All About Champagne 4-1-1998

Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio April 1998 Current Issue
April 1998 Food and BeveragePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Food and Beverage


All About Champagne

Serving bubbly with style is more than a matter of knowing how to pop the cork

Whether you believe the next thousand years begin in 2000 or 2001, there's no time like the present to start planning millennium parties. Of course, the beverage of choice for this momentous occasion or another celebratory event is champagne.

Legend has it that this form of wine was first bottled by Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk who was the cellar master at the Hautvillers Abbey in the Champagne region of France from 1668 to 1715. Supposedly, the first time he tasted the drink he had accidentally created, he said something like, "Come quickly! I'm drinking stars!" In fact, sparkling wines were being fermented long before Dom Pérignon came along. What the good friar can be congratulated for are his blending skills, with which he created the taste standard for champagne.

True champagnes are those imported from the Champagne region, where more than 900 million bottles of the bubbly currently are fermenting in the miles of caves beneath the gorgeous countryside. To create the wine, three types of grapes are used: chardonnay (a white grape) and pinot noir and pinot meunier (both red-skinned, or so-called black grapes); they each go through a preliminary fermentation alone before being blended to make champagne. After a great grape year, only fruit from that season is used, creating a vintage bottling. Generally, however, wines from several years are blended to produce excellent, non-vintage champagnes.

Once the wines have been blended, a mixture of yeast, wine and sugar is added for the second fermentation, which produces the carbon dioxide, or bubbles. The bottles are stored upside down and are turned daily to induce the sediment to settle at the top of the bottle. A process called dégorgement ejects the sediment, and a second dosage of wine and sugar is added. The finished wine comes in three types for discerning tongues, depending on the amount of sugar added during the last step. The more common champagnes are "brut" (very dry), "sec" (dry) and "demi-sec" (semi-dry, slightly sweet).

Varieties made outside of the Champagne region are called sparkling wines or are said to be made by the méthode champenoise. This does not mean, however, that they are inferior.

On hearing the words "champagne glass," most people think of the wide, shallow-bowled coupes that were thrown in fireplaces after a toast in old movies. According to legend, the coupe was modeled after Marie Antoinette's breast, perhaps from a plaster cast of the real thing. Origins aside, avoid using these glasses. They allow the fizz and the aroma to escape in a heartbeat, spoiling the sipping experience.

The ideal champagne glass is the flute, a narrow, tall glass that lets you watch the bubbles float gracefully up the sides before reaching your lips. The long stems also allow you to keep your fingers away from the wine (so they won't warm it up), which is hard to do when holding a coupe.

Some of the big names in elegant glass manufacturing are Riedel, Spiegelau, Baccarat and Luigi Bormioli, offering incredibly delicate, elegant and expensive flutes as well as beautiful, more reasonable versions. Whatever your selection, be sure the glasses are clear: Their purpose is to show off the wine.

You'll never go wrong serving a champagne from one of these cellars: Mo't & Chandon, Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jou't, Piper-Heidsieck and Taittinger. On the less expensive side (perhaps for large groups), Joshua Wesson, sommelier and president of Best Cellars wine retailers, recommends Hacienda Brut non-vintage (NV) from Sonoma, Calif., and Australia's Seaview Brut 1996, both about $10 a bottle. For larger budgets (or smaller groups), he suggests Laurent-Perrier Brut NV and Pol Roger Brut NV in the $20 to $25 range. When money is no object (perhaps the CEO and his colleagues have pushed the stock to an all-time high), break out the Krug Grand Cuv}e Brut or the Salon Le Mesnil 1990, at about $110 a bottle. Serve them cold.

Sending the cork into the air to open a bottle is festive, but you lose a lot of wine that way. Instead, carefully remove the cage and put a towel over the cork. Holding the towel tightly with one hand, use the other to very gently turn the cork until it eases from the bottle with barely a sound. Fill glasses to within an inch of the top. Unlike still wines, champagne doesn't need space in the glass to release the bouquet the bubbles accomplish that.

Here's to an effervescent event!

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