For those of us who do not have the time (or simply do not feel like taking the time) to really get to know Champagne, we have put together this little piece. It informs you on the basic principles of Champagne, and is capable of instilling enough intellectual substance to impress your current & future friends with your astounding knowledge of the bubbly stuff. Beware of the true connoisseur though: bluffing can be a risky business. If and when you find yourself opposite a genuine authority on the subject, try to learn something and keep your ears open and your mouth shut.
Below is a brief summary of the bare essentials and some tips you ought to master if you want to bluff about Champagne:
- Champagne always comes from the Champagne region in France. This region is situated in the area of Reims. The better Champagnes mostly come from Reims, Epernay, Hauteville, Ay, Versus or Ludes. Real Champagne is controlled by the Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC). So don’t be fooled by Champagnes from South-Africa, Germany or California. These might taste rather good, but they can’t possibly be Champagne. It is however absolutely conceivable that some of these sparkling wines (also known as methode champenoise) are of better quality than an inferior Champagne. Nevertheless, as a verified bluffer one has to be opposed on principal alone.
- There are over 5400 Champagne suppliers. The biggest one is Moët Et Chandon (accounting for over 50% of the total world-wide production of Champagne).
- There are a few varieties of Champagne, namely: Extra-Brut, Brut, Extra-Sec, Demi-Sec (also known as Dry) and Doux. The difference is in the percentage of liqueur added to the original grape juices. The Brut and the Demi-sec are the best known of the lot. Variations are the Brut-rose and the Blanc de Blancs. The latter is a little harder to come by. Ladies and novice Champagne drinkers often prefer Demi-sec over Brut. The experienced drinker of Champagne however swears by Brut or Brut-rose. The bluffer obviously condemns the Demi-sec, since it has to be about the uncontaminated stuff, not any additives allowed.
- Champagnes are allowed to be made of two or three types of grapes: the red (yes, you are reading this right) Pinot Noir, the white Chardonnay and often a small part of red Pinot Meunier. The connoisseurs frequently prefer a subtle mix of the first two types of grape. The Pinot Meunier is usually only added to enhance the aroma a little which is, for the bluffer, a reprehensible matter.
- A Champagne made solely of Chardonnay is called a Blanc de Blancs. Goes very well with some fish, lobster or a few oysters.
- The prominent brands of Champagne you must at least know by name are:Moet et Chandon: This mega factory supplies a constant and very good quality Champagne each year, by mixing Champagnes from other years. It’s actually not entirely fair since the grapes differ in quality each year. You would therefore expect a Champagne from 1988 to be better than one from 1990. As said, this doesn’t apply to Moët, unless you’re dealing with a Millésime/Vintage. The caves of M&C are in Epernay: having arrived there, you can have yourself driven around in a little train past 65 million bottles lying in wait for their time to come.
Bollinger: Agent 007’s house Champagne
Pol Roger: Superb quality, can never go wrong!
Krug: Superior Champagne. Henry Krug only produces Vintage Champagnes, so only the best of the best.
Dom Perignon: Note: this is not a separate brand, but a superior quality Champagne which originates, just like for instance Lanson, from the cellars of Moët et Chandon. M&C has merely linked the name of the “inventor” of the bubbly stuff to it’s house. Dom Pérignon was a fairly merry monk who tinkered about with exploding bottles endlessly in the abbey of Hautevillers before he achieved the divine liquid we are now talking about.
Taittinger: Lovely stuff, especially the 1978 Taittinger Collection which was perfect.
Pommery: Quickly expanding Champagne house run by Louise Pommery.
Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin: “Veuve” means widow, and as you might have guessed this brand concerns the bubblies made by the widow of one mister Clicquot. There’s an amusing anecdote on how Madame Clicquot once had her antique oak table moved to the wine caves, and had holes drilled in it so she could store the Champagne bottles vertically but upside down. The idea was to let the residue sink to the cork. Veuve Clicquot marketed La Grande Dame. An adept remark for bluffers would be that the normal non-vintage Brut cannot begin to be compared to the La Grande Dame in terms of taste and quality.
Laurent Perrier: Tip: these are the bubblies of the widow Mathilde Perrier, who was once married to one Eugene Laurent.
- The grapes used for Champagne are hand picked, since a damaged grape can affect the color of the Champagne. They are pressed as soon as possible in immense presses that can contain up to 4000 kilo’s (8800 lbs.) of grapes at a time. The first pressing is called the cuvée, the second one the premier taille. There is a third pressing, but this one is something a true bluffer will have none of. The cuvée produces approximately 2000 litres (528 gal) of grape juice and has the best quality since later pressings are darker of color. This is why you will often find the phrase Cuvée on the label.
- After the pressing any impurities are removed. The unwanted particles sink to the bottom of a steel or wooden vat in 12 hours. With a little intelligent draining off, you will be left with a pure wine which is hardly distinguishable from normal wine. Here comes the trick: the blending of the grape juices, the first fermentation in the vat, adding of liqueur de tirage (a mix of sugar, old wine and yeast) and the second fermentation in the bottle. The second fermentation can last up to five years. During the first three years the bottles are placed horizontally on lattes. After this resting period the bottles are put in a so-called pupitre and turned every day by a remueur (basically a fellow with extremely fast hands). During this second fermentation the residue settles in the neck of the bottle. By freezing the neck, and then taking of the cap of the bottle, the piece of frozen residue is removed. This is called dégorgement.
- The bottled Champagnes remain in-between three and seven years in the caves before they will be sold. It is often true that the longer in the cave, the better the quality.
- The best Champagne corks are made of Portuguese cork.
- When the cork is in the bottle, it is held in place by a muselet (literally translated: muzzle) to prevent the cork from bursting from the bottle in an unexpected or unwanted moment. For their better Champagnes Bollinger and Princier still use string instead of wire muselets. Remember not to call these things caps.
- The pressure in a Champagne bottle can build up to 6 Bar (or 88 psi). For your reference: the pressure in a car tire is approximately 3 Bar or 45 psi.
- Champagnes that state a year on the label are Vintage Champagnes. As a rule these are of better quality than non-vintage Champagnes. The best ones are the Millesime Champagnes. These are vintage Champagnes of a perfect year. Well-known Millesime Champagnes are those from 1966, 1971, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990 en 1992.
- The better Champagne years which are readily available at the moment are 1985, 1988, 1990 and 1992, in regard of which you of course know that 1985 was of better quality than 1990. It goes without saying that you have had the 1985 Krug and/or Dom Perignon lying at home for ages waiting for that special occasion.
- With regard to glasses you obviously drink from a flute. This is a tulip shaped glass made of thin glass. The wide coupes are a definite no-no. The bubbles evaporate too quickly and the aroma can’t really be tasted properly either. The better class of flutes has a little drop of glass on the bottom of the glass. This makes the bubblies rise from the little drop. The bluff-factor will be impressive if you let it drop you are dealing with a true Champagne glass based on your observation of the little drop in the glass. There’s nothing like a crystal glass too. The structure of the glass is slightly rougher which brings out the bubbles better.
- Champagne is best consumed at 6 to 10 degrees centigrade (42-50F) (depending on the Champagne). In practice, this means taking a bottle from your supply and leave it in a cooler for 10 minutes. The ice bucket is half filled with ice and then topped off with cold water until it’s full.
- In decadent restaurants or bars, it has been known for glasses to be served with ice in them. The biggest blunder you can make is to launch your precious Champagne into those glasses filled with ice cubes! It will come across much more impressive to subtly inform the waiter that this trick is mere folly. Proper Champagnes glasses are made of thin glass, and the Champagne will therefore cool the glass, not the other way around. On the contrary, with chilled glasses, the temperature could drop below the desired 6 to 10 degrees C, killing the much coveted effect altogether.
- The “Traditional” way of opening a bottle of Champagne is another one of those things that could be done all wrong. The right way is to get rid of the foil surrounding the cork (just enough to clear the cork and muselet) and then untwist the muselet (save it for entering our annual Champagne Chair Contest). While doing this, you keep the bottle at an angle of 45 degrees pointed away from you (but preferably not in the direction of the lady accompanying you, that pretty painting by Monet, nor the chandelier). The trick is to get the cork from the bottle in such a way that a slight hiss is just audible. The easiest method is to gently twist the cork a little and as soon as it starts to give restraint with your hand. A loud pop is an absolute sin. Shooting the cork as far away as possible might be fun, but is viewed upon by the bluffer as utterly bizarre, as precious carbon dioxide is lost in the launch. If the bottle has (god forbid) been shaken too much during transport or something similar, it is possible that the Champagne will spontaneously start flowing from the bottle. For such an event you will naturally have the glasses standing by, thus preventing from too much of the divine stuff being wasted.
- If you really want to do it by the book, you should pour a glass in stages. First of all, the polite thing to do is to ask who would like to do the tasting. This person will be served a quarter filled glass. The filling of the glasses is done by holding the bottle at the back with your thumb in the inward curve of the bottom of the bottle or punt, (this might be a good time for a bluffer quote “One holds a bottle of red wine by the neck, a woman by the waist, and a bottle of Champagne by the derriere.”) tilting the glass, and not splashing the Champagne into it. The latter in order not to let the bubblies evaporate during the pouring. On top of that, it prevents the mess that results from the glass overflowing if the filling is done too turbulently. More champagne quotes! The person who does the tasting, and you can tell from his or her reaction whether you are dealing with a bluffer, novice or experienced Champagne drinker. If it turns out to be a Champagne lover of the experienced kind, you keep your bluffer self extremely quiet. If however the person in question is a fellow-bluffer or even a novice, the process of over-bluffing can begin. This can be an extremely entertaining enterprise but a subsequent (harmonious) continuation of the relationship might be desirable. Bluffing with your managing director or client could go wrong. After tasting and the exchanging of observed characteristics of the Champagne, the remaining glasses are filled. The correct way to do this is topping them up until they are no more than three-quarters full.
- Drinking Champagne must be done in style. Needless to say that the glass must be held by the stem. The first sip should be taken liberally. Keep the Champagne in your mouth and let some air in through pursed lips. This allows the Champagne to reach all parts of the mouth and now your tastebuds and tongue are in for a little party. While keeping your glass lifted up you admire the color and scrutinize the shape of the bubblies. You swallow the sip and savor the aftertaste. Your next step depends on the desired level of bluff. If you are in a brave mood, you could voice a few remarks on what you are tasting (or have read elsewhere on this page) and what you are observing regarding the color and or types of bubblies. You naturally holler something about the duration and flavor of the aftertaste. Cunning as you are, you had already inspected the bottle thus knowing whether you are dealing with a quality Champagne of some non-vintage concoction. Depending on this, you give a disapproving, favorable, or so-so opinion. The best (read: most impressive) thing you can do is of course to attribute a sensation to the Champagne that says something about the body, the character, the soul and the heart of the Champagne. Popular expressions are: sensual, charming, romantic, intelligent, zealous, passionate, ecstatic, unity, mystical, gentle. Make sure however that there are no experienced Champagne drinkers around, since these phrase are clearly defined in the Champagne vocabulary in terms of color, taste and bubblies. So if you are claiming that something tastes of orange blossom and is zealous at the same tame, your status as a bluffer is a dead give away for the true connoisseur.
- The following flavors, which you will no doubt be able to recognize unfailingly, can be found in Champagne:Flowers: wild rose, lemon blossom, orange blossom.
Fruit: lemon, apple, pear, quince, peach, nectarine, apricot, mango, banana, lichee, coconut, cherry.
Plants: fresh almonds, freshly cut grass, fern, truffle.
Dried fruit: hazelnut, raisin, figs
Epicuristic: fresh butter, toast, honey, sweeted fruit, vanilla, spices.
Some Trivial Facts & Figures:
- There are approximately 50 million bubbles in a bottle of Champagne.
- There are 5125 registered growers, 44 cooperation’s and 265 Champagne houses.
- The Champagne region has 980 million bottles of Champagne stored under the ground.
- The Champagne Ardennes measures 320 by 70 kilometres (123 sq miles x 27 sq miles).
- The first producer of Champagne “as we know it” was Ruinart in 1729.
- The caves of the big houses can be from 10 to 20 km long (6 –12 miles).
- A rumueur (fellow with fast hands) rotates over 10,000 bottles a day by an eighth of a turn every day.
- Over 55% of the Champagne market is held by Moët & Chandon and his pals.
- A producer often uses several brands under different names. There is only a handful of big players who call the shots.
- The producers obtain their grapes often for a substantial part from third parties.
- The prices of grapes are fixed annually.
- The biggest bottle in the world (2 metres high or 6.5 ft tall) is at Beamont des Crayers in Mardeuil.
- The largest wooden vat can be found at Mercier in Epernay (200,000 bottles).
- The biggest crystal glass is at Taittinger in Reims (the size of a roomy bathtub).
- We’ve got more trivia here!
Having compiled all this, we do recommend you exceed to a level higher than that of the bluffer. If you gain a little more in-depth knowledge of the subject, you will find that it actually is a lot of fun. (For that in depth review please visit our links in the Bubble Facts starting with Champagne History). Remember, Champagne stands for fun, pleasure, style, passion and celebration. There could be worse things to occupy your time.
Moralists have known to be said that too much of ought is good for nought. It is our firm conviction that this is not so with Champagne. With every bottle you open you should think of previous bottles and the moments that accompanied them. It therefore only gets better, and we can’t begin to imagine the day we will ever have had enough or said enough.
A Votre Sante!