The wine palate
There are few undisputed facts in the world of wine.
The old conception that France makes the finest wine in the world was trounced by the Judgment of 1976 when Napa Cabs and Chards beat out French Bordeaux and white Burgundy in a blind tasting.
Oregon Pinot is giving red Burgundy a run for its money and with global warming changing the climates of the great regions of the world, who knows what the future has to offer. There is, however one remaining solid fact in this crazy industry Champagne is the finest dry sparkling wine in the world. I felt that with New Year’s Eve around the corner, you could use some info with which to impress your friends.
First thing’s first: Champagne is not a term that references every sparkling wine in the world. It is very specific to the region of Champagne in northern France that creates this lovely bubbly in a very exact way. It is called "Methode Champenoise."
This is a six-step process which is incredibly skillful, time consuming, and expensive. First the grapes go through primary fermentation. In this step, the original state of the grapes is essential as the acidity level must be very high for the wine to properly mature throughout the long bottle aging process.
The wine produced from this process is bland and unexpressive. This brings us to the second step, where some of the most talented people in the wine industry come in. Assemlage is the process in which the winemaker mixes these initially bland wines from different sites, years, and grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) to create the wine that will later go into secondary fermentation. In the case of Veuve Clicquot "Yellow Label," there are over 70 different wines that are mixed together precisely to make this great Champagne.
During the secondary fermentation, the still wine is mixed with sugar and yeast to generate another step of fermentation that happens in the bottle. In a normal fermentation process, the sugar and yeast make a chemical reaction that yields alcohol and CO2. The CO2 is released into the air and you get alcohol. In the case of Champagne, the CO2 is held in the bottle, which creates the bubbles.
After secondary fermentation, the really tedious work begins. During secondary fermentation, a nasty little bit of sediment is created. To remove this from the bottles, they are tilted toward the floor and a cellar worker turns each bottle a 1/4 turn repeatedly for three months until the sediment slowly slides to the neck of the bottle. Can you say carpal tunnel syndrome? The sediment is then removed and the cork is inserted. Phew!
Now that you know how Champagne is made, you need to know which Champagne to buy. I guess that depends on how much you want to spend. One of my favorite and cheap non-vintage bruts is the Nicolas Feuillatte. It may not be Cristal but it works for me.
Then of course there is the super yummy Taittinger non-vintage brut Rose for those of you that love a little pink in your bubbly. But my personal favorite is the great Blanc de Blanc known as the one and only Salon. This Champagne is only made in the best years and the ’90 vintage stands today as one of the best wines I have ever had the chance to taste. Since 1921, there have only been 31 vintages made. Chanukah present anyone?
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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