Bit of bubbly
Didn’t like the stuff on New Year’s Eve? Try these
By Tim Protzman email@example.com
“I don’t really like champagne.”
I hear this a lot. It’s more of a lament than a complaint. People want to like Champagne, or more precisely, sparkling wine. They think Champagne is classy. And it is. It goes with pearls, caviar and tuxedos. It’s served as a celebration wine. It’s used to toast special events like weddings, promotions and ship christenings. Winning sports teams spray it on each other. Except football teams which tend to dump coolers of Gatorade on each other after a big victory. You may have had some (or tried to avoid some) for New Year’s Eve.
The reason many people don’t like champagne is that some of it has a bitter taste. Wine drinkers call it the finish. Many, many Champagnes or sparkling wines have a leaden, dull bitter finish. This is most likely from the chardonnay that’s part of the pinot noir, pinot meunier blend that comprises most Champagnes. I suspect that most Champagne, methode champenoise and sparkling wines use a lesser cut of chardonnay in their Champagne because, well, money. Chardonnay is a top-selling varietal which represents 20 percent of all wines sold. Champagne barely registers 4 percent. So it’s just good business to not tie up exceptional and top-shelf chardonnay in mid-priced sparklers. But the expensive $100-a-bottle-and-up Champagne gets the exquisite stuff.
The everyday Champagne can be made by injecting carbon dioxide into the still wine, or allowing the wine to undergo a second fermentation by adding more yeast and sugar. It can be done in a steel tank, the way Prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine is, or in the bottle, which is the traditional way. The traditional way is known as Methode Champenoise and all wines from the French region of Champagne are made this way. And quite a few very good to great sparkling wines from everywhere from Australia to Germany (where they call it Sekt) to Napa and South Africa are made using the traditional method.
One of the best things about writing this column is the research. I used to believe the old Champagne fable about the Dom Perignon, a wine-making Benedictine monk who often gets credit for inventing sparkling wine. He is often credited with the quote, “I am drinking stars!” upon tasting the sparkling product. Actually, there’s evidence that Champagne was intentionally produced in the Languedoc region of France as early as 1547, 100 years before Dom was born. And it’s generally accepted that wine has often undergone an accidental second fermentation for thousands of years. But we can thank Dom for perfecting and recording the Champagne-making process. And having a damn good Champagne named after him.
For high-end Champagnes, the glass you drink it in can make a difference. Yes, Champagne will taste the same out of those clear plastic tumblers, but if you’re spending $100 on a bottle or even if you just spend $20, it’s more fun to sip it out of glass stemware. The hot new item is the Champagne flute. This isn’t really new, but it is preferred by wine purists. It supposedly concentrates the bubbles and allows more bouquet for the drinker to enjoy. The traditional champagne goblet, which is really newer than the flute, has a rounded bowl-like glass on a stem. The legend is that the demure little saucer, known as the Champagne coupe, was a perfect replica of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. (That wacky French Court definitely had too much time on their hands.)
I prefer the coupe because it’s easier to sip out of and if you’re a glutton like me it’s easier to get at that last little drop. Either one is proper.
And don’t relegate champers to celebration-only times. Pop the cork for a mid-winter Wednesday, in front of a fire watching the shameless new Gossip Girl. Good sparkling wine should make the ordinary a little special and add a fizzy spice to the dull.
Here’s some suggestions for bubbles for your next celebration or for anytime.
From the good old USA:
• Rose Champagnes (pink sparkling wines resulting from longer contact with the dark grape skins)
Chateau Frank “Celebre” Sparkling Rose ($18.99) This wine is Alsatian style “cremant” (sparkling wine not from Champagne) from the Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in Hammondsport, N.Y., on Keuka Lake, in the Finger Lake AVA. It’s 100 percent Riesling with a sweet finish. And since champagne lovers are divided into two camps, dry vs. sweet, it’s in the sweet camp, but not sticky sugary sweet.
Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($17.99) All white pinot noir with a little “vin gris” (wine made from the whole pinot noir berry) added for flavor and coloring. One of my old favorites and the price is great.
• Sparkling wines (white and the color of ginger ale)
Gruet Brut ($14.99) From New Mexico and produced by a extremely talented female French winemaker. Drier. Malty, toasty with a creamy “beer foam” finish.
Roederer Estate Brut ($19.99) From Mendocino, California’s Anderson Valley. A division of the great Louis Roederer Champagne house, which introduced champagne to the Russian court. Thin, and zesty with a hint of lemon and a dry Chardonnay- like finish, 60 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Noir.
Try the 2000 L’Ermitage ($42.99), which is only produced in exceptional years and is considered “vintage” (Champagne is declared vintage when exceptional growing and harvest conditions occur).
Schramsberg & Scharffenberger Two similarly named and excellent Californian producers. Schramsberg rivals any French house, while Scharffenberger presents good taste at an excellent price.
NOTE: 1989, 1990 1995, 1996, 2002, 2004 & 2005 were great vintage years for Champagne (the real stuff from France).
Dom Perignon ($109.99) Pricey, a tad over-rated, but even those who despise champers will lick their lips.
Pol Roget The non-vintage is $32. The vintage is $47. Spend the extra money; it’s memorable and worth it. And if you’ve got the bucks get the Cuvee Winston Churchill, $131.99 — the 1990 was the best champagne I ever tasted.
Canella Prosecco Di Conegliano ($14.99) From Valdobbiadene in the Treviso region of Italy. Prosecco is sweeter than champagne because it’s made from the aptly named Prosecco grape, which has a higher sugar content. Prosecco is almost indistinguishable from Champagne by most palates (probably mine too) but offers a light, fresh inexpensive way to drink bubbles.