What do you know about champagne, other than its bubbly, expensive and signals glamour and good times, and possibly, for those who do not know their limits, bad behaviour and a hangover…? Doesn’t everyone know what champagne is? The short answer is ‘no’, and the long answer is ‘noo’. I have heard otherwise perfectly well-educated people say the stupidest things about champagne. It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people suspect you are unsophisticated, than to open it and most assuredly convince them that you are. Why keep them guessing or let them know for sure when you can easily learn how to sound like an expert on champagne? Read, click on the links to listen to the audio and learn more…
It’s not champagne unless it comes from Champagne, so don’t call sparkling wine from California or Australia (however wonderful it is) ‘champagne’. Until a couple of years, some American wine-makes made use of a nifty loop-hole in international legislation and shamelessly called their sparkling wine ‘champagne’, thereby infuriating the French. That is now mostly closed – the argument is too lengthy to detail here, but no decent and respectful wine-maker outside the Appellation of Champagne would call their product, however refined, ‘champagne’. Interestingly enough, champagne is the only wine that does not need to mention AOC status on the label – the mere fact that it is called champagne is enough to confirm it.
Some trivia: What do you call sparkling wine made outside of the Appellation of Champagne in France? It’s generally called ‘crémant‘, though some of the coarser ones may be referred to as ‘mousseaux‘. (A big thank-you to Jancis Robinson who helped me out here via Twitter – check out her website for all things wine. It is superb).
It is extremely crass to pop the cork and spray champagne over your companions unless you have just won the Grand Prix or a similarly prestigious sporting event. Don’t allow the cork to pop loudly – remove the foil and the wire, gently twist the bottle (not the cork) allowing it to release with a muted thud that says ‘I am a person of the world’, not a loud explosion that says ‘I have learned all I know about champagne from the scene in Dumb, Dumber where they kill an endangered species with an exploding cork.’
Anyone who knows a frog’s toe about champagne knows that the good monk Dom Pérignon did not invent or discover champagne, and is terribly unlikely to have uttered the words ‘come quickly, I am drinking the stars’. It’s a charming story, but don’t repeat unless you are dismissing it. Back in those days, the spontaneous ‘second fermentation’ which creates the bubbles often resulted in exploding bottles. This a problem which ‘the Dom’ was more interested in avoiding than encouraging.
So who discovered champagne? There are quite a few who advocate for the English, believe it or not!!! Candidates include cider-makers and a couple of English scientists. Methinks the answer is ‘no-one, really’. It’s more a question of ‘who learned to control the second fermentation?’ It’s clear that bubbles were spontaneously and unintentionally appearing in bottles of wine due to weather and other factors. Unlike Dom Pérignon, not everyone thought this was a bad thing, and interested wine-makers then started looking at ways to control the process and make the bottles strong enough to cope with the 5-6 atmospheres created by the CO2 without exploding.
What is wrong with this picture?
Or rather, what isn’t? Champagne and sparkling wine should be served in a flute, not a bowl on a stem (unless you are an eccentric Ruinart connoisseur with a fetish for the good old days). It’s not pure snobbery – the large surface area makes the bubbles dissipate more quickly. And anyone who tells you to tie ribbons on glasses shouldn’t be telling you anything at all. As for writing ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ on the glasses…the less said the better. Everything about this picture says ‘sweet cheap sparkling sort-of-wine’. Please don’t do this to proper champagne, sparkling wine, or even the cheap stuff if you are passing it off as the real thing. On a similar note ‘non’ to festive little umbrellas and any other adornments and…..HAH! Bet you thought I was going to say ice-cubes. Wrong, because it turns out…
….some people think putting ice-cubes in your champagne is trendy. Piper-Heidsieck, an ultra-luxe champagne house has created the ‘Piscine‘ (‘piscine’ means ‘swimming pool’ in French). You go to a club where the muted lights, loud music, and your gratitude that the doorman let you in addles your wits. The slick barman offers you a Piscine, and you say ‘mais oui’, not having a clue what he means. He proceeds to pour loads of terribly expensive Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée-Brut over ice in an extra-large, specially designed glass. And from then on you remember nothing until you wake up. Fortunately Facebook is plastered with photos of you having a good time so your memory may be indelibly refreshed for all perpetuity…
This drink may be terribly fashionable in parts of Paris and other international cities, but I’m not convinced. It hurts to think of what ice will do to the delicate aromas of fine champagne, but if you think this sounds like a smashing good time, you probably aren’t drinking it for the ‘delicate aromas’. Just remember – trendy and tasteful are not the same thing. And this runs contrary to the next thing you must know about champagne………
Never, ever freeze champagne – as I was saying, it ruins the aromas and flavours. Use an ice-bucket which has a mixture of water and ice – you can cool a bottle of champagne (from the cellars) to the right temperature in 15-20 minutes like this. If there is *no more room in your cellar* give it about 40 minutes (between 8 celsius for younger champagnes and 10 for mature champagnes). If you are chilling bottles in the fridge (not the freezer, I implore you, but if it’s for the ‘Piscine’ then I hope you are using ‘Piper’, not the Pol Roger). Lay them down on the bottom shelf for at least 3 hours to chill, or keep them there until you need them (but not for weeks on end – they are best stored in the *cellar*).
Take advice – sommeliers in the type of establishments who OUGHT to be serving champagne are not just ‘wine stewards’ – they are very highly trained professionals who really know their stuff, and are there to guide you. There is absolutely nothing wrong in asking for their suggestions.
If you find yourself competing for attention with someone who knows (or pretends to know) more than you do about champagne, it’s best to shut up and learn, or wait for them to trip up on something you know for sure, like the Dom Pérignon story.
Older may be better when it comes to wine, but not champagne. There is a quaint story which is always told by someone ‘who knows the family’ and as such should be taken with a generous handful of salt, but it illustrates the point very well, so it bears repeating. It goes like this: The matriarch of the Taittinger family is celebrating her 80th birthday, and to mark the occasion the family decide it would be nice to open an 80-year-old bottle of their own. After the bottle is opened and tasted, Monsieur diplomatically proclaims ‘I am happy to say that Madame has aged far better than our champagne…’
Don’t be too much of a snob to prefer a really good sparkling wine to champagne. There are excellent sparkling wines from South Africa, Australia, the States, and other countries which can equal the best champagnes, and better the mediocre ones. Spanish Cava (and Cava can only be from Spain) is absolutely wonderful. A true wine-love should never be hung up on names and labels.