A beer drinker's guide to holiday champagne

From the "Dowd On Drinks" archives, updated:

So there you sit, in your latest ugly Christmas sweater that already has a splotch of holiday gravy on the front, wondering how to avoid looking like a schlub when you uncork the champagne you've been assigned to purchase for the next family inquisition commonly known as New Year's Eve.

You like your bubbly, of course, if it says Bud Lite on the label. What do you know about that frou-frou French stuff, and who wants to spend that kind of money on something that tickles your nose and tastes sour anyway?

If you know champagne is French, you may be farther ahead than you realize. The rest is a simple matter of getting educated. Quickly. Since you're running low on shopping days to get ready to toast the arrival of 2009, sit up straight and pay attention.

True champagne comes from the Champagne region in the northeastern part of France which jealously protects the name "champagne'' worldwide. That's why the phrases "champagne style'' and "methode champenoise'' appear on a lot of non-French labels. (See how much you've learned already?)

Champagne doesn't taste sour. Crappy champagne does. However, it does have quite a range from tart to sweet.

There is something called "liqueur d'expedition'' which is used to top off bottles after the sediment has been removed. Because it contains varying amounts of sugar and some reserve wine, the sweetness of the finished product will vary and determines the style of the champagne.

The most common style is brut -- there is an extra or ultra brut, but you'll rarely see it, especially in the U.S. Brut has 0 to 15 grams of sugar per liter. Then comes extra sec with 12-20 grams, sec at 17-35, demi-sec at 35-50, doux at more than 50 and also extremely rare. You're usually dealing with brut style in this country, and it's a versatile wine for meals, desserts or just quaffing.

Champagne prices range all over the place, such as $15-$22 for a palatable low-end wine to $30-$60 for the better ones without having to sell your first-born to pay for even more expensive ones. My favorites are Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin ($39.95) and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut ($30) among the affordable imports and Chateau Frank 2000 Blanc de Noirs from the Finger Lakes ($29.99) among the "methode champenoise'' domestics.

What should determine the price is what's in the bottle. A non-vintage wine, usually denoted by the letters NV on the label instead of a vintage year, is a blend from several different years. Vintage wines are produced from a single year.Most champagne houses will designate a vintage only if they think the grape crop from that year was special. Otherwise, they blend their product to meet a certain standard. Vintages are more expensive.

Some of the other top-tier French champagnes are Taittinger, Moet et Chandon, Bollinger, Cristal, Pol Roger and Dom Perignon. The French-owned Roederer Estate winery in California also produces some nice bubblies.

Champagnes do not have to be golden, as the movies would have you believe. There are champagnes ranging in color from nearly white to deep gold to rose or bright pink. It all depends on the manufacturing process.

There are champagnes made entirely from black grapes (blanc de noir) such as pinot noir and pinot meunier and champagnes made entirely from white grapes (blanc de blanc) such as chardonnay. The rose wines are made by allowing a little more contact with the red grape skins than usual or, in a few cases, even introducing a touch of red wine to the process.

Champagne is best served as cold as you can get it without putting it in the freezer. That helps maintain the bubbles after opening. And, speaking of opening, a bad job of doing that can ruin the whole thing. Just keep a few things in mind:

• Remove the wire cage and foil covering the cork.

• Point the bottle away from everyone, including yourself. It is under tremendous pressure, so it can be a dangerous missile.

• Put a dish towel over the top of the bottle and, with your hand under the towel, grasp the cork firmly.

• Hold the cork steady and turn the bottle. The cork will slowly disengage.

• When the cork comes out, keep the towel over the bottle opening for a moment to preserve the gas and the champagne.

• Pour into champagne flutes and enjoy.
A champagne haiku

Champagne bubbles rise
like tiny moths to light bulbs
here's to you my dear

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William Grinici said...

Because most beer drinkers seem to be satisfied drinking the many "light" beer products on the market they would, no doubt, be satisfied with toasting in the new year with products like the ever popular "Charmant Bulk Processed" favorites such as "Andre," or "Cooks" champagne-like concoctions.

Personally, I would use such products to only flush my toilet, bypassing the ingestion process.

William M. Dowd said...

I always admire someone interested in efficiency.

College Football Fan said...

well done and informative, I can relate to the “just quaffing” style…although I did make a fun night of bubbly cocktails and sipped them with dignity.

Curlymoe said...

A couple of alternative views:

I would never serve decent champagne so cold; in fact, I’d take it out of the fridge 10 minutes ahead of serving to let it warm up a bit so you can taste what you are drinking. Only $5.99 a bottle champagne should be served super cold.

Champage corks often do not “slowly disengage”. Grip the cork firmly WITH the towel and keep the bottle at a 40-45 degree angle, so that if it “erupts” you can quickly tip the bottle to almost horizontal, allowing air into the neck so the foam will quickly subside. This way you also have the towel in hand, ready to catch overflow.

Dom Perignon and Cristal are the prestige cuvees of the champagne houses of, respectively Moet et Chandon and Louis Roederer.

William M. Dowd said...

Dear Curlymoe:

Always glad to have other points of view. As with most things in the wine world, much of the genre is a matter of individual taste.

For example, I can’t imagine letting my champagne sit around for a while before serving it. But that’s up to the individual. Eric Glatre, for example, is regarded as one of France’s two or three most revered champagne experts. He says, “Champagne releases its finest aromas at temperatures between 46.4 and 50°F (8 and 10°C).”

As to champagne corks “often” not slowly disengaging when handled properly, in my experience they virtually always do. Again citing Glatre, “Tip the bottle slightly, then gently turn it with your right hand, holding the cork with your left. The cork will gradually ease out, slowly releasing the carbon dioxide and giving a little sigh as it does so. This is your reward. To prevent the mousse from gushing out with a vengeance when the cork is removed, try not to shake the bottle at any point in the proceedings. If you follow these few simple rules, you’ll find that opening a bottle of champagne is child’s play.”

curlymoe said...

I agree that there is alot of room for individual taste and it seems we actually agree on the temperature. Your article stated that "Champagne is best served as cold as you can get it without putting it in the freezer". To me, that implied 40 degrees or under. Allowing 10 minutes out of the fridge would just sbout take it to the correct temp.
And I agree that the classic procedure described by Glatre is the ideal. But when advising a novice about opening champagne (which I thought was the point of the article), the "real world" needs to be taken into account. When champagne is "handled properly" there is seldom a problem. But during the holidays it is not uncommon for bubbly to be transported/handled improperly by once a year imbibers. I think newbies need to be advised that things can be a little trickier than Glatre's gentile scenario. I would also add that when loosening the cage around the cork, ALWAYS have the other hand firmly holding the cork - like you said , there's alot of pressure in that bottle. If the cork decides to fly, you'll want to have a grip on it.
Just offering an opinion based on years of selling champagne to a wide variety of folks.