Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ode to French Bubbles

Since yesterday was National Pie Day, in honor of it, I felt it necessary to go get a slice of the real deal from a little amazing local restaurant here in Sonoma County, called Humble Pie (you can read their yelp reviews and yes, that’s me with the 5 stars on there) Amazing food, and amazing pie. Last nights pie was enjoyed with a glass of Sokol Blosser Evolution #9. Pure heaven next to the pear and blueberry on butter crust pie as well as the apple and walnut pie, both topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.. Hungry yet?

Where was I? oh yes, that is right -- Champagne.

I love bubbles. Sparklers are some of my favorites. Proscecco, Cava, Sparkling Wine, Champagne, Heck, I’ll even drink Cold Duck every now and then… I love it all.

Today, I’m going to focus on the real deal - the stuff straight from the Champagne Region of France, as I drink quite a bit of beautiful bubbles on a frequent basis, by skipping the others, it will give me something to come back to in future blogs.

First, the basics of how Champagne is made.

You have a base wine. In France this wine can only be made of 3 grapes - Pinot Noir (red grape, white flesh/juice) Pinot Meunier (red grape, white flesh/juice) and Chardonnay (white grape, white flesh/juice) That’s it. In other places there are other rules, but let’s just focus on what the French do in this world famous region.

Base wine fermented dry and are then blended. Each ‘house’ as they are called in the region, has their own special recipe for how much of each they put in their blend. For Example, Nicolas Feuillatte uses 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier, and 20% Chardonnay in their brut blends. The percentages of each are one of the ways, each house typifies their style of champagne, it’s part of their artistic signature. This base blend is called a Cuvee. Occasionally when they have a really really stellar year, you will see a vintage blend as well, but much of the champagne out there, is a blend of years.

The blend is made and then Yeast, Sugar, and Fermentation Nutrients are added - the blend proceeds down the bottling line, and each of the bottles are sealed with a crown cap. (think beer bottle)Now, a secondary fermentation is happening right inside the bottle, and this takes between 1 and 6 months depending on proprietary mix of ingredients each house uses, average ferment time is about 2-3 months.

After the second ferment is complete, the wine ages on the yeast, and depending on the style the house is going for, it can be as early as 6 months, and as long as 3 years on average. This sitting is called tirage (a good scrabble word) and the breaking down of the yeast cells is a process called autolysis (a better scrabble word) which imparts what some would call the typical or traditional flavor of champagne. I’m not sure how most people would describe it, but to me, if you have ever made homemade bread, it’s that slightly fermenting smell of the bread dough as it rises, it’s the smell that makes your mouth water, long before the bread has actually hit the oven, and begun to bake. Know what I’m talking about? Good. This process is called methode champenoise which is meant to mean “fermented in this bottle”

Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne Brut Blanc (~$175 a bottle) ages on it’s yeast for 6 years. I’m guessing that’s part of the reason it’s so spendy, they have to pay for all that cellar time. All that yeast time, gives the champagne a texture to me that is almost milky in a bizarre way close to baby formula, which I know sounds strange, but is actually quite good.

When the aging process is done, it‘s time for the next step, it’s called Riddling, and it’s performed by people called Riddlers (insert Batman jokes here) The bottle is placed into a fancy rack, that sorta looks like a sidewalk sandwich board with big holes to hold the necks of the bottles and every day it’s turned ever so slightly and tipped just a little bit more, until one day after several weeks, the bottle is upside down, and all the yeast is stuck up inside the neck. (2 point scrabble word is sur pointe)

So now you got all the funk down in the neck of the bottle and it’s trapped. It’s time to get that out, but you don’t want to lose any of that preciously aged juice… so you freeze the neck of the bottle and then when you pull off the crown cap, a little pressure forces it out. This is called disgorging. (no, not a term for an eating disorder)

Time to finish this product up, and get it out into the market so it can make back some of it’s money. To button up the project, a small amount of held back wine, mixed with a little sugar is added back in to the bottle to sweeten it up (dosage is the proper term) top it all off with a mushroom cork, with a crown cap and the funky little wire cage to hold it all together , sap a label on it, and it’s ready to go to market.

There are plenty of places you can learn more about the different styles of champagne - a quick and dirty cheat sheet, so you know what is on your bottle:

Certain words refer to the sweetness (or the amount of sugar in the dosage) They go in order from the least sweet Extra Brut (little or no dosage and a residual sugar content under 0.6); Brut; Extra Dry; Sec; Demi-Sec; and then finally Doux (minimum residual sugar is 5.5 percent and can go up to as high as about 8)

There are general tolerances of peoples ability to perceive sweetness, so rather than going on and on about this - try several from several different producers and see what is right for your palate. Foods are also going to change how you perceive the sweetness - so keep that in mind when selecting. Each house has a distinct style to help assure customer consistency, but there are several factors that can influence each of their styles, be it the percentages of each type of grape used.

In general, the Pinot’s will give it more boldness, the Chardonnay will add balance and fineness. The vineyard sites will play an important factor (there is that French Terroir at play once again!) the blending of the various years, and also the amount of aging on lee’s (autolysis - remember that good scrabble word!)
Other words you may see on a champagne label, and why they are important to you:

Non Vintage - wine of several mixed years
Vintage - must be 80% from named year (often seen on banner years)
Blanc de blanc (white from white - exclusively Chardonnay
Blanc de noir (white from black) Pinot Noir &/or Pinot Meunier only
Rosé - this can be achieved by either extended skin time, or by adding some red wine into the cuvee blend. Typically this is a brut styled champagne.
Tete de cuvee - most houses have a top o’ line product and it’s almost always a vintage brut, and with it, they give it their own fanciful name.

Now, little about the Region itself …
I’m not sure if I am supposed to feel bad or not for the region of Champagne. The name gets a lot of misuse which kinda sucks. Imagine your name being Sarah, and there being another girl named Sarah who isn’t a nice person, but when ever she gets gossiped about people think that it’s you being talked about? Not fair!! Of course the opposite can also be true, so I guess you have to take the good with the bad. Thanks to this misuse - Champagne has several regulatory agencies to help try and save their rep. (kinda like PR people but with more power and lobby $) One of the agencies is called CIVC or the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne - it’s their job to keep champagne prestigious. Nice digs if you can get ‘em.

You may be thinking to yourself and saying - but I’ve seen labels of American producers that say champagne on them! Yes, it is true - Gallo, and Korbel and possibly one or two others, but those are the two that come to mind, can still use the term, as they have been grandfathered in thanks to them making a sparkler for so long, before the laws became tougher about the use of the word on labels.

Straight facts about the region of Champagne

Champagne does have very unique soil. It’s a mix of clay and 2 kinds of chalk. One is a type of limestone the other is belemnite chalk - which isn’t found anywhere else. The French in general are huge on the use of Terroir, so I’m sure they are pleased as punch to learn that we can’t replicate their soil in like Ohio or something. Chalk soil has notoriously good drainage and heat retention and it also discourages leaf growth, allowing more sun on the fruit and less chance of mildew growth to funk-ify the wine. Why is this a concern? Mostly because the climate is rather cold by comparison to most grape growing regions. The grapes have naturally high acid levels (great for Champagne production) but frost is a problem here and too much rain, can cause the grapes to swell, and ‘water down” flavor components, plus can add additional dangers of premature mold and rot.

Dom Perignon was a monk who greatly improved viticulture and winemaking procedures in the region Although he did coin the phrase “come quickly, I’m drinking stars!” . Not once did he think his name would make it into Rap music by Americans music artists.

Champagne ‘houses’ are called marques. The oldest most established houses are called grands marques. Because of their long standing success and role in the French economy, they are required to have a role in the export market - at present 25% of all French wine that is exported is Champagne. Again, way to take care of the local economy!

For all the ratings that the AOC tosses around, the vineyards of Champagne are also rated, however the primary roll of rating in this area is for basing grower payments rather than classifying the wines. Due to greed and gouging within the system, in the early 90’s the rating system became a way to set benchmarks for payments but the champagne houses were no longer obligated to pay that amount. (Once again we see greed rear it’s still ugly head)

In ending the blog on a sweet note, let’s get back to that amazing Caramel Apple Pie from yesterday. You’ve made it, and now you need the perfect bottle of bubbles to serve with it. Well, since I just spent the last several minutes educating you on the French ones, I’ll recommend from them, but keep in mind that many other Sparklers be it Italian, Spanish, Californian or even from good ole New Mexico will sing next to a slice of pie.

My Picks although a little expensive, but are well worth a special treat once in a while. (hey - don’t think I drink this stuff every day… au contraire mon frere! I’m a single gal with champagne tastes, but a sparkling wine budget!) You get what you pay for with champagne, and thanks to transport costs, extremely expensive grape costs, and lots accrued costs during long term cellaring, the overhead for champagne certainly puts it in a price class all it’s own.

Nicolas Feuillatte, Champagne Brut “Blue Label” Non Vintage ($35)
Billecart-Salmon Rose Brut NV ($75)
Moet & Chandon White Star NV ($40)
Perrier Jouet Grand Brut NV ($50)

A note about stemware (yes, stemware - the term glassware makes me think of mason jars and OJ tumblers)
Champagne (and this goes for any type of bubbles really) should be enjoyed out of a tulip Photobucket
or flute glass Photobucket
and it should be extremely clean (residue of soap will make your bubbles flat)

Every good champagne glass has a small imperfection at the base inside the glass, this imperfection allows the bubbles to be the focal point of the glass. (psst - great party fodder!)

Saucer Glasses Photobucket
crafted in the shape of the breast of Marie Antoinette, should be saved to serve dessert IN, not the bubbles that you drink with it, as the design isn’t conducive to giving you the best champagne experience possible.

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