubbles.
Here are a few practical applications: serve Champagne before a meal. A crisp non-vintage brut is a terrific palate awakener. Rich vintage champagnes go well with scallops, lobster, and monkfish. Older bottles are perhaps best served alone so that their delicate, graceful flavors are fully appreciated.
6. “Is Rose’ Champagne wussy?”
No way dude. Rose’ is the way. It is not only beautiful in the glass but man-o-man, the strawberries and the dirt, the zip and the bread-th. It is all that. For example, try the multi-vintage Billiot. Year in, year out, this is one of the very best rose’s that, while pricey, doesn’t break the bank. On the palate there is terrific persistence and the drive provides a spiral of taut strawberry notes flecked with earthy accents all revolving harmoniously around a solid core of firm acids. A splendidly rich mid-palate anticipates and then delivers a 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 here’s the quick sip: store your bubbles in a cool, dark, reasonably damp environment, with no vibrations, no fluctuations in temperature, and no foul language.
8. “Will Champagnes age?”
Indeed. Some can age for 40 years or more. I’ve had ‘em and I’ve loved ‘em.
It is worth taking note that, generally speaking, bottles with bubbles change quite a bit as they age. Bubbles diminish over time, so be prepared the next time you open an older bottle of Champagne to have a nearly still wine. For this reason it is best to try a few older bottles first before investing in a case or two for the cellar. The 1996 vintage wines should age effortlessly for many years. Other terrific vintages include 1985, 1988 and 1990. Though in my experience the 1990’s will not age as well as initially thought. 2002 is also stunning and a lot of 05’s are great now – and the 2008 vintage is brilliant.
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). Make sure to point the cork away from your guests so they don’t suffer the loss of an eye. Next: tilt the bottle 45 degrees and twist the bottle with one hand while twisting the cork in the opposite direction—and it’s always a good idea to have your hand holding both the cork and the top of the bottle. Contrary to popular belief the sound of a bottle of Champagne being opened should not make a lot of sound. No pop. No spills. Good times.
10. “How many bubbles are in a bottle of Champagne?”
About 100 million. No kidding. Damn project took near two days ‘fore I finished.