Champagne, sparkling wines served at next tasting
By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
Nov. 12, 2003
For a number of years, we have dedicated the November tasting to champagne. The holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, are ideal for celebrating and what better beverage to use than champagne?
If we use the exact definitive words required for this wine (and this tasting), only a portion of what we serve is true "champagne." The balance is sparkling wine.
Champagne is the region in northern France, about 100 miles east and north of Paris, which lends the wine its name. In truth, only the wine produced in that region from grapes grown there and bottled by wineries located in that area can truthfully be called "champagne."
Since champagne growers and vintners have never protected the term, it has become generic and applied to virtually all wines with bubbles. You'll find the name on bottles produced in the United States, Chile, Russia and other countries producing wines of that type, but it isn't accurate. Descriptive, yes. Accurate, no.
The art of making champagne was developed at a monastery, the Abbey of Hautvillers, by a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon.
He was blind but had a highly developed sense of taste. It was he who developed the blend and the process that resulted in champagne. It is said when he first tasted the new drink, he exclaimed to the others, "Come quickly, I am tasting stars."
Now one of the most distinguished and expensive champagnes in the world is named after him.
Only three grapes are used to make true champagne, the pinot noir, pinot chardonnay and pinot meunier. The label of some bottles will read "blanc de blancs." This wine is made exclusively from the chardonnay grape and means white wine made with white grapes.
Most, however, blend the chardonnay grapes with the pinot noir or the pinot meunier in order to give depth and body to the wine.
Champagne's eventual taste and quality is dictated by the weather. Warm and mild weather produces great grapes and wonderful wine.
In poor years, the vinters blend their current crops with wines saved from previous years in order to produce good wine. No winemaker is permitted by French law to sell more than 80 percent of his wine in a successful year as a vintage wine. The balance is held back for use as blends in non-vintage wine produced in years when the climate has not been as kind.
The wine goes through two fermentations and develops the carbon-dioxide gas which gives it the bubbles. It also develops sediment so the wine is placed neck down in racks which are shaken and turned by hand for many months until all the sediment is down at the cork.
At this point, the neck is placed in an icy brine which freezes about one inch of the wine. The cork is removed and the pressure of the gas forces out the sediment and some of the trash. A little sugar syrup combined with wine or brandy is put in the bottle to fill it and a new cork is inserted. The ultimate sweetness is determined by the amount of sugar used.
The most popular champagne is called "brut." A bit sweeter is "extra dry" and the sweetest is "dry."
The methods used in France have been copied all over the world, even though the wine produced is not true champagne. But normally, there is a vast price difference between sparkling wine and champagne, although many of the sparkling wines are quite competitive with their more expensive brothers.
At our tasting, we try to run the gamut. Several true French champagnes will be served. But there will also be sparkling wines that, in our judgment, are fairly priced for the quality in the bottle and which will be very acceptable for your holiday entertaining.
The price for this tasting is $35, mostly because of the cost of real champagne, none of which is inexpensive. But for those of you who are price-conscious, we believe you will discover wines which will please you without requiring a bank loan.
We are still selecting the wines but one French producer has expanded to California and we will compare their two products against each other, the French version and the lesser priced same label, except from California.
There will be examples from other countries as well. In all, we plan to serve six wines as samples of the sparkling wine art.
We have moved the tasting to Nov. 20 from its normal last Thursday of the month schedule because of Thanksgiving. That's next week. It will be at Northwood Country Club with the usual 6:30 p.m. start time. Make your reservation by calling 482-0930 or send your check to P.O. Box 5223, Meridian, MS 39302.