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Winston Churchill once said: ' Champagne should be icecold, plentiful, and free-ofcharge. While Britons are not able to follow this advice to the letter, Champagne is no longer seen as something for a special occasion.

Bill Gunn, managing director of Pol Roger UK, was recently invited to the House of Fraser to give a customer presentation on the subject, in the first of a series of fine wine events. In addition to Pol Roger, five other leading Houses were represented, including Bollinger, Taittinger, Roederer, Gosset and Devaux, as well as the World of Food's own label by Hostomme.

By law, only sparkling wine from the region of Champagne may call itself Champagne. Located about 100 miles north-east of Paris, it's on the extreme margin of commercial winemaking. The climate is very cool, making it difficult for grapes to ripen, and producing fruit low in sugar and high in acidity. A warmer climate would destroy that delicate balance and explains why no other wine region can emulate the finesse of Champagne.

More often than not, Champagne is a blend of up to three grape varieties. The white grape is Chardonnay and the two black grapes are Pinot Noir and the lesser-known Pinot Meunier. Each has its own characteristics: Pinot Noir provides backbone and power; Pinot Meunier gives the suppleness and roundness; and Chardonnay adds the elegance and finesse.

Each variety, in its own right, adds to the blend, and together they work in harmony to promote the balance required. Some House styles may prefer to exclusively use Chardonnay, and these are known as Blanc de Blancs. Alternatively, wines from the black varieties may be labelled Blanc de Noirs.

Champagne production is focused in Reims and Epernay. The region divides into four growing areas: Montagne de Reims for Pinot Noir; Marne Valley for Pinot Meunier; Cote des Blancs for Chardonnay; and the Cotes des Bar, a detached location near Troyes, again famous for Pinot Noir.

At harvest time, the grapes are placed in a ' Coquard' press which has a capacity of 4,000 kilograms. Exactly 2,550 litres of juice are extracted, from which the first 2,050 litres are called the 'cuvee' and the remainder, the 'taille'. Most top Houses reject the 'taille' as being too coarse and bitter.

The juice is then fermented to produce an unremarkable still dry white wine, that is very acid to the taste. Over the following winter months, the wines or 'vins clairs' are blended. The 'assemblage' is a highly-skilled process and will often involve the marriage of up to 60 or 70 base wines. For non-vintage wines, this will incorporate wines both from the current year, and reserves from previous vintages The aim of the assemblage, is to achieve consistency, so that the wine will taste the same at any time of year or at any place. This enables the blender to achieve a recognisable House style.

The next process, known as Methode Champenoise, is the essence of creating fine sparkling wine, and puts the bubbles into the bottle. The blended still wine is bottled with a mixture of wine, yeast and sugar, known as a 'liqueur de tirage', which starts up a secondary bottle fermentation. By law, a non-vintage wine must remain on its lees for a minimum of 15 months, and a vintage wine for three years. The dead yeast cells act as a flavouring agent, adding the familiar notes of bread or brioche.

To remove the yeast deposit, the sediment is riddled onto the neck of the bottle. It is then immersed into a frozen brine bath, whereby it is ejected, under pressure, as an iceblock. The bottle is then topped up with the 'liqueur de expedition', the winemaker's final touch before the cork is inserted.

The liqueur is a closely guarded secret, and usually comprises sweetened reserve wine. Up to this stage, all the wines are dry, but the dosage will determine the level of sweetness, Brut, Sec or Demi-Sec. To enjoy Champagne at its best, it should be served in the correct stemware, preferably a tall, elongated flute to accentuate the mousse and bouquet. It should not be over-chilled and ideally served at between 8* - 10* C. Twenty minutes in a bucket with ice and water is sufficient.

The colour of Champagne varies as it ages. When young, it's a pale grey-green, turning to straw and gold as it matures. All Champagne should be crystal-clear, with fine and persistent bubbles. The hallmark of a cheap sparkler are big bubbles that quickly go flat.

Champagne has an enticing bouquet, so the glass should never be overfilled. There may be scents of flowers and blossom, citrus or red fruits, sometimes hay or grass. Other familiar aromas include breadcrumbs, brioche, shortbread, butter and ginger.

Champagne is a wine to be enjoyed at any time or occasion, but different styles serve different functions. The lighter and fresher Blanc de Blancs make ideal aperitifs, whereas the vintage wines have the weight to go with food. Ros is a particularly fine match with roast lamb. The medium to sweet styles, Rich and Demi Sec, are the choice for wedding cake or dessert. The Prestige Cuves are highly complementary with cheese, in particular Parmesan.

Following the presentation, customers were let loose on a selection of Champagne from seven highly regarded producers. It was an opportunity to put theory into practice and enjoy some classic sparkling wine.

For future events, contact Charlotte Mills at House of Fraser, 0870 160 7225, ext 2334, or email:
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 3, 2005
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