THE TRAVELING SOMM: Champagne Reinvigorated! A Guideline For Updating Your Drinking Traditions

Drink champagne even after the toast!

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             Krug Grand Cuvée enjoyed in the Clos du Mesnil vineyard

Being in the wine trade, I’m often asked to name my favorite wine. Nine times out of ten I enthusiastically respond, “Champagne!” Nine times out of ten I’m met with a puppy-dog head-tilt kind of reaction. Favorite wine? Yes, wine! This is where people’s eyes glaze over while they think about all of the associations they have about Champagne that involves only the most extraordinary and indulgent of circumstances (New Year’s Eve anyone?). Champagne, however, has been a wine, and more importantly a place, for centuries. And today, it’s riding a particularly good wave.

The History

The word champagne (only capitalized in reference to the place) is deeply associated with celebration. This is not an accident. Champagne’s rich and complex history (and close proximity to Paris) plays host to French Nobility of old and international dignitaries who were drawn to the capital of Reims for a variety of occasions. Reims and its surrounding vineyards were also an unfortunate epicenter of last century’s world wars. Backing up even further, we have evidence that champagne was the night-life beverage of brothels which intimately linked it with lascivious behavior. Soon after, it was accepted and reclaimed for high-society festivities, which may or may not have been less risqué. Either way, Champagne = Party!

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Leonetto Cappiello’s Lithograph for Champagne De Rochegré Epernay from 1902

Let us also not forget the visual merriment and romanticism of the Art Nouveau movement from the turn-of-last-century. The iconic lithographs from Louis-Théophile Hingre and Leonetto Cappiello portraying various champagne brands entwined with ethereal celebrations of hedonism have this sentiment burned into our memory. Champagne made for a beautiful subject. Cut to the dark times of Prohibition and two subsequent World Wars where, as sales plummeted and vineyards were bombed, this deliberate branding became crucial to the survival of the wine region. The population needed the sensuous escape, and heroes like Sir Winston Churchill all but demanded it with his witty champagne quotes and voracious appetite for Pol Roger.

It’s no wonder that today, as 2017 comes to a close, we still associate champagne with a symbolic toast, a celebration, a new beginning, or the seasonal holidays. Yet, Champagne’s more recent history is worth a mention as it relates to our drinking habits. The Champenois (native of Champagne) have literally redefined their locale in the last 25 years as a reenergized fine wine region. Resulting from a wonderful combination of a return to the importance of understanding its sacred chalk-defined terroir, the rise of the grower-producer movement, and important importers like Terry Theise (U.S.) and Nick Brookes (UK) who forged a new market for such smaller producers.

The Present

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Chef de Caves, Cyril Brun, of Champagne Charles Heidsieck showing the bottle-shaped walls of the deep Crayères

The first point about terroir drives home the idea that Champagne is a distinct wine region that sets itself apart from other wine regions that make sparkling wine. In other words, the Champenois are incredibly lucky to have this chalky soil. There are other adept wine regions with comparable climates, but none even come close to having their perfectly chalky terroir. And by chalk, I mean actual chalkboard-like chalk.

In the center of Reims, there were chalk quarries that eventually turned into deep caves, or crayères, that are still used today to perfectly cellar wine en mass. During the war, the Champenois that stayed in the region hid in these crayères during the incessant bombing of the city.

When you touch these cool chalk walls, your fingers are covered with the silky powder that might whisk you back to your elementary school days playing with chalk on a sidewalk. Winemakers also use this chalk to write the cuvée or vintage on the bottles while it’s stored in the cellars before it is labeled. Even more importantly, chalk is a perfect regulator of water in the vineyards giving the finished beverage this brisk and thrilling salinity when expressed by a thoughtful winemaker. For you millennials out there; chalk is a lifestyle!

The Production Interplay

The grower-producer (RM- récoltant manipulant) effect is undeniable. The grower-producer, or growers, make up a tiny percentage of producers that make wine from the grapes of the land that they own. Most grape growers don’t make their own wine, but rather sell to the Grandes Marques (NM- négociant manipulant), or big houses (Maisons). The winemaking process is quite expensive and good champagne grapes sell for high prices. However, in recent years there has been a notable movement for grape growers to make and bottle their own champagne. This new generation of growers tends to share viticulture and winemaking techniques with one another and have built a lively and strong community. As an American, this seems obvious to foster a shared community, particularly around agriculture. Yet, a generation ago that was not culturally the case in Champagne. You can see this clearly as the younger producers are full of experimentation both in the cellars and more importantly perhaps, in the vineyards.

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Olivier Collin of Domaine Ulysse Collin explaining the different chalk compositions of his parcels in the village of Congy in the Coteaux du Morin (South of the Côte des Blancs)

The rise of the grower movement has added a modicum of balance to the region in relation to the Grandes Marques. The Maison still rules the financial stats and volume, but the two entities are inextricably bound, and in my opinion, better for it. The grower movement is riding on the backs of the Maison’s undeniable force of branding itself as this luxurious icon of the beverage world for the last century. However, it’s generally the grower that has taught us the diversity of the Champagne terroir (with a few notable exceptions). Why? Ironically, most grower producers lack the bandwidth to hold multiple vintages in their cellars in order to blend in a traditional Grandes Marques way. Furthermore, they may only own small pieces of land in one or two neighboring villages. That grower, by law, will have to bottle the wine from the grapes that they own (nothing purchased), making it a micro expression of their terroir. Hint hint: this makes it easier for us to compare and contrast sub-regional and village differences. Ergo sliding down the rabbit-hole of Champagne terroir study.

By contrast, the big houses (and I mean the biggest such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot) have a different legal classification whereby they own some land, but purchase most of their grapes from all reaches of the region, particularly to use in their entry-level cuvée or Non-Vintage (NV) blend. Then, they blend multiple vintages together. It is insurance against potentially difficult growing seasons. For their entry level cuvée, it makes for a more uniform and consistent beverage not dissimilar to the predictability and mass volume of a bottle of Grey Goose or Jameson. These brands have to feed a worldwide market. At the high-end of quality its consistency is reassuring, at the low-end it’s repugnant.

Even though this grower movement only claims a sliver of champagne sales, it’s the energy behind it that’s infectious. The idea of farm-to-table champagne resonates with anyone who has a curiosity for what’s on their table. It manages to stay sexy without all of the gaudy packaging.

The Consumption

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                   “A dinner at the Provençal Brothers.” by Fernando Gaspar

Moving beyond classifications and history, how do we as consumers evolve with changes in today’s marketplace? If Champagne is a “real wine,” then why are we only drinking it for a toast, a celebration, or the holidays? I’m certainly not suggesting to stop the symbolic tradition. In fact, please continue! To toast each other with champagne is one of life’s true highlights. What I am encouraging is this: if the unique terroir and flurry of producers zeroing in on said topics are true, then why not continue with champagne after the toast?

Would you ever consider pairing champagne with an entire meal? Wine geeks do regularly! Think in terms of any other meal you might pair. Start with lighter-bodied styles from cooler terroirs and end with the fullest styles from more clay-rich, sun-drenched terroirs. The good news is that champagne pairs well with literally every type of food, so don’t worry about missing the mark. Just use a natural progression of light to full body to get you started. Since Champagne terroir study is a relatively new thing to geek out on, use your local wine retailer to help. A generic liquor store with obvious branding in the windows won’t be helpful. Find a shop that’s dialed into artisanal producers. They are your best resources, so take advantage!

A note about glassware: stop using flutes! This isn’t 1989. Imagine if we were still using technology from the ‘80’s? We would have to cart our “laptops” on a trolley! We understand more about glassware technology now than we did when the flute was erroneously invented to “save” the bubbles. Champagne needs to breathe, just like any good wine, so stop strangling it. A white wine glass is a great starting point. Additionally, the bubbles are in fact better “saved” in a traditional wine glass as the liquid to glass ratio is less. Experiment with even larger glasses. Burgundy bowls can be used for more textured wines. Try it yourself, and see what works best. Instincts rarely fail here; it’s about what gives you the most pleasure. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in life, and this certainly applies to wine and glassware pairing. If you are gutsy enough to host an all champagne dinner, then be gutsy enough to change up your glassware to match the progression of wines. This will no doubt impress your guests!

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View of the famous Clos des Goisses vineyard from across the Marne River in the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in the Grand Vallée

You may be thinking that the above is all fine and good, but what about the cost? Is there such a thing as value champagne? This will certainly depend on your idea of value. But one can easily make the case that Champagne’s exceptional (and expensive) land and strict regulations deserve a higher dollar starting point than say Northern Italian Pinot Grigio. Nothing against throwing back a PG every now and then, but sooner or later you’re gonna want that chalk! Champagne is not PG cheap, but there is value to be found in every budget. Let’s get a little creative with our buying habits!

I put together this template for you to use as a cheat sheet. I’m hoping it will inspire your next champagne evening. There are a ton of caveats here as price, availability, and personal preference vary widely depending on your market and what you are exposed to. The idea here is that the wines listed below over-deliver for their price points, even at the high end. I’ve loosely categorized these wines by texture, but this is no doubt up for debate. These things will vary depending on vintages and base vintages, and frankly how each individual bottle happens to show once opened. Driving the point home that champagne is exactly like any fine wine, so each bottle will have its own personality or moment in the sun.

Champagne pairing-price grid*Note: The low end ranges from $45-under, the medium end ranges from $90-under, and the high end ranges from $250-under.

If a whole evening of champagne is not on the table, there are still ways to sneak it in. I’m a big fan of the “Champagne Reset”. If you’re at a party, restaurant, or wine bar with a lot of wine in play amongst friends, popping a bottle of champagne in the middle of the night is the perfect way to recalibrate your palate. I’d argue that a “Champagne Reset” is paramount to enjoying the second, or third wave of the evening. It wakes you up and brings everything back into focus so the following wines are more deeply enjoyed.

Champagne is fortunate in its protean ability to bring us pleasure at the table amid loved-ones, to reveal stylistic and terroir differences, and of course to celebrate life’s more emotional events. It is definitely both a wine and a place with bottomless exploration. Cheers to the pursuit!

 

*Further reading:
There’s no question that the most important resource on Champagne is the just-released book by journalist, Champagne expert, and friend, Peter Liem: Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region.  It is a force of a wine book in a gorgeous package, including seven detailed (art-worthy) maps of key Champagne terroirs. A must-have for any wine lover! 

 

 


Sabra_Lewis_HeadshotI’m a sommelier and wine consultant living in New York City. I have a background in performing as a dancer on Broadway, and I retired to drink wine for a living! Working as a sommelier in Michelin-starred restaurants, penning my own beverage programs, and traveling the world, have given me the voice that I have today. I write with a sommelier lens and insider view on all things beverage, food, travel & hospitality. Travel is my continuing education and I’m proud to share my adventures with you!

 

Image Courtesy of Galerie Estampe Moderne & Sportive
Image Courtesy of Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad