As a sommelier, one of the most common questions I am asked is, “What's your favorite wine?” When I respond with champagne, they are often surprised as if it deserves a separate designation apart from a traditional white or red wine.
Champagne is often improperly categorized as a wine that should only be enjoyed on special occasions like New Years or anniversaries. However, it is a versatile wine that can be enjoyed at any time on its own or as a perfect accompaniment to endless food pairings. It is my pleasure to dispel some of the most popular myths and offer some factoids surrounding my favorite region.
But before we do that, I would like to announce Yahyn's wine of the month....
Wine of the Month (March 2021)
The NV Brut Premier Cru Cuvée Vendémiaire by Doyard.
Robert Parker 94 Points The NV Brut Premier Cru Cuvée Vendémiaire is a Chardonnay from five villages of the Côte des Blancs but is mainly sourced in Vertus (50%). The recent disgorgement from early 2018 (dosage: four grams per liter) is based on the 2012 vintage and includes 50% of reserve wines from vintages 2011 down to 2008. Intensely citrus colored, this is a pure, fresh, concentrated, very mineral and pure Chardonnay that still offers greenish citrus flavors. With great finesse and complexity on the palate, it is very elegant and pure as well as very long and expressive, with intense, powerful and well-concentrated but fresh and highly finessed fruit and vitality. There is lots of energy and tension here, lots of expression and length. Great complexity and vitality. This has huge aging potential. A great wine, indeed.
Champagne - Fact or Fiction:
1. Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine
Fiction. While Dom Pérignon remains an important figure for the region due to his contributions to both blending and making clearer wines, none of the documents from the time mention sparkling wine at all.
The first record of intentionally-made sparkling wine was in England in 1664. At that time, the English added molasses to their wines (kick-starting secondary fermentation), which would give their wine more “spirit” by enhancing it with bubbles.
2. Champagne is only for special occasions
Complete fiction! Champagne is made in such a wide variety of styles that makes it a versatile wine to have for virtually any style of food, including seafood, steak, and dessert. Admittedly, it is a challenging feat to learn each producer’s style as labels seldom offer clues for consumers. One of the best ways to learn about this is to ask a trusted sommelier or wine expert—and taste frequently!
3. Trash was used for fertilizer in the vineyards of Champagne
Sadly, this is a fact. Between the 1970s and 1990s the “minerals” of trash—including trash bags and cardboard—were thought to solve "vine chlorosis," a loss of green coloration in vine leaves. Thankfully, this dark chapter of farming is over and the region of France is now devoted to sustainable wine-growing practices.
4. Champagne is commonly aged on dead yeast cells
A delicious fact! Once secondary fermentation is complete (which creates the bubbles), champagne is aged in this manner to add a creamy quality which balances against champagne’s naturally high acidity while also adding pleasant aromas of bread dough and toast. The time of aging is one such factor that contributes to a house style.
The Champagne region once focused solely on still red wine
Fact. The region of Champagne had a fierce wine rivalry with the great region of Burgundy during the 13th century. However, properly ripening their Pinot Noir was challenging due to the region’s colder climate. While they did not know it at the time, the region was perfectly suited for production of higher acid grapes which make the ideal base for sparkling wine.
Wines from Champagne can be still red wine
Fact. Coteaux Champenois and Rosé de Riceys are two sub-regions under the greater Champagne umbrella that still make Pinot Noir. These wines rarely leave the region ,so if you see an opportunity to try wine from either of these two regions, don’t hesitate!
Champagne can only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier
Fiction. While a majority of Champagne is made with the above grapes (Chardonnay for finesse, Pinot Noir for body, and Pinot Meunier for fruitiness), obscure and ancient grapes such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier are all authorized for production within the region. Only a few producers, like Lahèrte Freres and Aubry utilize these offbeat varietals for their bubbles.
Champagne should only be served in flutes
Fiction. Since Champagne is wine after all, it should be treated as such. Therefore utilizing a smaller white wine glass may be more appropriate depending upon the style you are drinking. For example, vintage Champagne often benefits from this kind of glass to highlight its unique aromas.