Superior bubbles for your glass
If you’re treating yourself to Champagne, it’s useful to know a bit about how to serve it, so no ice bucket, no coupes, and make sure you rinse your flutes
We think of Champagne as a celebration wine. Many of us will consume plenty of it during the coming wedding season without giving it a second’s thought. Yet this is one of the world’s most sophisticated wines and deserves a little more attention than we give it. Consumers may have switched to less expensive alternatives during the economic crisis, but sources tell me that Champagne sales have seen a slight improvement over the past six months.
I recently met up with Essi Avellan, who was responsible for revising and updating Tom Stephenson’s classic book, Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine .
For anyone seeking to uncover the mysteries of all kinds of fizz, this is the place to start. The book has plenty of sound advice on how and when to drink Champagne.
Ever wondered why your glass of Champagne seems flat? Apparently using detergent to wash your glasses will kill the bubbles. It is impossible to clean glasses without it, so glasses should always be thoroughly rinsed in warm water at least twice after cleaning.
Champagne should be served in a large tulip-shaped glass. The common tall flute is acceptable providing it is large and not filled to the brim, but never the saucer-shaped coupe, which will turn any sparkling wine flat in a very short time.
Champagne should be served cold, but not freezing; 15 minutes in an ice bucket is enough to kill off any flavour.
Avellan first became interested in wine when studying for an economics degree; she found herself working a harvest at a Finnish-owned Château in Bordeaux. In 2006 she became the first Finnish Master of Wine and only the second from the Nordic countries. “Studying for the Master of Wine exams, I really wanted to get a deeper understanding of the region and the wines.” As author of this book and editor of Fine Champagne magazine, she is now one of the world’s experts on the subject.
There is a bewildering number of Champagnes produced, with around 40,000 different brands available at any one time. The region is spread out over 319 villages and five sub-regions. The book has profiles and tasting notes on all of the leading houses.
The best-known producers will generally blend wines from some or all of these regions to produce their own distinctive house style. This task falls to the master blender whose job requires discipline, memory and a great sense of taste. The possibilities are infinite; there may be 30 different wines, all from separate regions or vineyards, as well as three to four different vintages and three different grape varieties.
If you want to explore the individual regions, you will need to sample wines from grower/producers. This last group, hitherto kept in the shade by the larger brands, has become very fashionable in London, New York and elsewhere. There are a few available in Ireland (they will have the initials RM or récoltant-manipulant, usually at the bottom of the label), but for the most part we seem to be happy to concentrate on the well-known brands.
It is easy to be cynical about Champagne; the Champenois have created a hugely successful brand, and guard the name jealously. By limiting production and controlling grape prices, they have succeeded in keeping prices relatively high. However, there is no doubt that the finest Champagnes are among the world’s greatest wines, and that the level of effort, knowledge and dedication that goes into its production is immense.
Avellan lists off her top 10 Champagnes in various categories. Louis Roederer, best known for Cristal, its luxury cuvée, also produces an excellent range of Champagnes across the board, including the delicious Brut Premier. Larmandier-Bernier is a small biodynamic grower/producer making some of the finest wines, usually based on Chardonnay.
“No bad Champagne leaves the door of Charles Heidsieck”, according to the book, and the Brut Réserve “is the best-value non-vintage Champagne on the market”.
Lastly, Deutz make some the finest rosé Champagnes. The luxury Cuvée William Deutz is “divine” according to the guide, but the more reasonably priced Rosé Brut receives praise as well.