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Food & Dining // Vino Sense
Roberto Viernes

Bubbling Over With Joy Of The Season

If you are as big a Champagne fanatic as I am, you love it when December rolls around. You don’t have to answer questions like “What are you celebrating?” when you open that bottle of Champagne. I typically say, “I’m celebrating life!” A flimsy reason, I know, but you don’t need a reason to open a bottle of Champagne, and the holidays and festive season bring Champagne to the forefront of everyone’s mind and palate.

I think that I have had more consistent and high-quality experiences with Champagne overall this year than any other wine or wine category. I have had higher heights, but the high quality and consistency that Champagne represents is unsurpassed. No wine is impervious to the vagaries of corks, storage conditions and travel but, in my experience, Champagne has been more than satisfactory and there are reasons for that.

First, I must admit that I do not go out of my way to find nor do I waste my money on the junk stuff (and, yes, there is plonk in Champagne). Like most, I gravitate to the best. Without going into the litany of great producers, here is just a quick top 10 in no particular order: Krug (favorite of all time), Salon, Vilmart, Pierre Peters, Selosse, Roederer, Bollinger, Pol Roger and Moet et Chandon (including Dom Perignon). If you have any one of the bottles from these producers, chances are you will have a very good to great experience. As Sir Winston Churchill said, “I am easily satisfied with the very best.”

I also find that Champagne travels better than most still wines. Therefore, when it ends up on your table, even after a long journey, the wine is still “whole.” I have traveled with wine quite a bit and brought my own wine to gatherings as is needed. And in many cases, wine can suffer from a bit of travel shock or fatigue. Wines that are especially prone to this are all older wines (read 10-15 years or more, depending on variety). Pinot Noir, Syrah and Gamay also are especially susceptible to bottle shock. I do not have any chemical or elemental justification about why Champagne is better at handling the travel. My best guess is that it has something to do with the gas that is in liquid suspension. This carbon dioxide may act as a preventative to the oxidation and breakdown that other wines may experience. This just strengthens the notion that bringing a bottle of Champagne to any gathering is a good idea.

The consistency of Champagne comes from the mastery of blending. A producer can blend more than 40 different lots of grapes from many different villages and vineyards made up of the three major grape varieties in Champagne (Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay) and many different vintages to create a wine that represents the house style every year. This is a remarkable feat and shows the skill of a cellar master to be able to distinguish the necessary components of a wine that will not even be released to the public a minimum of 15 months after the wine is bottled.

I also think that the growing interest and amount of selections of “Grower Champagnes” also have created a higher level of consistency and quality. These smaller producers who make everything from grapes that they grow themselves instead of purchasing grapes from other growers as the large “Houses” do are artisans at heart. They pore over their grapes the whole year through, and the ones that make it to our shores have a special uniqueness to them as they often represent a particular village, and showcase its terroir and sense of place. They also can be some of the best values in Champagne, because they do not pay for marketing. In addition, they must price themselves appropriately, as most consumers will not overpay for something, especially if they have never heard of it or tried it before.

And one cannot discount the effect on our attitude when opening a bottle of Champagne. One of my very first experiences with Champagne was with Master Sommelier Fred Dame, who called it “an attitude adjuster.” There is an ineffable quality of Champagne that lifts the two corners of our mouths into a smile. It also acts similarly on our psyche. I have a Pavlovian response to the hiss of a Champagne bottle opening.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email rviernes@southernwine.com.

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