“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”
— Dom Perignon, upon discovering his first
taste of good bubbly
Name Origin: Campania (from the Latin for “field”)
Area of Origin: Champagne, France
What would the very idea of celebration be without Champagne? The effervescent beverage is synonymous with happy occasions, and in some cases the drink itself is reason enough for a toast, particularly if it is from a special vintage. We are enamored with Champagne’s appetite-stimulating effects, as well as its delicate flavor profile when used in cooking, so this month we head to the vines with reckless abandon.
Many are under the impression that Dom Pierre Pérignon was responsible for the creation of the first bottle of Champagne, but that is incorrect. Sparkling wines were in production in the late sixteenth century (and served by Henry IV at court), but the bottles in production at that time were often not strong enough to encapsulate the beverage without breaking, so efforts were somewhat clumsy and haphazard until more sturdy ones were crafted.
What Dom Pérignon did accomplish, and perhaps the most important contributions to the development of Champagne, was the blending of grapes for a better consistency of flavor and the use of the cork for better trapping of the bubbles. Later on, the house of Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin perfected the process of removing deposits of sediment from the bottles (rémuage) by twisting and raising the bottles to allow the sediment to settle at the neck, where it could be frozen and carefully removed (further details below).
Until André François invented the gluco oenometre in 1836, Champagne cellars could be extremely hazardous places to work – bottles would often explode from the buildup of carbon dioxide, as no measures were in place to control the levels of sugar in each bottle. With his invention, François was able to control more precisely these sugars, saving much flying glass and satisfying the varied taste buds of European clientele.
Though many sparkling wines are generically referred to as “champagne,” the only true Champagne is that produced in the region of the same name in France, which is closely controlled by the French government as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The area is France’s northernmost wine region located northeast of Paris .
Unlike regular wine,Champagne undergoes a double fermentation process, the traditional method for which is known as Méthode Champenoise, in which the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, where it stays through its aging process until it is served at table.
Champagne starts out the same as any other wine: white or red grapes are pressed and fermented, then blended with wines from previous years for taste consistency. The wine is then bottled and injected with a liqueur de tirage, a mixture of liquid yeast and sugar, after which the bottles are stored on their sides in a cool, temperature-controlled environment, often an underground cellar or cave. The liqueur causes a second fermentation in the bottle, where the gas remains trapped, and the sugars are converted to alcohol (this results in a dry wine with approximately 12% alcohol content). The bottles are then aged from about one to three years (the finest Champagnes are aged the longest), during which time the yeast sediment remains in the bottle, and where a process of autolysis occurs, in which the yeast cells are destroyed by their own enzymes. This enables a complexity of flavor to develop, and impacts the final profile of the wine (often characterized by descriptions of “yeasty,” “biscuit,” or similar adjectives).
After the Champagne has finished aging, the bottles are subjected to the process of rémuage, or riddling. The bottles are maneuvered to work the sediment down to settle in the neck of the bottle, onto the stopper, where it can be carefully removed. The sediment and a small amount of wine in the neck of the bottle are frozen, and when the bottle is opened, the frozen wine and attached sediment are propelled by pressure from the carbon dioxide to be expelled. It is at this time that the dosage, or a combination of wine and sugar, is added to the bottle for further sweetening and flavor development. The Champagne then rests for another three to six months to allow its complexity to develop before it is released to consumers.
Champagne is crafted from either Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier grapes (however Premier and Grand Cru vineyards are prohibited from growing Pinot Meunier).
Flavor profiles (in order of dryness to sweetness):
Extra Brut – very dry, less than .6% residual sugar per liter
Brut – most popular style, with less than 1.5% residual sugar per liter
Extra Dry – range from semidry to semisweet, with 1.2 to 2% residual sugar per liter
Sec – ranges from 1.7 to 3.5% (sweet) residual sugar per liter
Demi-Sec – ranges from 3.3 to 5% residual sugar per liter
Doux – the sweetest style of Champagne, often referred to as dessert Champagne, with a minimum of 5% residual sugar per liter
Types of Champagne:
Vintage – crafted only in years when grapes are exceptionally good; must be aged a minimum of three years, and must contain 80% of its grapes from the vintage year
Non-Vintage – most Champagne is non-vintage, and is a blend of grapes from various years; must be aged one year before release
Blanc de Blancs – made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes; very delicate
Blanc de Noirs – made exclusively from red grapes; fuller in body than Blanc de Blancs
Rosé – made from a blend of red and white grapes, or white grapes briefly exposed to red grape skins; dry and full-bodied
Cuvée de Prestige or Tête de Cuvée – the top of the line and most expensive; most are vintage-dated
Due to its delicate flavor profile, Champagne is generally paired with mild cheeses, light appetizers and dips, and shellfish such as oysters, shrimp, mussels, clams, crab, and lobster. Having said that, many culinary aficionados have taken to pairing champagnes with each course of a meal, an idea that is gaining in popularity.
(Our review of the Champagne Guide, coming this month, will point to toward a handy reference for the process of discovery.)
In most cases, Champagne is used to begin the meal, as its dryness stimulates the salivary glands and prepares the palate for a feast. There are also sweeter dessert champagnes, however, that offer a beautiful finish to a meal.
When mixed with liqueurs, dry champagnes can also be used in effervescent cocktails, which are becoming increasingly popular and more creative. And of course, there is our favorite use: When used in sweet and savory cooking, Champagne adds a delicate lightness to various dishes, from cream sauces to desserts.
We were curious to explore Champagne as an ingredient, to see how it held up in both sweet and savory dishes. In the coming weeks we will examine its use in sauces, sorbets, soup, and as a glaze for vegetables. Our mental mouths are watering just thinking of it.
We did include a couple of cocktails, however, as sometimes they are simply necessary.
Champagne Apricot Sorbet
Champagne Glazed Cauliflower
Champagne Sabayon with Roasted Strawberries
Clove Spiced Champagne
Flan de Champagne
Fluffy Mascarpone Omelets with Asparagus & Champagne Onions
Lemongrass Champagne Mojito
Pomegranate Champagne Cocktail
Seared Scallops with Vanilla Champagne Crème and Haricots Verts
Sparkling Melon Soup with Orange Flower Crème
Steak with Champagne Braised Cippolini Onions & Sage Butter
Trout Filets with Hot Buttered Champagne Sauce
Photo: Kelly Cline