Bring On the Bubbles

It’s always champagne season. A primer to help you enjoy it straight.

Simply by virtue of its name and ritzy packaging, champagne says “class” before it even hits the glass. Why?

For starters, champagne is a colossal pain in the ass to make. Also, it comes only from towns (in Champagne, of course) that are so far north they’re cold even during the growing season, which gives the wines high acidity levels. That builds in natural aging power that makes champagne among the longest-lived white wines on the planet.

Except that it’s not really a white wine, though it looks white (or rosé). Typically, two of the three grapes used to make champagne are red: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The third grape is Chardonnay, which usually amounts to one-third of the blend. If the champagne is made with Chardonnay grapes only, it’s called blanc de blancs; if it’s made with all red grapes, it’s called blanc de noirs. Rosé champagnes are usually made from a blend of white and red, some of which are allowed to express their color. Rosé, for the most part, is made by producing a batch of red wine and then adding it to the clear mix, though some producers take the trouble to bleed the red color from the grapes into white or red wine during fermentation, a technique called saignée. (We’re talking about méthode champenoise here; other sparkling wines are made differently.)

Grapes are harvested, pressed, and fermented, as in all winemaking. But as with olive oil, it matters if the juice is from the first or second pressing. Most champagnes are from the second pressing; prestige cuvée champagne is from the first.

Here’s how champagne is made:

Fermentation: During the first fermentation, the grape juice is converted into wine (sugar + yeast = alcohol + carbon dioxide), after which carbon dioxide dissipates normally, yielding a still wine.

Blending: In this most important step, the winemaker decides which still wines to blend. Because nonvintage (NV) champagnes can be from multiple vintages, this is how the winemaker builds a “house style” that tastes the same year after year. Vintage champagnes, by contrast, are made using grapes from a single growing season and taste unique.

Liqueur de tirage: After blending, the wine is poured into bottles; the winemaker adds sugar and yeast to begin a second fermentation. A temporary cap is put on the bottle. (This is where it starts to become a real pain.)

Second fermentation: Carbon dioxide builds up in the bottle (producing bubbles), while fermentation causes sediment (called lees). Problem: How do you remove the lees without losing the bubbles? Answer in a minute.

Aging: The time the wine spends aging with the lees helps determine its quality. NVs must age a minimum of 15 months; vintage champagnes must age at least three years.

Riddling: After aging, the bottles are placed in A-frame racks to coax the lees into the necks of the bottles. A riddler gives each bottle a turn, day by day, for about a month, tipping the bottle more and more until the lees collects in its neck. Modern technology has made life a little easier for some champagne houses, though, thanks to machines that cut the average riddling time to about a week.

Dégorgement: The neck of the bottle, now full of lees, is dipped into a chilled brine solution to freeze it. The temporary cap is then removed; the lees literally pops out, but the bubbles stay in.

Dosage: The loss of the lees leaves room for more wine, so the winemaker adds a splash of still wine and, if the wine needs sweetening, a touch of cane sugar. Speaking of which, the terms for a champagne’s dryness/sweetness are, of course, insanely maddening. Why? Ask the French.

  • Brut: Driest.
  • Extra dry: Less dry.
  • Sec: “Dry” in French, but it indicates wine that’s sweeter.
  • Demi-sec: Means “half-dry,” but, of course, it’s even sweeter.
  • Doux: Very rare and the sweetest.

Recorking: The bottle is finally recorked with a permanent cork and cage. (That little metal bugger holds back 90 psi of pressure, so please take care when opening.)

…And a guide to mixing it up

Use champagne or any good sparkling wine in these glittering drinks.

French 75: Named after a piece of artillery, this drink combines brandy, sparkling wine, and citrus flavors.

Pear, Poire: Pear liqueur with a side of pear and a touch of bubbly.

Cherry Sugar Fizz: Sweet and bubbly, with cherries.

Adelina: Sparkling strawberry cocktail, a variation on a classic.

Sparkling Campari Cocktail: A bubbly balance of sweet and tart, best when made ahead.

Sparkling Rum Runner: A sparkling version of the rum drink, great as an apéritif.

Thanksgiving Sparkler: A sparkling-wine cocktail to pay tribute to the big day.

Blood Orange Sparkler: Slightly bitter blood orange juice is beautiful with bubbly.

Champagne with Food

Though champagne is often thought of as a wine for celebration, it pairs beautifully with almost all foods. Typically, the more expensive the bottle, the more complex the champagne, so serve the vintage and prestige cuvées with the main courses. For red meats, consider rosé, which packs the power of real Pinot Noir. For dessert, consider a sweet demi-sec.

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