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Champagne Name Game

December 27, 2009

Only 5 shopping days left until New Year’s Eve!  Sorry.  I know it’s probably the last thing you wanted to hear.

But that means that I have precious little time to weigh in on the heftiest of matters for the holiday – what to drink.

And the answer is Champagne, of course.  Or maybe it’s not.  There are people who insist that it is not a celebration unless Champagne corks are popping.  They would be wrong on two counts.

For me, the celebration comes from the bubbles.  And bubbles exist in sparkling wines found well out of the grasp of Epernay and Reims.  You see, to be Champagne a wine must come from that specific region of France.  Despite what people may tell you, there is no Champagne made in the United States.

This wine is one of many internationally protected regional products.  The U.S. didn’t exactly buy into this scheme.  But so many wineries are owned by international conglomerates that many American sparkling wines still observe this nomenclature.  Some, on the other hand, do not.

What we have here are méthode Champenoise sparkling wines, or in English, sparkling wines made as they are in Champagne.

In short this means that grapes are picked, turned into wine, and put in bottles.  Additional yeast is added to the bottles directly, and the wine goes through a secondary fermentation, which results in three peculiar things.
1)    Yeast poop (AKA bubbles)
2)    Unpleasantly dry wine, devoid of sugar
3)    Nasty dead yeast

Luckily there is one last process that takes care of everything except the yeast poop.  The dead yeast are coerced into the neck of the bottle.  When they are removed sugar water is added to the wine to make it palatable.  If it makes you feel better to call the sugar water a dosage, as they do in France, it’s fine by me.  The wine gets a cork, a cage, a foil capsule, and it’s done.

I do not put the process in these terms to denigrate it.  Rather, I think it’s best to strip it of its mystery and appreciate it for what it is.  And it is an ingenious way of making a festive sparkling wine.

There is a French company in California’s Anderson Valley that makes one of my favorite American sparkling wines.  It is Roederer, the house of the infamous Cristal.  The firm got into trouble years back when they were asked about all the hip-hop attention possibly hurting the brand.

That aside, their Roederer Estate Brut NV is dynamite.  And it’s a favorite go-to bottle for me on any festive occasion.  Generally the price hovers around $20 a bottle, although they regularly seem to have it at BJ’s in Albany for a few dollars less.

I break méthode Champenoise wine (both French and American) down into two major styles:
1) Tart and racy
2) Round and full

Each has its charms.  Veuve Clicquot is a perfect example of the former.  And my Roederer Estate is fully in the later.  Which style sounds more appealing to you at the end of December is as much about your personal taste as it is your geography.  Although what you are eating could certainly come into play too.

My relationship with Roederer Estate is a long one.  We bought several cases for our wedding many years ago.  And as I do with many things, I overbought.  It was a great problem to have, as we enjoyed the leftover wine regularly over the course of our first year of marriage.

This is a wine I know very well, and it’s always a pleasure.  It may not be Champagne, but it is certainly a bottle worthy of opening in celebration.

Oh, and the other thing wrong about needing to pop Champagne corks is the popping part.  If you do it right, the sound is more akin to a whisper or a sigh.

But should you find that to be a bit anticlimactic and lacking in joie de vivre, there is one other acceptable way of opening a champagne bottle.  Without a doubt it’s more festive.  But it does require one piece of specialized equipment.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellen Whitby permalink
    December 27, 2009 8:04 pm

    I’m sure you meant to add that “real” champagne is made from Chardonnay grapes, the same used for Chardonnay wine. One of my favorites. Also, German Riesling grapes are used for Champagne, which is also one of my favorite wines.

    Happy New Year. And Happy Champagne in PA.

  2. llcwine permalink
    December 28, 2009 8:57 am

    I personally love Gruet, from New Mexico. I believe there is a brut, but I like the Rose, as it’s not sweet at all, but has a nice flavor, good body and looks great when poured.

  3. Jafe permalink
    December 29, 2009 3:23 am

    I’m a big fan of Veuve Cliquot as pedestrian as that may be. A friend turned me on to Mionetto Prosecco, which reminds me of Veuve Cliquot (the Brut version’s color scheme even mimics Cliquot).

    The NYT recently ran an article on affordable bottles “Champagnes Below $40 Regain Pop” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/23/dining/reviews/23wine.html) with the House of Roederer in the No. 2 spot.

    1. Joël Falmet Brut Tradition NV; 2. Louis Roederer; 3. Agrapart and Fils; 4. Henriot; 5. Christian Etienne; 6. Georges Gardet; 7. Taittinger; 8. Moutard; 9. Nicolas Feuillatte; 10. Pol Roger

  4. Sarah M. permalink
    December 31, 2009 11:17 am

    I thought by “specialized equipment” you meant a boat. But I suppose it’d be harder to drink the Champagne that way…

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