#Champagne: A Name Bubbling with Joy
The night they invented champagne
They absolutely knew
that all we’d want to do
Is fly to the sky on champagne
And shout to everyone in sight
That since the world began
no woman or a man
has ever been as happy as we are tonight!
(Alan Jay Lerner, The Night They Invented Champagne from Gigi, 1958)
#Champagne, one of those rare words that triggers an explosion of sensory neurons. The name conjures up notions of celebrations, coronations, christenings and a myriad of other happy occasions in our lives and in the world. In recollections, Champagne is most often paired with smiles, laughter and joy.
Movies brim with references to champagne. What other prop has a cachet that immediately conveys, class, refinement, sophistication, wealth, and a zest for life and passion? #Grant, #Hepburn, #Bogart & #Bergman.
You might think champagne is all about glamour and giggles. However, there’s a dark side. Champagne is under a lot of pressure (pun intended) to consistently pop with delight. How many of us would shatter under such lofty and unrealistic expectations?
And for all of chic reputation, how much do any of us know about the drink we simply call, #Bubbly?
This past Saturday, Jim and I had the pleasure of journeying the 170 miles from Brussels to Champagne, a region in northeastern France. The trip was bittersweet. We toasted a safe farewell to friends, Pat and Bob who are returning home to New Jersey after eight months in #Belgium. #Brussels with its large international community, and especially the life of expats is full of farewells, lives constantly in motion like the bubbles in a flute of champagne.
Not only did we get to sample the region’s eponymous—(always fun to use a New York Times word)—nectar, but we learned a lot along the way. I even managed to retain some of that knowledge despite losing countless braincells in the process. Oh the sacrifices one makes for the pursuit of knowledge….
(For those who’d like a primer on champagne, I’ve included some basic facts at the end of the blog to help you impress others over caviar, canapés, foie gras and of course, champagne)
Let’s start our story with a familiar refrain. Once upon a time, the inhabitants of Champagne envied their southern neighbor, Burgundy, a region known for remarkable wines. The #Champenois as the natives are known, tried to imitate the rich, full-bodied Burgundies. However, a cool and rainy climate plus a chalky soil dashed their dreams. Though bad for red still wines, the region was ideal for growing grapes that give champagne its characteristic fizz and flavor.
The lesson? Greatness comes not by imitation, but by embracing your uniqueness.
We started our tour in the town some call the capital of champagne, #Épernay. Situated on the left bank of the Marne River eighty miles northeast of Paris, Épernay is home to the #Avenue_of_Champagne. The street boasts some of the best known producers of champagne. Stately ‘Houses’, open to the public, line the avenue including those of: #Moët & Chandon, #Pol_Roger, #Mercier, #Perrier_Jouet.
We visited Épernay’s House of Castellane, founded in 1895 by a wealthy, aristocratic family from Provence. Our tour of the production facilities included the caves where the champagne is aged.
Our guide taught us the basics. The sparkling wine known as champagne begins its life much like any still wine. Grapes separated by variety—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier—go through the first fermentation process in stainless steel vats. Topless vats allow carbon dioxide, a byproduct of sugar-eating yeast, to escape. This initial process creates a still wine. To produce champagne’s signature effervescence, the still wine undergoes a second fermentation. In this phase, wines are mixed to produce a desired blend. A Brut Traditional for example may contain equal parts of all three grapes. The second fermentation takes place in the bottle. Early riddlers, those responsible for rotating the bottles, often suffered from flying glass. Even 19th century tourists had to wear protective gear inside the caves to ward off flying shards of glass. Heavier, more durable bottles were the answer. First Lady Bess Truman learned the hard way that champagne bottles were built to last. Watch this humorous clip from 1945.
Second stop was #Hautvillers, pronounced something akin to ‘O-vee-lay’. This was the site of the Benedictine Abbey where champagne icon, Dom Perignon lived, worked and died. Slick advertising made champagne the drink of kings AND commoners. Smart marketeers–Kings are few, but commoners, a dime a dozen.
#Hautvillers provided a great vantage point to view the region’s vineyards.
Then onto Reims, Champagne’s largest city that began as a Roman settlement, Durocortorum. The third century, Mars Gate still stands.
First things first–how to pronounce the city. It’s not ‘reems’ or ‘rhymes’, but, ‘rans’ that rhymes with ‘Hans’ or ‘wants’ with a rolled ‘r’ and a nasally ‘n’. How that pronunciation came to pass, no one knows. Reims is home to Notre-Dame de Reims, a 13th Century Cathedral where the coronations of 25 French Kings took place. Of course, champagne flowed.
Reims is home to top names in Champagne production: #Taittenger, #G.H.Mumm, #Veuve_Clicquot, #Pommery among others….. The Pommery tour is not to be missed. A visit is a true experience. We happened to visit in the middle of an exhibition in which modern art adorns the champagne caves. We learned more…champagne is meant to be enjoyed soon after purchase. A bottle stored properly may last five years, but in a home refrigerator, less than six months. We learned this the hard way. A good friend popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon he’d had for fifteen years. The fine wine tasted like cat piss…. Pity the waste….
We enjoyed our final excursion with Pat and Bob. We’re happy we made the most of our five-month friendship. For you both, champagne wishes, caviar dreams…..
Life is like champagne–It’s meant to be consumed, not stored away till it’s too old to enjoy. Seize the day; share a bottle of champagne with those you love. You just never know how long someone will be in your life. Besides, no one wants to drink cat piss, no matter how fancy the label….
A Toast to Champagne. Champagne is a complex process, worthy of some study. Here are some basic facts best learned over a flute of champagne:
1) Only sparkling wines produced in Champagne from grapes grown in Champagne have the right to be called champagne. Hope this doesn’t come as a shock to some of you that, Andre’s Cold Duck, therefore really isn’t champagne. Most big-name producers do not grow their own grapes, they buy them.
2) Champagne is NOT a grape variety. All champagne is produced from some combination of three grape varieties. Two of which as a matter of fact do not have white skins at all. Blanc de blancs, literally ‘white from whites’ refers to a champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. The skins of the pinot varieties have colored pigments; the juicy flesh is white.
3) There’s Method to their madness. #Méthode Champenoise is the name of the process that turns still wine into champagne. While sparkling wines the world over, use the same method of double fermentation, only that wine produced in Champagne has the right to call the process Méthode Champenoise. All others including Spain’s Cava and the sparkling wines of California must call the process something else. Most use the term, #méthode traditionnelle, often found on the bottle. A basic principle of this method is that the second fermentation takes place within the bottle.
4) #Vintage is a rare year indeed. Most champagnes are a produced from grapes blended from several growing seasons. But in some years, when the grapes are deemed to be of exceptional quality, individual producers declare a ‘vintage year’. There is no ‘regional announcement’ or ‘vintage decree’. Producers use grapes from that single season to create a Vintage Champagne. You can recognize a vintage champagne as bottles display a year. According to our guide, champagne is intended for near immediate consumption. Vintage champagne beyond ten years old is undrinkable.
5) Sweetness decoder. Champagne has an array of sweetness. The list below illustrates the different amounts of sugar found in each type of champagne. For example, Extra Brut has LESS, not more sugar than Brut. Demi-sec has MORE, not less sugar than Sec.
Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre) Brut (less than 12 grams) Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams) Sec (between 17 and 32 grams) Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams) Doux (50 grams)
5) Dom Perignon (1638-1715) the Benedictine monk who lends his name the pricey cuvee of Moet & Chandon did NOT invent champagne. While Perignon spent his life as a cellarer in the Abbey of Hautvillers, the myths surrounding his influence were fabricated over one hundred years after his death to bolster the prestige of the Abbey. The quote attributed to Perignon’s first quaff of sparkling champagne, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” seems to be the advertising creation of 19th Century ‘Madmen’.
6) #Veuve, as in, Cliquot and Pommery is the French word, meaning, ‘Widow‘. Both of these savvy businesswomen led their respective houses to greatness after their husbands died.
7) Impress your friends with champagne trivia. In the second fermentation process, small plastic concave cups are placed in the neck of the bottle. As the bottles are turned, or ‘riddled’, these caps collect the fermentation sediment. When the secondary fermentation is complete, the necks of the bottles are chilled to a temperature of -25 Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit). When the temporary bottle cap is removed, the pressure inside the bottle disgorges the plastic cap. These plastic caps are known as #Bidules, the French equivalent of thingamajig or widget. The little wire cage that secures the cork has a name, #Muselet which derived from the french verb, museler meaning, ‘to muzzle’.