The world of Champagne and other sparkling wines was, and at times is still a perplexing one -- to me anyway. In my youthful ignorance, I didn't appreciate Champagne. Although, I'm certain I wasn't drinking anything worthy of real reflection or appreciation. Champagne or sparkling wine (it's more likely I was consuming the latter) was a good-time drink in college. The beverage of choice for fraternity house "brunches". Even once I became a bit more serious about wine, I still relegated sparkling wines to celebrations and special occasions. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. Champagne is synonymous with celebration. But, it can be so much more. In this post, I'll talk about Champagne, as well as its counterparts in neighboring Spain and Italy. I don't profess to know it all and some nuances will be left out, but here's what I have to offer on the subject.
While visiting Paris a while back I was able to hop on a train and head to Champagne. I spent a day in Reims and visited two Champagne houses. The first was the esteemed Taittinger and the second, G.H. Martel. These two are sort of at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of image, sophistication and price, so it made for a well-rounded day of education.
Taittinger was founded in 1734 and is still family owned. Robert Parker lists them as an outstanding producer, and I tend to agree. The facility in Reims is a walled, white stucco fortress--quite foreboding. I thought Liam Neeson might be behind the walls up to his vigilante antics. Once inside, they're all business. The staff wore black suits and the lobby felt like a Swiss bank. The tour was executed very professionally and started with a film on the history of Taittinger and Champagne in general. From there we descended to the center of the earth to tour the caves. It was freezing, but an amazing lesson in the care and time and energy that goes into the production of this international commodity. The facility is a labyrinth and we spent more than an hour in the underground cellars, emerging in a tasting room where flutes were filled with pale golden nectar. The crisp, almost sterile room was full of display cases rivaling Tiffany's and the walls were lined with awards and brand posters. The Champagne itself is still the best I've ever tasted. Buttery and fruity -- it had none of the harsh, acidic aftertaste I was accustomed to.
G.H. Martel was a different experience entirely. The house is a quaint, lovely cottage type. Instead of walking into the Swiss bank, it was more like a comfortable living room. We were greeted by the director himself and taken through a few rooms of the house before heading down to the cellar.
G.H. Martel does not store their wines on site as Taittinger does, but the cellar does contain examples of the equipment used in Champagne's production. I learned a great deal more about the production process and history of Champagne on the Martel tour than on Taittinger's. I also got to try four Champagnes instead of one, and in the comfortable living room of the cottage. I left Martel a great deal more giddy than I had Taittinger.
In summary, while Taittinger was decidedly international, powerful and sophisticated, G.H. Martel seemed more Mom & Pop -- but in a good way.
What is Champagne?
Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. How-to-the-ever, both houses I visited said they have used between 15 and 20 grape varieties in some of their products.
There are a few staple varieties:
Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay
Blanc de Noirs: Made from all red wine grapes (skins removed as that is where red wine gets its color)
Cremant: Less effervescent than typical Champagne
To be labeled Champagne, the grapes must be grown on approved plots within the Champagne region of France and must undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle to create carbonation, good old CO2. Carbonation is achieved naturally during the fermentation process (in tanks, barrels, bottles, etc.) or by injecting the bottle and its grape juice contents with a mixture of yeast AND sugar. Depending on the desired dryness of the end product all or some of the sugar is extracted at some point and the displaced liquid replaced with a liqueur. Before there was sophisticated equipment to accomplish this extraction, the bottles were turned upside down to allow the yeast-sugar sediment to settle in the neck of the bottle. The necks were then frozen so the sediment portion could be extracted as a solid.
Apart from Champagne, there are many worthy sparkling wines. I enjoy Cava from Spain and Prosecco from Italy. Here are two I highly recommend:
Perelada Cava Brut Reserva We served this Cava at our wedding. It was delicious, made great mimosas, and at about $9 a bottle, was a deal. There were several left over and we didn't return them, if you know what I mean.
La Marca Prosecco This Prosecco is great on its own or in fruity sparkling wine cocktails. It's about $12 a bottle. I believe my husband and I enjoyed a bottle of this on our first date, which happened to be New Year's Eve. So, there you have it, single ladies and gentleman.
These are two solid starters, but the world is full of great sparkling wines. France itself produces several others outside of the Champagne region, Blanquette di Limoux, for instance.
I also encourage pairing sparkling wine with food. It's not just for toasts and mixing with OJ. Similar to beer, the carbonation is great for scrubbing the palate. So try it with fried foods like fish, shrimp and oysters.