Sunday, August 24, 2008
A Champagne Moment
It’s the stuff of legend, taken by dukes and dustmen; it’s the libation of celebration. Smashed against ships, poured by the gallon down the throats of Hollyood starlets and gangster rappers, it’s drunk warm in girlie joints and ordered in outré bars by self-obsessed nouveau riche flatheads in sparkler-decorated magnums.
It’s pop, fizz, shampoo, bubbly and even champers. And it’s a five billion dollar global multi-brand luxury products industry built chiefly around two cities in France’s Champagne region, Epernay and Riems. Both are nestled in the centre of thousands of acres of sleepy hillside vineyards growing a mixture of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes. Each vineyard (or Cru) yields a different quality of grape – hence the use of terms such as Premier Cru, Grand Cru and Grand Cru Classé – Grand Cru is the tip-top quality. Each Cru, particularly the tip-top ones, can be pretty small and Champagne’s hillsides are dotted with what are effectively strip farms, each strip carrying a stone marker on behalf of its owner.
The grapes are harvested in September and the juice yielded from the first pressing of grapes from each cru is separately fermented to make a wine. It takes, incidentally, some 1.8kg of grapes to make a bottle of champagne. These wines are then blended together – wines from anything up to 200-300 individual crus being combined by oenologists to make a single champagne. The blend will typically contain a mix of previous years’ wines to ensure consistency – but exceptional years allow the production of a champagne made from that years’ crop alone, a vintage, which carries the year on the bottle.
Champagnes can be made out of a blend of the three grapes (the pinot noir and pinot meunier are black grapes and so only the first pressing of white juice is used to make champagne), out of pure chardonnay (blanc de blancs), or out of pure black grape (blanc de noir). Rosé, incidentally, is typically made by leaving the wine in contact with the red skins for two days or so.
Once the first fermentation is completed, the wines are blended and then bottled in especially strong, thick-walled bottles with the addition of a little yeast to spark a second fermentation – this is where the bubbles come into it.
The bottles are capped with metal caps and then stored in cellars so that the second fermentation can run its course. As a ‘live’ wine, these bottles can happily spend years down in the cellars ‘on their lees’ – the lees is the sedimentary by-product of the fermentation process. Once the sediment is removed, the wine has only got so long to live – it’s pretty pointless keeping champagne because it doesn’t change its character one jot with age and, in fact, is slowly and inexorably going down the road to vinegar city.
Getting rid of that sediment is something of a mission – a process ‘invented’ by a certain madame Clicquot, a widow, who, along with Dom Perignon, is one of the great ‘names’ of champagne. She eventually solved the problem of safely getting rid of the lees by angling the bottles in racks and twisting them to encourage the lees to move down the bottle to the neck. This process, which takes place when the champagne has matured, is called ‘riddling’ or ‘remouage’ and can take months, each bottle turned one quarter turn a day by specialist riddlers, who can do the twist anything up to 50-60,000 bottles a day. Don’t ever, ever ask them how the day went at work. Although modern ‘vibro-pallets’ automate the process and cut down the time it takes to a little over one week, many producers still riddle their premier products manually.
At the end of the process, there’s a little plug of sediment left in the neck of the bottle. This is dipped into a freezing cold solution so that the plug freezes: the cap is knocked off, the plug pops out under the natural pressure of the gas in the bottle and a little slug of sugar and wine, the ‘dosage’, is added before the bottle is corked with the distinctive champagne cork and then secured using a wire mesh ‘basket’. The bottle’s returned to the cellars for six months or so to allow the dosage to mix in and settle and then it’s cleaned, labelled and packed for shipment. From this point, you’ve got from 5 (brut) to 15 (vintage) years to get it poured and away before it starts to go downhill. The market for multi-thousand dollar bottles of ancient vintage champagne is, by the way, a matter of pure vanity – the contents of those old bottles are undrinkable.
The sweetness of the champagne is set by the dosage: you’ll typically find Extra Brut, Brut and Demi-Sec on offer. The majority of the natural sugar in the champagne has already been consumed by the yeast, so a little extra sugar does rather help the medicine to go down. The amount of sugar sets the character of the champagne: extra brut is a brave move – few of the large houses make an extra brut, in which a minimal amount of sugar is added. If you love the absolute dryness of champagne, extra brut is worth a try but it’s gotta be good stuff - like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s good it’s very, very good – the true flavour of the wine comes through unmasked by added sugars. But when it’s bad... well, an extra brut can easily slip over the wall into sourness, scouring your taste buds like battery acid.
The most common variety of champagne offered is brut – more sugar is added than in an extra brut but the wine is still a dry one – originally designed as such for the British market, apparently. Demi-sec is a sweeter wine altogether, not quite as soft and rich as, say, a viognier but certainly taking a trip down that path. A purely subjective view is that demi-sec can be more accessible, but sacrifices complexity and depth for that accessibility. Everyone who writes about champagne gives figures for the amount of sugar in each class of champagne and its dosage, but I can’t for the life of me see why. If this type of geek information is critical to you, don’t hesitate to take a peek at Wikipedia!
Champagne should ideally be served at 6 degrees, not fresh out of the freezer. It should be cool, but not chilled to the point where the glass is frosted. It’s only as the wine warms a little that you’ll get the fullness of the bouquet, the floral notes and the other stuff that will allow you to pontificate like a proper pretentious jerk. A curved flute is ideal, the lip closing in from the bowl to concentrate the bouquet of the wine. Everyone who’s anyone in Champagne is a little sniffy about coupes, which is a shame as I’m a great fan of them and it’s certain that they’ve long been a favourite receptacle for the old fizz – in fact, it’s rumoured that a standard coupe is modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breasts. I did go to the Palace of Versailles to verify this but, tragically, didn’t find any ‘gear out’ statues that would provide a proper comparison.
Champagne must be the most abused luxury item of the lot. Sloshed down in beery toasts, sat warming as a trophy accessory in night clubs, smashed against ships or sprayed over crowds, it seems as if very few people actually stop for a second to enjoy the drink itself. Which is a shame, as good champagne is a wonderful thing indeed: complex, characterful and beguiling, its effervescence charms and invariably lifts the mood. Behind the fizz comes the wine itself, the fruits and flavours that cut through the dryness. Save the good champagne for a quiet moment, for when the crowds have gone home and you can afford to savour a few moments of peaceful, relaxed celebration together...