Inside the Bubbles

Champagne houses make carbon dioxide fun.


Tiny bubbles in the wine
Make me happy, make me feel fine

If Don Ho’s classic tune sums up all you know about Champagne, that’s OK.

“My philosophy about wine education is ‘the more you drink, the more you know.’ This is not about facts and figures. This is about enjoying Champagne,” said Charles Curtis when he began a seminar on the bubbly beverage at November’s Art of Food & Wine Festival in Palm Desert. “You don’t need experience or knowledge. All you have to have are taste buds. [Drinking] is a repetitive motion.”

Curtis, it should be noted, is the director of wine and spirit education for Moët Hennessy USA and a Master of Wine (an elite qualification bestowed by the Institute of Masters of Wine only after an applicant passes an interview and rigorous exam). So if he says it’s OK to be unable to distinguish a 1982 Lafite from a 1990 Dom Pérignon, you have to feel comforted.

Still, it’s nice to know something about Champagne — if only to impress your friends, family, colleagues, or perfect strangers at a party.

“Champagne is one of the most well-made wines,” Curtis says, adding that style is primarily what distinguishes one Champagne house from another. “The key to being savvy about Champagne is to find the style you like.”

He notes that Champagne is the northernmost wine-producing region in France (thus grapes ripen more slowly) and the only region where the amount of juice a winemaker can gently press out of grapes is mandated by law. Ruinart, founded in 1729, is the oldest Champagne house.

The traditional method for getting bubbles in wine, méthode Champenoise, is complex. The grape juice undergoes fermentation in barrels, then is blended by the winemaker. The blended wine is bottled and yeast and sugar (tirage) are added. Carbon dioxide forms in the bottle during this second fermentation, creating bubbles, as well as sediment. For one to three years, the bottles are occasionally turned and tilted upside down to bring the sediment to the cap. Next, the neck of the bottle is submerged in a salt-ice solution to freeze the wine near the cap, the cap is removed, and the sediment is forced out by carbon dioxide’s pressure. Then the bottle is topped with a wine-sugar mixture (dosage) that creates new bubbles. The bottle is re-corked and laid on its side to rest for four to six months.

Here’s where Champagne gets less complex than still wines, which are made solely or in a seemingly infinite combination of about 10,000 grape varietals. There are three basic types of Champagne, using three grape varieties: blanc de blanc, made from chardonnay grapes; rosé, made from chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meuniere grapes; and blanc de noir, made entirely from pinot noir grapes.

Chardonnay brings elegance, finesse, delicacy, fire, and brilliance to the wine, Curtis says. Pinot noir brings power, structure, and longevity. And pinot meuniere brings floral aromatics and fruitiness.

Beyond grape composition, Champagne falls into three categories: nonvintage (93 percent of the market); vintage, aged at least three years; and prestige cuvée, the very best wine a Champagne house is capable of producing. Dom Pérignon, the prestige cuvée of Moët & Chandon, has produced a rosé only when its pinot noir attained a certain level of richness — only 17 times in its 70-year history, 1995 being the last.

Curtis, who has tasted Champagne from the 1940s (“it was completely brilliant”), does not necessarily stand on ceremony when he drinks one of his preferred beverages. “As you get more and more into it, you realize it’s really an exquisite wine,” he says. “You see it more as a wine and less of a party drink.” He even swirls it in standard wineglasses. While this opens up the wine’s nose and makes it “more expressive,” he concedes this practice kills bubbles. But he is, after all, a Master of Wine and more attuned than most people to aromatic nuances.

“It’s a tradeoff,” he says. Use a Champagne flute if you really love those tiny bubbles.

Read about the beginnings of Champagne and local recommendations — or make your recommendations.

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