Bring champagne to mind, and likely as not you bring to mind festivities, gaiety, celebration, women in tight clothing and men with powerful handguns. “Champagne goes best with a chicken sandwich and a chorus girl.” I read it, and I’m behind it, as a champagne moment is usually a great visual. Champagne is a gift from the gods, one of heaven’s more beneficent hellhounds. What makes a good champagne? A great champagne? A not-so-good champagne? Well, let’s look at it.
The main guy at the area’s largest bubbly distributor hasn’t gotten back with a more solid reason for champagne’s popularity than bubbles, which, according to scientist Bill Lembeck, is about 49 million bubbles per bottle. The better wines have smaller bubbles, more of them, and they last longer. In keeping with this spirit, this article will be rife with bubbling sound bites.
What is champagne? Champagne is three things. First, La Champagne is a province of France that sits in the upper right-hand corner, bordering Belgium and Lorraine (zip code of quiches) and stretching almost to gay Paris. La Fine Champagne is an aristocrat of brandies, and Le Champagne is bubbly wine that has captivated young men and been the downfall of good women (or vice versa) for centuries. It is this last one that we turn our attention to.
Joe Guidry, local raconteur, told us that when he was in the area, it was intimated that the wholesale slaughter in La Champagne (four brutal years during World War II) put so much bone calcium into the soil that “it is, in itself, responsible for the superior flavor over its ‘sparkling’ counterparts.” Think about that. Any sparkling wine that is not from that province of France cannot be called champagne; it is merely a sparkling wine (or “Champagne of the Ozarks”).
How many true champagne producers are there? About five thousand, and many never get to this country. Most growers might produce a few thousand cases a year, some as many as ten thousand. Major houses like Krug (40 thousand) and Moet and Clicquot (two million) produce more. The number of sparkling wines, on the other hand, is infinite, from the South of Italy, to the Southern Pacific, to South America. And the tastes? Each is as different as a snowflake.
Sparkling wines start at $3 and go to about $30. True champagnes start at around $30 dollars and go to about $200 to $300 retail. What makes them worth the higher price? Simple: the quality of the grapes, the care that goes into making them, and the reputation of the winery. Krug, for example, makes champagne that is a blend of up to fifty wines from as many as ten different years. Naturally, it’s expensive. Why should you pay more? Because the more special the occasion, the more special the company, the more special the circumstance, the more special the wine you drink should be. True champagne is a very special thing. True champagne drinkers won’t order Mimosas or Kir Royales. Ya wanna get laid? Get good champagne!
Consider this: champagne is essentially made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes or a combination thereof, and a lot of places around the globe produce those grapes. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll see your favorite South African winery producing the bubbly as well. Champagnes and sparkling wines are getting as trendy as Kanye and Kim Kardashian.
Next to consider is how much care goes into making a good bottle of the stuff. It takes ten different and unique processes to turn good wine into champagne, and blending is one of the most important of them. A monk named Dom Pierre Perignon is credited for the blending aspect, and also, that weird cork thing. If you take the best blending of the best white wines from the region that lies on either side of the Marne River or any of the other six regions in that area, you can do some pretty amazing things.
As James Joyce said on page one of Finnegans Wake, “bababadal gharaghtakam minarronnkonnbronn tonnerronntuonnthunn trovarrhounawns kawntoohoo hoordenenthur-nuk!” Or as the Marvelettes put it, “Day doo ron ron ron, day do ron ron.”
What this means, as Joe Miller of Joe’s French Quarter Wine Cellar put it, is that “there is a lot to know about the bubbly.”
I’ve done some homework, and I don’t have the space to explain it all: chalky, intense, austere or lean stony soil, crus and cuvees (Grand or otherwise), vintage and non-vintage, estate and reserves, méthode champenoise, blanc de blanc, blanc de noir, brut, very dry, demi-sec and cremant: these all mean something. Remuage, dosage, coupage, serre, tirage, sur lees are really important. Speaking champagne sounds like you’re a marble salesman talking with a mouth full of samples. More than one description told me that I would be tasting biscuits! Ya know what? If you want to know about champagne, read a book!
Ahem. I went to a tasting of Domaine Chandon sparkling wines, including their Etoile Brut (brut meaning the driest), and Etoile Rose, meaning pink or what we’re now calling “a blush wine.” We also tasted a Pinot Meunier, but that’s another story. It takes them five years to make those bubbles right, and I would say that they really have something here. It’s the Wine Guy’s pick of the season. It’s reasonably priced, complex, long, creamy, and balanced. Lunch with winemaker Wayne Donaldson enlightened me about their sparkling wines that are made the same way as French champagnes (méthode champenoise), and I admit I was a little edgy. But believe it or not, I knew more than I thought and came away wiser than when I went in. Mr. Donaldson explained that the richness and complexity in Etoile comes from the poor soil. “The grapes have to work, and work hard. That gives superiority to the finished product.”
So, to make a long story longer, I’m shelving my champagne/sparkling confusion, and I’m going to stick with something I know is consistently excellent, as the last couple of bottles that I actually paid for have been. So, once again, the Wine Guy’s bubbly pick: Etoile Brut or Etoile Rose. Then go investigate others to measure up to them.