Drinking the Stars

by Shannon Cherry

The Benedictine Monk Dom Perignon is reputed to have exclaimed, when drinking champagne, “It’s like drinking the stars!” This wine of romance is worthy of constant acquaintance, not just reserved for special occasions.

Not all wine with bubbles can wear the champagne label. All true champagne comes from France’s northernmost winemaking region of the same name, which encompasses only about 85,000 acres. If they are made somewhere else, they are called ‘sparkling wines’, even if they are made the same way, called the Méthode Champenoise. Still, there is lots of other bubbly out there—and some of it is very good. If you don’t feel like investing in a bottle of the French stuff, you can try a good sparkling wine from California or Spain, among other places.

The Méthode Champenoise is commonly thought to have been created by Dom Perignon, who presided over the wine cellars at the Abby of Hautvillers in 1688. He wasn’t so much the inventor of champagne as one of its chief promoters and perfecters. In fact, the bubbles that appeared in champagne were originally thought to be an imperfection, since the goal of the vineyard was to create an excellent still white wine. Because the grapes in this cold region of France had to be harvested before the winter frost—and fermentation occurs only when it is sufficiently warm—champagne underwent one fermentation before the winter, then another in the spring. This dual process of fermentation allowed carbon dioxide to build up in the bottles, creating the bubbles we love so much today.

So how do you judge a great Champagne or sparkling wine? Imagine a sphere, and then add an arrow shooting up through the middle. A bubbly should be like that. On the one hand, you feel and taste its creamy roundness, but in the same split second, you also feel and taste a sleek dagger of refreshing acidity that almost seems to vibrate through the center of the wine. Think of it as the contrapuntal tension of opposites. That’s what makes great sparklers fascinating.

As with any wine, quality varies across the years, in harmony with the quality of the grapes harvested that year and the weather of the harvesting season. Unlike many wines, however, one needn’t sample decades worth of champagnes to identify a good year. Champagne is typically held for up to five years by the manufacturing house, but when it is eventually released for purchase, it should be consumed within two years. Choosing a relatively young champagne, therefore, is not considered gauche.

Champagne and sparkling wines are not alone among wines occurring in various levels of dryness, but it is unique in that the dryness is largely determined by the winemaker. To understand the process of making one dryer or sweeter than usual, you will need to have a grasp on how this delight is made.

Usually grapes are chosen at the height of their ripeness, when they contain a good deal of natural sugar. Yeast is added to the juice of those grapes, which converts their ample sugar into ample alcohol. The Champagne region, however, is an atypically cool region of France, in which grapes must be harvested before they are fully ripe. Their sugar content, therefore, is too low to make an alcohol of comparable fortitude. Champagne thus has sugar artificially added to it so that the yeast has more fuel to convert into alcohol. Obviously, a winemaker can add greater or lesser amounts of sugar to alter the strength of the finished product—and, of course, adding more sugar is going to make the champagne taste sweeter, too. As you enjoy more and more glasses of champagne, you will develop a taste for whether you prefer it dry or sweet.

There are five styles of champagne: brut is the driest, extra dry is less dry (really), sec is a medium sweetness, demi-sec is very sweet and doux is the sweetest. As a general guideline, brut and extra dry styles are best with savory foods; sec, demi-sec and doux are best enjoyed with sweet things and desserts.

One of the primary grapes used in the making of champagne and sparkling wine is Pinot Noir, which is a red (or black) variety of grape. The interior of a Pinot Noir grape, however, looks very similar to a green (white) grape. When its juice is extracted, therefore, it will look the same as a white wine. Only when the juice is allowed to sit with the skins and stems of the grapes, during a stage known as maceration, does the finished wine become red. Thus, a counterintuitive fact is that much of the finest clear champagne and sparkling wine comes from red grapes.

Bubbles in the best champagnes and sparkling wines are tiny and intense, and yes, they tickle the nose. Scientist William Lembeck determined that there are 49 million bubbles in each bottle of champagne. And who’s to disagree? The smaller the bubble, the better the wine; in fact the French consider large bubbles so bad that they call them the ‘oeil de crapaud’, or toad’s eyes.

Champagne should be served chilled, but not ice-cold. The optimum temperature is 45 to 48 degrees. Champagne can be chilled in a bucket half-full of water and ice for 30 minutes before serving or in a refrigerator for three to four hours. Do not store champagne in the freezer, which can damage the wine.

Serve sparkling wine in clean, dry stemware at room temperature; tall flutes or tulip glasses are preferred, as the typical coupe glasses with wide openings provide more surface area and allow bubbles and aroma to dissipate too quickly. Chilled glasses may inhibit the forming of bubble trails. The champagne should be clear, rather than cloudy, with a steady stream of bubbles, called the “mousse.”

There’s a little legend behind the glass, dating back to Greek mythology. The first “coupe” was said to be molded from the breast of Helen of Troy. Centuries later, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, decided it was time to create a new champagne glass and had coupes molded to her own breasts, which changed the shape of the glass entirely, since Marie Antoinette was—shall we say—a bit more endowed than Helen of Troy.

So when is the best time to enjoy champagne? The late Madame Lilly Bollinger of the well-respected Bollinger Champagne house answered: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.” •

from the November-December 2006 issue

There are 49 million bubbles in each bottle of champagne. The smaller the bubble, the better the wine.