Champagne is the wine of choice for Sunday's New Year's Eve
Dec. 27, 2000
One year ago this week, the world was seemingly in a frenzy over Y2K. It was either going to be the end of the old world or the beginning of a new one. For certain it was going to be the New Year's Eve party to end all New Year's Eve parties.
The eager public was warned there would be a shortage of champagne and what would a Y2K party be without champagne? Retailers world-wide stocked up with bubbly at a level they had never put on their racks before.
The public didn't go along with the hype. They didn't accept the shortage scare stories and they wouldn't pay the inflated prices. Months later, one of the local package stores still had an inventory that could have competed with a major New Orleans dealer.
That won't happen this year. Yes, there will be a lot of champagne or its copy "sparkling wine" sold between now and Saturday in anticipation of Sunday night's New Year's Eve. Yes, these wines are the party choice for this particular night and they should be. But normal inventories will be enough and prices will remain in line.
True champagne comes from the Champagne District of France. It is the world's greatest sparkling wine because of the climate a cold, sometimes unfriendly Northern climate (90 miles northeast of Paris) and a lime rich chalk soil. One expert maintains if such an area would be discovered today, modern wine experts would say "forget it," maintaining it unsuitable for raising the proper grapes.
Some champagnes are vintage wines. They come from a single estate and a single vintage, plainly shown on the bottle. They are much more expensive than blends but blends are the most popular and, frankly, very comparable in flavor while carrying a much lower price. Some of these blends come from as many as 70 different base wines.
The amount of sweetness is designated on the label. Remember, all champagnes have some degree of sugar added to the final blend. Extra brut champagnes contain the least. They are bone dry and not a big seller. The most popular champagne is labeled brut. It ranges from dry to very dry but it is never austere.
Many people believe a label which says "extra sec" or "extra dry" contains less sugar than brut. Not true. Medium dry would be more like it. Then we move on to the label "sec" or "dry." Don't be fooled. This wine is likely to be medium-sweet. It will never be dry. Demi-sec is sweet, but not sweet enough to be used as a dessert wine.
Like most white wines, champagne should not be served ice cold. Two advance hours in the refrigerator or the ice bucket before opening is enough to chill it but not destroy the flavor.
In addition to regular champagnes, you will often see blanc de blancs bottlings. That simply means white wine made of white grapes or, in effect, entirely from white chardonnay grapes.
Rose' champagnes are sometimes blended with slight amounts of red wines. In other cases, the grape skins are allowed to stay in the juice for a longer period of time, thus turning the ultimate wine into the slight rosy color. Normally, rose' champagne carries a higher price only, I am convinced, because the public is willing to pay it.
The only true champagne is that produced in the Champagne District of France. American, Italian and Spanish wines are merely sparkling wines which are made by the same methods used in France to create real champagne. Read the label.
There are no truly bad French champagnes, at least not by my taste. Some are better than others, agreed, but the level of quality helps determine the price.
American sparkling wines range widely in flavor and price. At the low end are such bottlings as Andres (ugh), Cooks and Totts. In the middle are Korbel, Piper Sonoma (made in America by the Piper-Heidsieck firm of France) and Roederer Anderson Valley, (again, made by the French firm of Louis Roederer in their own style.) All three of these are quite drinkable.
Other excellent American versions of champagne include Iron Horse, Mumm, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon and Gloria Ferrer. I have a friend who served Gloria Ferrer at his daughter's wedding and it was lovely.
Italian spumantes vary widely in their sweetness. If you want something approaching champagne, be prepared to buy the better, more expensive spumantes.
The principal Spanish sparkling wine carries the label Freixenet and is really rather pleasant. It is the best known of the Spanish wines although Codorniu is the largest producer in Spain. Their volume of production exceeds even the famous Moet &Chandon firm of Champagne in France. Both Freixenet and Codorniu have their own personality quite apart from the flavors of France or American sparkling wines.
By the way, the old fashioned flat bowl-like glasses are a no-no. They allow the precious bubbles to escape too easily and the wines go flat. Serve champagne only in flutes, longer and leaner glasses which retain the tingle that makes champagne so popular to drink. Happy New Year!
Stan Torgerson, a longtime Meridian resident, has written a wine column for several years.