Jan 6, 2009

Capturing The Sparkle

Dom Pérignon, champagne's inventor, said, when he took a first sip of the magic elixir. "I am drinking stars!" It’s true. Champagne is sparkly and stellar. A happy drink synonymous with celebrations---Weddings, New Years, Birthdays or for me…Friday! Heck, any day is a champagne day in my house!

In honor of the arrival of 2009, I thought it appropriate to discuss my beverage of choice. Below are some bubbly facts you can toast to your next celebration. Cheers!

The story goes that a monk named Dom Pérignon (recognize the name?), from the Abbey of Hautvillers in the Champagne region of France, bottled and corked several lots of wine without allowing the fermentation process to finish. During the winter months the wine remained dormant but in spring, when the contents of the sealed bottles heated up, fermentation resumed and carbon dioxide built up in the corked bottles. Eventually, the bottles exploded. Curious, Perignon tasted the contents and beckoned to his fellow friars, "Come quickly. I am drinking stars!"

The use of the name “champagne” has been a source of controversy in wine circles but today ONLY wine produced in the Champagne region of France can rightfully be called "champagne”. Not even sparkling wines produced in other parts of France can use the moniker. Others must be designated "sparkling wine." If made in the traditional French manner, the wine may be labeled with the words "Méthode Champenoise". Spanish wines produced in the “Méthode Champenoise” are called "Cava." I have had a lot of cava in my day and I tell you, it’s pretty good. Cava Sangria…very nice for brunch! In Italy, "Prosecco"--a key ingredient to a good bellini cocktail, in case you are wondering.

If you haven’t visited a champagne house, I highly recommend taking the short drive from Brussels. It’s only 3 hours, tops, by car, to Reims---the effervescent epicenter of all good things champagne. Although it might be appealing to visit the big names and see the high volume operations, like those at Pommery and Mumms, a tour of a small champagne house like Ployez-Jacquemart, a small family run operation since 1930, is very educational and personal. It’s like taking a tour of a favorite aunt’s house culminating in a tasting in the living room. www.ployez-jacquemart.fr

Making sparkling wine in the French tradition “Méthode Champenoise” is very labor-intensive. Here are the basic steps.

The cuvée is the base wine selected to make champagne. Cuvées can be produced from grape varietals such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, or can be a mixture of several varieties. Chardonnay is a white grape with white juice, Pinot Noir a red grape with white juice. Pinot Meunier is a black wine grape and relative of Pinot Noir, and often used in making champagne. If a champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay, it is called "Blanc de Blancs". Most champagne is made from mixed cuvées.

After the cuvée is selected, a mixture of sugar and yeast, called "liqueur de tirage," is added. The wine is then bottled temporarily capped.

The key process in producing champagne is a second fermentation that occurs in the sealed bottle. The bottles are placed in a cool cellar and the wine is allowed to ferment slowly, for at least three months. This process is sometimes referred to as the "prise de mousse," or "capturing the sparkle," (I love that!) and or...the formation of the tiny bubbles we love so much.

LE REMUAGE (Riddling) 
After the secondary fermentation, the bottle is placed upside down in a holder at about a 75° angle. Each day a "riddler" (no not the batman character) turns the bottles an eighth of a turn, while keeping it upside down. In some of the smaller cellars you’ll visit, there is still a “riddler” who turns each bottle by hand. Major houses now do this by machine.

DÉGORGEMENT (Disgorging) 
The champagne bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen. This results in the formation of a clump of frozen wine in the bottle neck containing the dead yeast cells (gross) that have gathered during the riddling process. The bottle cap is then removed (disgorged), and the pressure of the carbon dioxide in the bottle forces out the frozen wine. At this point sugar is added to adjust the sweetness level and wine is added to top off the bottle. It is then corked and wired down to secure the pressure.

We know the rest of the story: chill, pop, pour—Salut!

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