To Champagne or To Not Champagne

Champagne, Sparkling WInes, Oh My!

Champagne, Sparkling Wines, Oh My!

Ah, New Year’s Eve. A time to party, to celebrate the year that was, and a time to raise a toast for a better new year. Tradition calls for champagne, as this drink of royalty is associated with wealth, success, and other positive attributes.

Irony abounds in this, as the original goal for the wine makers of the Champagne region was to get rid of the bubbles that make modern champagne and sparkling wines the toast of the party.  They wanted to be like Burgundy.  Even the celebrated monk Dom Perignon spent his life trying to get rid of the bubbles that plagued his wine. Even as the French worked hard to eradicate them, the English developed a passion for the bubbly wine and it was because of that demand that the French royal courts came to embrace it.

The creation of the modern champagne industry is a study in materials and production science. The glass bottles used for traditional wines were not strong enough to withstand the pressures that built up inside. The idea of making the wine bubble, rather than trying to eliminate it, required a good deal of trial and error in the production process. Eventually, the modern “Methode Champenoise” was developed by Veuve Clicquot and adopted by all champagne producers.

Tattinger Champagne

Tattinger Champagne

“But, what is the difference between champagne and sparkling wine,” you ask? That’s an easy one. Champagne can only be produced within the Champagne region of France. If it is wine produced using the “Methode Champenoise” outside of the region in France, or anywhere in the world, it is sparkling wine.

That said, not all champagnes are equal, and not all sparkling wines are cheap knock-offs of the real deal. The truth is, some sparkling wines from the U.S. and Australia can and do give the originals a good run for the money. In fact, they can win head-to-head competitions.

If you want to do something very different and fun this New Year’s Eve, consider having a blind tasting. I can and will recommend Greg Norman Australian sparkling wine as a good one to try, and you can choose from a great variety of quality California sparkling wines. If some seem to have similar names to famous French champagnes, there is a good reason for that: namely, the French champagne houses saw that California sparkling wines were a real threat, and decided to found American branches to manage that threat and grow their business.

When it comes to the real deal, marketing has put a few names at the top of the list. I think that list is overrated. Personally, I like the offerings by Taittinger and the Brut La Francaise is a solid budget champagne. I also recommend Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët champagnes.

Another good choice

Another good choice

I will ask one favor of you: for the love of good wine please do not ice your champagne or sparkling wine. Here’s a hint: if anything requires you to drink it ice cold (in a frosty glass), to me that is an indicator that it has a taste that would cause it to leave your mouth at high velocity if you could really taste it. If it is ice cold, you can’t.

Champagne should be served at about 45 degrees. You don’t have to be precise to several decimal places, and you can be off a few degrees either way, though I would err towards warmer just because it is better to be a bit warmer and have more flavor than to go colder and lose subtle flavors. Consider a programmable wine chiller like this, and rather than the big saucers, go with a good flute like these.

The main thing is, try something different this year and have some fun with it. Champagne and sparkling wines are well worth exploring, and they don’t have to break the bank. You can put as much into it as you want, but try something different. Start the new year with a new taste, and make it a year of exploration.

My thanks to Wine On Nine for letting me photograph there.