Champagne: You’re Drinking It All Wrong
How can a chilled, acidic, and bubbly liquid make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?
Champagne has become the drink of special occasions and Christmas, a status symbol in a delicate flute (Erik Segelbaum, a sommelier for D.C. restaurant Le Diplomate, acknowledged to me his guests smile a little brighter when holding a Champagne glass). In fact, about 40 percent of the French bubbly is sold from October through the year’s end.
Yet Americans still don’t know much about it, which means we don’t really know how to drink it either. The French still consume more than half of the Champagne produced. And though the U.S. is the second biggest export market behind the United Kingdom, according to the U.S.-based Champagne Bureau, Americans tend to reserve Champagne for special occasions, when we really should be having it year-round, if for no other reason than it is perhaps the most versatile and foolproof food pairing wine out there. Many more Champagnes have recently become more widely available in the United States, including grower-producer varieties that emphasize terroir and nuance, which offer myriad opportunities for exploration and enjoyment.
“I have friends that have Chanel bags, and because they paid a fortune for it, and because it’s very well made…they don’t think they should use it every day,” explains Carl Heline, U.S. director of Krug Champagne at Moët Hennessy, explaining, perhaps, why many people are reserved in their Champagne consumption. “People don’t know that Champagne is a super well-made wine before being the ‘wine with bubbles.’”
That’s why I’m here: to arm you with the following best practices from top experts so that you can get out there and start popping bottles like a pro, 365 days a year:
1. All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Champagne must come from the northeastern French region by the same name (except the California brand Korbel, which can legally use “California Champagne” on its label because it has used the name since the 1800s). The region benefits from a cool climate, limited sunshine, and steady rain, which sounds depressing to live in, but happens to cultivate a delicious libation. Vines love its chalky, porous, and mineral-rich soil. Champagne is made primarily with one or a combination of three grapes: chardonnay (if made only with chardonnay it is called blanc de blancs or “white from white”), and two black grapes: pinot noir and pinot meunier. If a Champagne is made only with the black grapes, it is called blanc de noirs, or “white from red.” Champagne must also be produced in a traditional “methode champenoise” style. That means that Champagne is fermented a second time in the bottle when sealed closed, which naturally produces the bubbles.
2. Champagne is perhaps the most versatile food pairing wine. “As sommeliers when we’re in doubt, we pick a bubbly,” says Keith Goldston, a master sommelier for Washington restaurants Aggio and Range. “Because what food doesn’t taste better with a squeeze of lime on it?” Champagne, which is also acidic, offers a nice complement to anything from tuna tartare to beef bourguignon. Depending on the producer, Champagne can also be highly cloyingly sweet, buttery, or round, or mineral.
3. Did you know you’re drinking Champagne out of the wrong glass? Contrary to popular belief, some Champagne flutes are not the best glass for properly enjoying a Champagne’s aromas. Try putting it in a white wine glass or one designed to work with Champagne’s chemical and aromatic compositions, such as the Reidel Veritas Champagne glass or “The One.” You do this “so that the ‘juice’ that has been imprisoned will have some space to breathe,” Heline says. Additionally, the traditional Champagne coupe, which is rumored to be modeled after Marie-Antoinette’s breast, was developed 100 years before her birth, says Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, one of few Masters of Wine in the United States and author of The One Minute Wine Master: Discover 10 Wines You’ll Like in 60 Seconds or Less and co-author of Pairing With the Masters: a Definitive Guide to Food and Wine. The ladies of the court did not like the bubbles tickling their noses and the coupe was designed to create more surface area to make the fizz dissipate faster. If you drink from a flute, do so from a tulip-shape one to concentrate the notes, Simonetti-Bryan says.
4. We also drink Champagne too cold. Most Americans chill their Champagnes in a refrigerator or ice bucket to just over 35 degrees, when Champagne should be drunk at 45 to 50 degrees, Simonetti-Bryan says. Aromas reveal more with the warmth, while the cold dulls them. If you need to store the bottle in the fridge, let it warm up for a few minutes on the counter before serving.
5. Champagne ages better than you think. There are some wonderful 20- to 30 year-old Champagnes, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the older, the better. When a Champagne ages, it integrates so much better; in other words amalgamating into flawless layers of flavor that can be hard to explain, says Simonetti-Bryan. It’s richer on the palate, too. Two of Simonetti-Bryan’s favorite bottles, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck, give off notes of buttered brioche, or “Sunday brunch in a glass” that results from resting on lees, or wine sediment, for several years. Champagnes are only required to be stored for 15 months before being shipped.
6. It’s not expensive just because it’s French. Sure, Simonetti-Bryan acknowledges Champagne was the best known celebrity-endorsed product, the drink of royals at a time in the 18th century when not even the gentry could afford it, so that’s partly how it became reserved for special occasions. Champagne makes up about 1 percent of all wine produced in the world, or about 350 million bottles a year from a region that’s only 83,000 acres, Heline says. The price reflects its rarity as well, but also the finicky, difficult, and nuanced process of making Champagne.
7. You’re opening it incorrectly. A Champagne bottle has three times a car tire’s pressure, so that wire cage on the top has a real purpose. Don’t take it off until you’re ready to drink the Champagne, and always twist the bottle, not the cork, for a smooth opening. If you do it properly, it will not make that popping sound.
8. The labels mean something, and not always what you think. Extra dry, for example, is actually sweeter than brut, which is drier than demi-sec, which is somewhat sweet. Non-vintages demonstrate a wine style by blending various harvests, while vintage Champagnes demonstrate a Champagne producer’s house style best.
9. You can decant it, too. Taste it after it’s been decanted for five minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes to see how it opens up. Want to get its true essences? Let the Champagne go flat before tasting, since the bubbles trick your palate into thinking it’s actually drier and more acidic, says William Harris, sommelier at the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.
10. Pink doesn’t always equal lower quality. Rosé Champagne, which now makes up over 16 percent of all Champagne sold stateside, is not synonymous with sweet, thanks partly to the ability of winemakers to blend in red wine to make it pink, offering more control over the consistency of color and building on the complexity of flavors.
But don’t let all of these rules make you think too hard about drinking Champagne. Champagne should be fun and you should savor every moment of it. “Enjoying the bubbles is as important as enjoying the wine,” Goldston says. After all, you should never need an excuse to celebrate.