“I refused to believe that champagne was a myth,” she said, pressing a beautiful Riedel ‘grand cru’ champagne stem, the kind that looks more like a fishbowl-cum-wine glass than one made for fizz, to her pouty and elegant lips. “For me it had to be, it [champagne] must always be… a wine.” She should know, her name is Beatrice Cointreau (yes that Cointreau) but more recently she heads up the boutique house of Champagne Gosset.
Champagne is as misunderstood as Michael Jackson, and rightly so. To begin with we’ve come to know champagne (and here I make the distinction between Champagne, the place, and champagne the wine) as a “conceptual” thing; a wine with bubbles. We know champagne as the wine to celebrate special occasions (New Year’s or a new dress), impress a hopeful mate (a.k.a. nail the deal), or coyly sip before the ‘real’ stuff comes out, because beer is too crass at the stuffy party you’re at. Occasionally, at some trendy apartment or café, one stumbles on classic ‘vintage’ posters that pictures a svelte woman, in what is surely a black Chanel dress, while above her floats the header: “l’Istance Taittinger.” For others, bubbly conjures the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe prancing around with a bottle of Moet & Chandon. This is what champagne is to most of us; glamorous, slightly dandy, yet always celebratory. This is what, I believe, Madame Cointreau meant by the ‘myth’ of champagne.
Ask most wine lovers to tell you a bit about champagne, the drink, after all comes complete with its own creation myth: Once upon a time there was a monk named Dom Perignon who worked and toiled at all hours of the day and night confined to a medieval monastery in the tiny and equally medieval village of Hautvillers. One glorious spring morning the brothers fetched monsieur Perignon, apparently every single bottle in their cellars had spontaneously exploded. Every single bottle… But one. Exasperated the Dom opened it and took his first sip of the now bubbly wine (the “first ever”) and is said to have exclaimed “Come, come brothers, I’m drinking stars!”
This legend was carefully crafted in the 20th century by the trade commission put together after World War II to promote the stuff, but like many other things, was taken as gospel. To this day a regal statue of the monk stands outside of Moet et Chandon’s headquarters in Epernay, and the former monastery where Dom Perignon resided in Hautvillers (where he, in fact, worked diligently to get the bubbles out of the red wine produced there during his time) is now a museum.
And yet few people, if any, talk about the real Champagne… as in the eponymous place which actually gave the stuff its name. Perhaps it is because the story of the real Champagne, the place, dotted with gothic hamlets and two-street villages is not fancy enough in this age of single origin coffees, minimalist-chic hotels, Karl Lagerfeld and impossibly named teas. In contrast Champagne, the place, is simple, serene, a utilitarian landscape of vines speckled with little villages, surrounded by vines. The monotony of green grape-leaves and dark brown trunks serve as a severe contrast to the ivory white of the region’s chalky soil that makes champagne and Champagne so unique. It is in fact this anomaly (the chalk) area’s chalky soil, which insulates the vines and protects them from wild swings in the climate. It also radiates the sun’s warmth and light back unto the grapes and keeping them cozy in this north most wine growing region which is, incidentally, very cold. In fact Champagne and northern Canada share the same latitude, if it wasn’t for the slopes which weave through the regions terrain, and the snow-white deep-seated chalk which makes up its foundations, Champagne would be much too cold to grow grapes at all.
To say “Champagne” is like referring to the “hill stations of India” a region with a myriad of towns and peoples. Irrefutably the capital of Champagne is Reims. Reims (pronounced Re-hsse), with the backdrop of the rest of the region in mind, is big and modern by comparison. Only a 45minute ride from Paris’ ghastly Garre du Nord put me in the thick of a city, whose entire preoccupation is bubbly wine. Underneath the city run infinite mazes of caves called crayères, cut-into a bedrock of chalk, where the wines gain their magical effervescent and age. On top, Reims is bustling, the streets wide and lined with ornate creamy limestone buildings, somewhat reminiscent of Paris with a little bit of Bordeaux functionality, glow a pastel amber in the soupy sunlight of dawn. The Rue Jean d’Arc is a particular popular location with cafes, brasseries, and boutiques which range from an épicerie to a Chanel. Around the corner on Rue Bourriet is the ultra modern Hotel de La Paix, whose chic rooms accented with warm dark woods and fine lines, is more evocative of Barcelona and Miami than of Champagne (the place).
All of champagne is made with only three grapes deemed ‘noble’ enough to make the stuff. The trio is made up of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir (yes, a red grape!) and the less revered Pinot Meunier (another red grape). Unless the champagne states clearly that it is either a Blanc de Blancs (and therefore entirely chardonnay) or a Blance de Noirs (entirely red grapes) then the wine, clear or otherwise is, traditionally, a blend of all three grapes. Chardonnay for elegance and grace, pinot noir for body and mystique and pinot meunier for bouquet and breadth, at least that’s the old adage.
In the sleepy Reims mornings, on the corner of the rues Bourriet and Jean d’Arc, a portly man with an omnipresent grimace sets up shop on a small metal and cement kiosk. There, in front of him, on shaved ice, is a glistening array of fresh oysters, mussels and fish. One of the best pairings with the area’s wines, and possibly the simplest in the universe, is a beautiful fresh oyster (skip the cocktail sauce) and a glass of Blanc de Blancs.
Blanc de Blancs is possibly the raciest and sexiest styles of champagne. Blanc de Blancs literally translates into white from whites and therefore purely made up of gorgeous chardonnay. Chardonnay in Champagne is different than the oaky buttery stuff from California and the New World, in fact it is closer to Chablis in style and weight. It’s cold in Champagne and the chardonnay, picked almost green, keeps all of its natural nervy acidity which is typically overran with oak and sun in the rest of the world. The resulting wine sings a high falsetto (as opposed to the tenor of Australian Chardonnay). Blanc de Blancs are complex with a nice light body yet very crisp and lacks any sort of “yeastiness” that turns some people off bubbly. This delicateness is what makes it ideal as an aperitif as well as making a perfect pairing with simpler foods such as briny oysters, even sushi, or anything fried.
Another very different style, which still verges on the exotic for most, is the venerable Blanc de Noirs, literally white from black. The color in a grape is only skin-deep; if the berries are squeezed and not allow to sit on their skins the resulting juice is pure white, while still retaining the grape’s signature deep aromas. Here one can go three ways: purely pinot noir, only or a blend of both. This style of champagne, deep and broody with aromas that can range from dried rose petals to figs in white chocolate, is one of the most intoxicating. They should not be drunk too cold, but closer c to ellar temperature (12-15C) and opened a few minutes before drinking. People freak out when they see me decanting a bottle of champagne. I have had many people look at me with that pitying face as they ask themselves “… what is that boy doing?” Yes, many are mystified and some outright horrified by my custom of decanting certain choice champagnes! I discovered the art of decanting champagnes in Champagne! Before the discovery of riddling, whereby the sediment of the second fermentation in the bottle is removed, champagne was decanted to separate it from the harmless but unsightly cloudy mass of yeast that would sink and stick to the bottom of the bottle. Back then, champagne (the wine) was much different that what it is now, most would not recognize it by tasting it. Before the onslaught of stainless steel fermenters and oceans of over-priced generic big-brand champagne the wines for champagne were aged in oak and heavy with Pinot Noir, yielding wines of great intensity which like any other white wine (like Grand Cru Burgundy, California Chardonnay and some white Riojas) needed to breathe a little and shake-off some of that bottle fatigue before it blossoms into the beautiful wine you paid for. Blanc de Noirs is good with richer foods; Lobster, Foie Gras, and even some kebabs to add an extra kick in.
My top five reccomendations that will redefine champagne:
- Tarlant “Cuvée Louis” (Blanc de Noir)
- Aubry Brut Rosé
- Vilmart & Cie “Cuvée Creation”
- Francoise-Bedel “Cuvée entre Ciel et Terre”
- Krug Clos de Mesnil