Champagne Is a Place. Yes, like on a Map.
Champagne is a wine growing region in the north of France, near Épernay. Yes, we know that everyone calls sparkling wine “champagne,” but it doesn’t mean they’re right (hey, we don’t call every motorized car a Ford or every condom a Trojan). The region has been making wine since the Romans conquered and made it one of their playgrounds, but the technique of deliberately adding bubbles (via a controlled secondary fermentation in bottle to produce carbon dioxide) is a relatively new phenomenon—within the last 300 or so years. Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon probably didn’t invent the stuff, by the way—in fact, he almost certainly was pulling his bowl-cut hair out trying to prevent accidental secondary fermentation from causing his wine to literally explode.
Nowadays, Champagne employs strict regulations on production and storage techniques, aging requirements (at least 15 months for nonvintage), grape varieties (usually a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and labeling in order to protect the “brand” name that has become the standard-bearer for sparkling wine worldwide.
“I Got Dosed by You”
Champagne basically comes in two styles: vintage dated (in very good growing years) and nonvintage. Nonvintage doesn’t mean plonk, it means consistency: it’s a blend of several vintages, allowing producers to achieve a “house style” that constitutes over 90 percent of all Champagne sold. As for vintage Champagnes, they’re often more complex, age-worthy and rarer, so if you want one, bring your wallet and make sure it’s fat.
Otherwise, the big Champagne differentiator is the dosage level, shorthand for the amount of sugar added when the champers is topped up (to make up for the wine lost when yeasts left over from secondary fermentation are disgorged). Champagne’s natural acidity is usually so high that some sugar is needed to balance it out and keep your mouth from totally puckering up, even with the driest of styles. For drier stuff, go with “Extra Brut” or “Brut.” Things get a tad sweeter in the confusingly titled “Extra Dry” category, while “Sec” and “Demi-Sec” are often noticeably sweet. “Doux” can be beguiling but can also have you running for your toothbrush; serve it as dessert.
Forever Blowing Bubbles
Sparkling wine like Champagne contains CO2 in liquid form that wants to revert to a gas and turn into bubbles once it gets some air. The Champagne bubbles in your glass, however, are actually caused by friction between the Champagne and microscopic imperfections in and on the glass itself. Since the whole point of champers is the bubbles, you’ll want to ensure you’re drinking it from tulip-shaped glasses that haven’t got any soap residue in them, which will inhibit the bubbly action.
Don’t get too hung up on the stemware, though—just as Champagne makes any hookup feel like a major celebration, it will make even normal wine glasses feel elegant. Just avoid the wide-rimmed, cocktail “coupe” glasses—while it’s totally hot that they might have been modeled after Marie Antoinette’s boobs, they’re too shallow to show off the visual and aromatic potential in a good Champagne. Focus on your date’s “coupes” instead, okay?
About the Author:
Want to learn more about maximizing your wine pleasure? Visit Joe Roberts’ award-winning website 1WineDude.com, where you can find him regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing it with robust, obscure red). Joe is a certified wine geek and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, PalatePress.com and Washington Post.