Remember the last time you drank Champagne? Chances are good that you felt rather special, just beloved or a bit weird. The following guideline will help you to ease up your Champagne relationship.
(1) Know how it’s made!
Treat Champagne like you treat wine. Because it is wine. Be curious about where it comes from, how it is produced and where you buy it. Here are the hard facts: Champagne refers to the Champagne region, a 35.000 ha wine region in France, famous for it’s sparkling wine mostly made out of the two red (!) grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as well as the white grape Chardonnay. Wine from the Champagne is Champagne, wine not from the Champagne is not Champagne. When it comes to Champagne specific knowledge, the following three steps of the vinification are the ones to remember.
(1) Assemblage: After the harvest and the pressing different grapes are blended based on the formula good + good = great. Pinot Meunier provides roundness, Pinot Noir strength and Chardonnay floral finesse to the wine. In addition to the variety in grapes, Champagne producers, especially the big houses, blend their basic Champagnes with grapes from different vintages to guarantee a maison specific, noteworthy taste every year (non-vintage Champagne). If weather conditions of a given year are favorable producers are likely to compose wines with at least 85% of the grapes from the vintage’s year (vintage Champagne or Millesime).
(2) Méthode champenoise (second fermentation): Around eight months after the harvest, the wine gets bottled; the liqueur de tirage (yeast and rock sugar) is added and the bottles get sealed with a crown cap. In the following month, the yeast induces the second alcoholic fermentation by chemically reducing sugar to alcohol and CO2.
(3) Remuage, Degorement and Dosage: After at least 1.5 years of aging, just before the wine gets corked, the bottle is turned and manipulated (remuage) on a daily basis so that the lees (rest of the yeast) can settle in the neck of the bottle. Afterwards, the neck gets frozen, the crown cap removed and the CO2 induced pressure forces the frozen less out of the bottle (degorement). Before corking, sugar syrup is added to give the wine back some sweetness (dosage).
(2) Drink, drink, drink!
You don’t taste the difference between a German Sekt, a Champagne and an Italian Prosecco yet? This is nothing to be ashamed off. In fact probably nobody could without exercising over and over again. So just do what every winemaker tells you to do: drink, drink, drink! By drinking, especially when comparing two different wines at the same time, you will learn more than when you read and talk about wine.
(3) Got your taste right? – Just don’t talk about it!
Once you have started tasting differences, please do not do what your parents and grandparents have been doing: Don’t talk about wine too much! Do not build up the same barrier, which made wine so hard to grasp for you when you were younger! Trying to describe every nuance you smell and taste is silly and as matter of fact, nobody really cares about it. If you do however have to talk about wine, just make it simple. I suggest, and I haven’t met a winemaker who disagreed, to start and stay with four easy directions. Those are mine:
(4) Don’t buy Champs-Elysées – Unless you are a Consultant or an Investment Banker; then it’s OK!
In everyday language (esp. in France) Champagne can be classified in Champs-Elysées and non-Champs-Elysées. Champs-Elysées refers to the big Champagne manufactories such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Ruinart, Krug or Mercier (all brands of the Louis Vuitton imperium), which buy up to 80% of their grapes from smaller vineyards to meet the marketing seduced demand of non-vintage Champagne. People who understand Champagne will think you drink to show off when going for a bottle of Moët. If you do not want to show off, simply don’t drink it. If you drink to show off, this is a different chapter. However, I would still suggest not going for a bottle of Moët. People will be more likely impressed when you offer them a glass of a 2,052 bottle limited Champagne coming from a 7.2 ha small, family owned Domaine.
Next to the non-commercial aspect drinking wine from small Champagne Domaines goes along with two other advantages. First, their wine is less sterile. In contrast to the big houses they are more flexible. Even in non-vintage Champagnes you are likely to taste the climate and weather induced differences throughout the different years. Weather and Winemaker both have a stronger influence on the wine’s character. Second, there are in average cheaper, as Marketing expenses are not part of the cost structure.
(5) Talk to the winemakers – Let their stories flow!
Wine can be experienced at three different levels. Firstly by the eye, meaning by the bottle’s appearance and written information. Secondly by tasting and thirdly by visiting the vineyard as well as meeting the winemaker. At least for me, only a combination of the second and third approach gives me real access to a wine since it enables me to connect my taste to pictures, smells and stories about the vintage I drink. Even if you are capable of completely getting a wine without actually having been at it’s origin, the personal and rich connection you establish while visiting, will remain vivid every time you open up a new bottle.
(6) Stop overvaluing the occasion – It’s all about fun!
When comparing French Champagne consumption with German one, this is definably the most crucial takeaway: Sparkling wines are all about pleasure, enjoying life and having fun. Since for at least Gen-Y pleasure, joy and fun are not inclusively connected to Christmas, New Year or marriages anymore, it’s finally time to think your Champagne consumption over. Champagne occasions are everywhere – you just have to change the perspective!
About the author:
Philipp G. aka “Le Champreneur” loves and lives the bubbles.
All pictures were taken during a visit at Domaine Dehours this summer.