Working for years as a restaurant sommelier at bustling big-city restaurants, I was inundated with data that made it easy to come up with generalizations about the wine-drinking habits of the American public. It is safe to say that more people drink more white than red, most diners avoid sweet wines, and Champagne is thought of as a celebratory wine most often reserved for special occasions or the holidays. I gently suggested other occasions for Champagne. For guests who came in looking for a wine experience that would include new styles, grapes, and regions, certain styles of Champagne were ideal for pairing with many light dishes at the beginning of the meal, whether or not the guest was celebrating any specific occasion. Still, there are many reasons why Champagne is, and will always be, the ultimate wine for birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, and New Years Eve.
Champagne is many things: a place, a brand, and a method for making the best sparkling wines in the world. Champagne, the place, is located about forty-five minutes by train northeast of Paris, a cool-climate region that lies at the boundary of where it has traditionally been possible to ripen wine grapes. The marginal weather is crucial to maintaining the acidity in grapes that is responsible for Champagne’s crisp, refreshing profile. The uniquely chalky soil also contributes to the vine’s ability to ripen grapes while adding a mineral-like freshness to the wines. Although the original boundaries of the Champagne region included only areas covered with chalk, the ability to label one’s wines as Champagne became so important for growers financially that producers in the southerly Cote Des Bars area successfully rioted in 1908 to demand that they too be part of the emerging fine-wine region.
In addition to originating from a specific place, this sparkling wine must also be crafted by a very labor-intensive process in order to be labeled as Champagne. First, grapes are harvested and then pressed ever so gently, so as not to release bitter compounds in the skins and seeds. In fact, the local authorities regulate the force with which grapes in the region can be pressed. The juice is then fermented into a crisp, dry still wine that is extremely tart. Most of the time, this base wine is blended with reserve wines held from previous years’ harvests, which allow the cellar master to produce a more consistent style of Champagne no matter what the current vintage’s weather was like. This wine is then transferred into bottles, including the very bottle from which you poured your last glass of Champagne. A small amount of yeast and grape juice are added and the bottle is fitted with a cap that is similar to a beer cap.
A secondary fermentation then commences. This fermentation results in a slightly raised level of alcohol, but more importantly results in carbon dioxide that becomes trapped in the bottle. Because the bottle is a very small container for this process to take place, Champagne bubbles are tiny and more well-integrated compared to sparkling wines made in other methods. The Champagne then ages for at least a year or two, sometimes much longer, developing flavors of brioche, toast and smoke that further add to its complexity.
However, this bottle fermentation does present one important challenge: removing the dead yeast cells that would result in chunky solids in the Champagne. In the 1700’s, Champagne drinkers would decant their Champagne, a sometimes messy process that caused much of the desirable carbon dioxide to blow away. Fortunately, Madame Veuve Clicquot invented a process known as riddling, by which bottles are rotated and turned upside down, gradually moving all of the sediment into the end of the neck of the bottling. The bottles are then disgorged: the cap is removed, the clump of sediment shoots out, and the space now created is instantaneously filled with a small dose of sugary syrup. This addition doesn’t result in a sweet Champagne, but is necessary in even very dry styles, such as Brut, to balance out the naturally tart acidity.
From here the wines are shipped around the world where they are purchased by consumers who often recognize the distinct labels on many of the larger brands. The Champenoise have been expert marketers for over a century. In fact, Champagne itself is now not only a brand, but a strong luxury brand. This association with opulence leads to potential Champagne drinkers reserving their Champagne consumption for a few annual occasions, rather than enjoying it more regularly. Champagne is relatively costly to produce because it requires so much labor as well as a capital commitment for the extended ageing period. Nonetheless, there are still many values to be had that are well-suited for drinking Champagne more regularly. The intensity of flavor, the pronounced minerality, and the fine texture do make it fitting for the holidays too. Below you will find brief descriptions of some of our favorite bottlings that are offered on SipSend.
Paul Bara "Réserve Brut", Grand Cru, Bouzy, Champagne, France NV $54 (375 ml)
Paul Bara has long been considered one of the best producers in the aptly named village of Bouzy. Here, the specialty is Pinot Noir, pressed away from the skins to avoid any coloring. The result is a full-bodied, completely dry Champagne with notes of ripe apple and toast. The half bottle size makes this the perfect weeknight treat.
Francis Orban, Blanc de Noirs, Extra Brut, Champagne, France NV $55
This unique Champagne is 100% Pinot Meunier, quite a rarity in the region. Francis adds a very high percentage of reserve wines, crafting a Champagne that is bone-dry, yet also rich with loverly spice notes. An incredible value.
Pierre Paillard, “Les Terres Roses", Grand Cru, Extra Brut, Bouzy, NV $70
This full-bodied Champagne is a wonderful example of how complex rosé can be. Notes of red berries, white plum, and lovely floral tones. The acidity balances out the fruitiness in this Extra Brut bottling.
Billecart-Salmon "Sous Bois" Brut, Champagne, France, MV $102
Billecart-Salmon is a medium-sized, family-owned Champagne house. Although most Champagnes are not aged in oak so as to maximize freshness, “Sous Bois” translates to “Under Wood,” as the base wines for this Champagne are in fact aged in oak barrels. The result is a Champagne that is still refreshing, yet features extra texture and depth.