Necessary and essential to pure enjoyment – both the Little Black Dress and Champagne.
My vocation to share a love of bubbles with every guest always commences with the following statement, spewed out from a dead pan face of intention;
“Champagne is the little black dress of the wine world”.
The sincerity of Champagne allows each human to feel and taste things fabulous no matter where they are or what they’re eating. It, like the LBD, is versatile and can be drunk on any occasion, paired with all foods, and found at any cost you’re prepared to spend. Champagne affords those meals and moments that require extra care or attention just as the little black dress can do in an instant, leaving more time to spend on making memories rather than on the outfit.
Of course there are the accents that can dress up the LBD, such as jewelry, the shoes, the hair, but in the end it’s all about the simplicity and consistency of the dress and its potential. This is also true with Champagne. The method of production is the same for all that come out of the Champagne region and stake their claim to it. What goes into the bottle then is the difference and there are some major differences, but with always the core values of creating beauty and complexity that translates to fabulous intensity in the glass that all can enjoy, wherever, whenever!
Here is a concentrated guide to Champagne for the beginner hoping to learn what “dress” to put on when they are purchasing bubbles.
The Champagne AOC in northern France produces the world’s most famous sparkling wine. The word Champagne has become synonymous with sparkling wine from anywhere, but true Champagne may only be produced in northern France in the region of glorious Champagne! Sparkling winemaking in Champagne dates all the way back to the 1700s.
The Major Grapes Of Champagne
- Pinot Noir : gives the wine structure, power and mouthfeel; strawberries, raspberries, cherry
- Meunier : adds spice, richness and youthful fruitiness; black cherry, raspberry
- Chardonnay : racy acidity and elegance; pommaceous, lemon curd
Champagne gets that sparkle from a second fermentation in the bottle. A small mixture of wine, sugar, and yeast is combined with a still base wine to initiate the process. Then carbon dioxide is produced by yeasts converting sugar to alcohol and is trapped inside the bottle creating the bubbles I love. The yeasts begin to die and form lees(sediment) inside the bottle. With passing time the lees create aromas of baked breads and toasted nuts. When bottle aging is completed the bottle is disgorged and the lees are removed. In all styles other than Brut Nature/Zero Dosage a small amount of sugar and wine liquid mixture is added for balance or outright sweetness. This is called the dosage and levels are predetermined by the house.
The dosage is what determines the sweetness level of the final Champagne bottled. Typically on the market are “Brut,” or dry in style. From driest to sweetest, the gauges are:
- Brut Nature/Brut Zero : bone-dry, and no added dosage
- Extra Brut : almost bone-dry, with little to no dosage
- Brut : a range of bone-dry to perceptible sweetness
- Extra Sec/Extra Dry : these wines are not dry at all but sweeter, or off-dry
- Sec/Dry : off-dry to semi-sweet
- Doux : a rich, dessert-sweet Champagne style
- Non-Vintage (NV): typically this will be a brut bottling(“dress”). NV cuvées are the models of the house’s signature style, and it is extremely important that each bottle is consistent year after year.
- Vintage: this “dress” comes from a single harvest. It is aged in underground caves for long periods of time and are usually only made when the year is good. Like a vintage LBD these wines can hold up over the years and are more fabulous when taken out on the town than when they first went underground.
- Prestige Cuvée (Tête de Cuvée): usually the best and most expensive “dress” that the Champagne house offers. They can be vintage-dated and aged for a number of years, although not required, and they’re usually released only in a superior vintage. These wines can be Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs or Rosé in style. Big House, Classic examples are : Moët et Chandon “Dom Pérignon”, Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne”, Louis Roederer “Cristal”, Pol Roger “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill”, Ruinart “Dom Ruinart”, and Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin “La Grande Dame”
- Blanc de Blancs : the little black dress looks white in this bottling. These wines may only be produced from 100% Chardonnay, and may be non-vintage or dated. This style offers some of the most ageworthy Chardonnay on the planet. As a young bottle the wines are racy and crisp, and with more years become creamier and dreamier. Some examples include : Gosset, Billecart-Salmon, Delamotte, Salon
- Blanc de Noirs: though the juice is clear these wines are produced solely from black-skinned grapes. The juice is pressed without any skin contact so the wines are clear. Blanc de Noirs can be intensely rich and powerful. A tasty example is Eric Rodez.
- Rosé Champagne: usually produced by blending red and white base wines prior to the second fermentation, but sometimes by saignée, where there is extended skin contact. All vintage, NV, and prestige cuvées may also produce pink versions. A rosé prestige cuvée is usually the most expensive and rare product a house offers. Think Krug Rosé…all day!
Types of Producers
Just as with LBD designers there are Champagne producers of all kinds. Brands that make their wines by purchasing from smaller houses and growers known as négociants. These are the bigger brands. Another common type of producer are those that stay close to their lands to create a more unique design every time. These “grower-producers” use their own grapes to create their wines. Is there a difference? Depends on the producers and what you’re hoping for. Just as with any fashion designer there are things to consider. The bigger the brand the more money they have so the consistency of the design will be more apparent, while the smaller brands may be more inclined to individuality with each “dress”.
- Négociants (Négociant Manipulant): look for the initials “NM”(Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot)
- Grower-producers(Récoltant Manipulant) : look for the initials “RM” (Marc Hebrart, Vilmart & Cie, Pierre Peters, Egly-Ouriet)
When Is The “Little Black Dress” Appropriate?
ALL THE TIME!
Champagne can be very effective in portraying & enhancing celebration, as well as a comfort in times of sadness. Champagne makes an excellent pairing wine; have a crisp blanc de blanc with light dishes or raw seafood courses. Toast with a rich vintage brut when enjoying savory dishes & soft cheeses.. Try a rosé with…EVERYTHING!
Whether it’s just a glass or you’ve gotten hooked on the whole bottle, Champagne can be a match for an entire meal. The bubbles and acidity act as little windshield wipers for the tongue, cleansing between each bite. So choose the “little black dress” that you love and the rest will fall into place. And if you’re not yet sure what you love ask for help. I’m more than somm and all about the bubbles!