While raising a glass of Barolo as a toast to prosperity for the coming year, I made a silent resolution – drink more Champagne in 2011. Sadly, sparkling wine has become a drink for celebrations and special occasions for most people. But bubbly can be a very food-friendly beverage that deserves a place on the dinner table. Considering the work that goes into hand-crafted, méthode champenoise bottles, bubbly provides far more bang for your buck than an equally priced still wine.
Richard Geoffroy, the chef de cave and lead winemaker at Dom Pérignon, suggests one serve his Champagne with sushi and other light Asian fare. While this is indeed a suitable match for Dom, his bubbly is far too delicate for heartier dinner courses. In fact, this lighter, elegant style of many Champagne houses, such as Laurent-Perrier, Mumm, Perrier-Jouët, Pommery, Bruno Paillard and Nicolas Feuillatte (to name just a few) generally limits their service to before-dinner drinks and accompaniments to appetizers. However, there are plenty of full-bodied Champagnes (many of which are Pinot-dominated) that can stand up to a heartier entrée. Yes, by pinot-dominated, I mean Pinot Noir. Some pinot-dominated styles include: Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Deutz, Krug, Pol Roger and Veuve Clicquot.
This calls for my first digression: Many people don’t realize that Champagne is typically a cuvée of both red and white grapes. With the exception of a few obscure grapes that are still permitted in ancient, family-owned Champagne vineyards, all of the big French houses are legally limited to just three grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – of which only one is a white grape. And, just to be clear, by Champagne, I refer only to the sparkling wines of the Champagne region.
The grapes used for Champagne are generally picked earlier than those intended for still wines, when sugar levels are low and acid levels are higher. Except when intended for rosé Champagnes, the juice of pressed grapes is racked off quickly to minimize contact with the red skins, to keep the wine white. The “primary fermentation” begins in the same way as for still wine, converting the natural sugar into alcohol while the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape. This base wine is acidic and not very pleasant. At this point, the blend (known as a cuvee) is assembled using wines from these three grapes, often from different vineyards, and, in the case of non-vintage Champagne, from various years as well. That leads to my second digression: unlike still wines, non-vintage Champagne is typically better than a vintage Champagne.
Because the region is rather cold and the grapes must be harvested early, not every year in Champagne is deemed suitable for a vintage bottling. Moreover, the inconsistency of the harvest is benefited from blending cuvees from multiple years. This also allows each Champagne house to blend for a consistent style. So, while a vintage Champagne can be interesting and even quite good, they typically do not reflect the style of the house, and they can also be far more expensive even if they are inferior to the non-vintage bottles.
To finish a Champagne and create the bubbles, the blended wine is put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar, called the liqueur de tirage, and then stored horizontally, for the second fermentation in the bottle. This is méthode champenoise. During the secondary fermentation the CO2 is trapped, keeping it dissolved in the wine. The amount of added sugar here will determine the pressure in the bottle. Champagne requires a minimum of 1.5 years to completely develop the desired flavor. In years when the harvest is exceptional, a vintage (millesimé) is declared and the vintage bottling has to mature for at least 3 years.
After aging, the sediment in the bottle, called the lees, must be removed through a process called disgorging. Until this process was invented by Madame Clicquot, Champagnes were all cloudy. Immediately after disgorging, the bottle is topped up with a mixture of sugar dissolved in base wine (or more typically wine and cognac) a practice known as the dosage, which determines the sweetness of the finished Champagne. Brut, the most food-friendly Champagne, is less than 1.5% residual sugar by volume, with the sugar added more to balance the acid than to create perceptible sweetness.
So, let’s get back to my goal for 2011 – drinking more sparkling wine. In that spirit, I have decided that an entire meal accompanied by an unusual (and affordable) collection of pink bubbly would be a great way to start my New Year. But, if you remain fixated on serving bubbly only for special occasions, what could be better than an all pink lineup for Valentine’s Day? Here are my suggestions:
Chandon Blanc de Noirs (Napa Valley, California)
Dominated by Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Chandon’s Blanc de Noirs (white from blacks) is a delicate salmon color that is full-flavored and fruit-forward. This is the designated bubbly for all White House receptions. I suggest sprucing it up a bit, by making it into a sparkling cocktail. Place a sugar cube in your flute, add a single drop of bitters, then top it off with the Chandon. If you want a little extra kick, pour ½ oz. of Clear Creek Pear Eau de Vie into your glass before adding the sugar cube.
With the first course:
Langlois-Chateau Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé (Saumur-Champigny, France)
This wine comes from the Loire Valley. It is a vibrant salmon-pink hue made from 100% Cabernet Franc, not a Champagne grape. The fruit is left in the press overnight to impart color, then after fermentation in bottle it is left on its lees for 18 months. If there was any question about the quality of this bubbly, the fact that the Bollinger Champagne house acquired this 100-year-old family owned winery in the Loire, should speak volumes.
With the entrée:
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV (Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, France)
If I were told I could only drink one wine for the rest of my life, this would be it. The finest rosés are about delicacy and this wine exemplifies utter restraint, so your entrée should too. This rosé starts with a white wine created from 40% Chardonnay and the rest a mix of the two Pinots. The final wine is a blend made up of 93% of the white to which 7% red wine made entirely from Pinot Noir is added before secondary fermentation.
Vietti Moscato d’Asti Cascinetta (Castiglione Tinella, Italy)
Made from 100% Moscato grapes, Vietti describes their bouquet as an “intense aroma of peaches, rose petals and ginger.” Unlike Prosecco, which undergoes secondary fermentation in stainless steel tanks, Vietti’s Moscato is made in the méthode champenoise process. The only problem with my plan is it isn’t pink; but we can fix that. I suggest serving it over a ½ oz. of Crème de Fraise (strawberry liqueur) as a sweeter twist on a Kir Royale. Cheers!
Suggestion for further reading: Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, by Tom Stevenson