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Champagne isn't just for that special occasion
IT BEARS repeating that champagne is first and foremost a wine. The bubbles are the result of a second fermentation which is instigated in the wine after it has been bottled by adding a small amount of wine, called the liqueur de tirage (a mixture of wine to which has been added sugar and special yeasts), to the wine before it is capped. The carbon dioxide produced by this second fermentation remains in solution, thus increasing the pressure within the bottled wine above atmospheric level. Thus when the cork is extracted, this gas explodes out of the bottle under pressure in a foam of champagne. A most cheering sight!
Caution: do not shake the bottle before uncorking it, because this will INCREASE the bubbles and thus the bottled pressure, resulting in an explosive rush of the wine immediately the cork is extracted. You could lose some wine, or worse, you could also cause someone standing too near you, to be drenched with champagne!
Champagne houses produce two bottlings, a Non-Vintage (NV) every year, and a Vintage when the vintage is a good one. Its vintage wine cannot be the standard bearer (signature) of the House (called Marque) because vintages vary from year to year. Vintage champagne reflects the character and the quality of the vintage as it is made from a blend of that vintage's wines from the Marque's different vineyard sites. The standard bearer (NV) is meant to showcase each Marque's house-style, and this is only possible by ensuring that it is made from the same blend every year. And it has to be made in about the same quantity annually to meet the demands of the trade. And that, in turn, is only possible by holding a sufficiently large stock of what are known as Reserve still wines from past vintages. The Reserve wines are the pride and joy of each Marque. They provide the Marque's thumbprint.
When does one drink champagne? The correct answer is "any time you feel like a sparkling wine!". It is the popular perception that champagne is special, and therefore reserved for "special" occasions. But champagne is a wine, and therefore anytime you need a drink of wine, it can also be a champagne. One can, of course, drink champagne to accompany dinner, throughout if one so wishes! There is probably one real reservation and that is that some people find champagne too "gassy"! The accumulated bubbles of carbon dioxide can be uncomfortable for them, sometimes making them burp, even, in embarrassment. Champagne can be used as a white wine to drink with seafood.
One word of caution. The gas in solution appears to facilitate the entry of champagne (and its dissolved alcohol) into the blood stream, resulting naturally in an early entry of alcohol into the brain, sometimes causing nausea (and vomiting). In milder instances, it just induces early drowsiness. Either one is sufficiently embarrassing if one is in company. Another caution: not advisable to drink much of this if you are driving, especially when liable to run into a traffic police roadblock.
Choice of champagne? Some Marques are well-known, famous and high-profile. Moet & Chandon's luxury cuvee Dom Perignon is rightly famous and well-deserved. It never fails. It is expensive, but not the most. Above all, it is very consistent. And because of its easily recognisable bottle shape and label, it is widely used as the aperitif champagne at high-profile events! It is a very good drink incidentally, very tasty, good freshness (acidity), and good bubbles. The bubbles are important because they confirm to you that you are drinking a champagne, which adds to the pleasure. Incidentally, do not down your champagne too fast lest the sudden volume and rush of bubbles comes up as a loud burp!
For a house champagne, as a regular party-opener, I like Champagne Pol Roger's Non-Vintage White Foil. It is very pleasant on the palate, lightly fruity, with very good freshness and not too aggressive bubbliness. And relatively inexpensive. Pol Roger's luxury cuvee Sir Winston Churchill, whose first vintage 1975 (and released in 1979), was named after the famous prime minister, because Pol Roger was his favourite champagne at breakfast!
I had the great pleasure of knowing Christian Pol Roger and his lovely family in the mid-80s, visiting their home whenever we were in Epernay (they lived there instead of Reims). Christian was peripatetic, a frequent visitor to Singapore, often in the company of Gerard Jaboulet of Paul Jaboulet et Aine in the Rhone Valley. A great ambassador for Champagne.
Two other favourite (and very special) champagnes are Salon and Philipponnat's luxury cuvee "Clos des Goisses", both produced only in good vintages.
Salon was the creation of a single person, Eugene-Aine Salon. It was his hobby, initially created for his own use, and only grew in production in response to popular demand. It is made from only one varietal, Chardonnay, and only from one Grand Cru vineyard site, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, annual production only 60,000 bottles. This wine, and a wine it really is, needs bottle age, at least 10 years, for the Chardonnay to display its full beauty. And then it is glorious. Rich, intense, fresh, pure joy.
Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses, (70 per cent Pinot Noir, 30 per cent Chardonnay), is even rarer, only about 17,000 bottles annual production. The Clos des Goisses vineyard is a 5-hectare lump of chalk onto the bottom scarp of the Montagne de Reims, a very steep 40-degree slope. The almost pure chalk terroir accounts for its intensity of flavour and density. This is quite an extraordinary wine, also needing 10 years' bottle age at least.
One last special cuvee: Krug Clos de Mesnil vintage. Pure Chardonnay, from a walled single vineyard, originally belonging to the Benedictine Monastery of the village Le Mesnil. This is another gem, to be hoarded and aged.
It bears repeating, that all these three very special cuvees are single vineyard wines. That speaks for itself.