CHAMPAGNE WITH A CAPITAL C

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Nothing sets the tone better for the festive season of Christmas and New Year than Champagne, or one of Champagne’s bubbly cousins such as Prosecco or Cava. But should you serve and drink Champagne or another sparkling wine at Christmas or New Year? And what is the difference anyway?

Real Champagne, that is – spelled with a capital C; only the sparkling wines grown and produced in the region of Champagne in France can truly be called Champagne. Bubblies from everywhere else in the world, mousseaux in the Loire region, spumante in Italy, Prosecco also from Italy, cava from Spain, Sekt from Germany are not Champagne but sparkling wine.

Make no mistake about it; it’s the growing conditions in Champagne which makes Champagne the best sparkling wines in the world. The proof? How about the fact that a number of the best Champagne houses – like Moet & Chandon, Roederer, Mumm, and Taittinger – have all established vineyards and sparkling wine facilities in California, bringing their best people to apply all the skill and experience they have to make the closest thing to Champagne possible. The result? Champagne-like wines – fresh, light, yeasty, and zesty. But ultimately, not nearly as deep and flavorful, not nearly as fine and delicate, and not nearly as pure and penetrating as the original stuff. Why? Because it’s grapes that make wine, and the grapes grown in California for sparklers will never be as fine as the grapes grown in Champagne. It will never be the same unless you can move the entire region — rocks, stocks and barrels — to another country.

It is no surprise that the lowest priced Champagne is more expensive than the finest sparkling wines from anywhere in the world — Nothing like the real thing!

If you want fresh, decent sparkling wine for under Rs 3,000, you can always get a lovely Prosecco from Italy, a steely dry cava from Spain, or a soft, aromatic Korbel from California. For about Rs 4,000 you can get great drinking “methode Champenoise” style wines for very Champagne-like finesse. But if you want the richest and finest stuff in the world to share with say, just a few of your closest friends, or the people you love most or celebrating a special occasion, then it must be Champagne with a capital C.

So here’s the million dollar question, especially for the millions of us who don’t have the millions spend: What are the best Champagnes? The answer is that when it comes to Champagne, it is hard to say which is the “best of the best. There are, however, classic styles of Champagnes followed by each major brand. So that’s the way to shop: by the style of Champagne that you prefer, or which Champagnes sound, look, smell, feel and taste the best to you. Since there are many wonderful Champagnes to choose from, you should try some classic styles and see what appeals to you the most.

Here are some notes on how Champagne satisfies all five senses

Sound

The sound made by a Champagne as it leaves a correctly opened bottle is one of your first clues to the wine’s identity. The cork should be eased out firmly but gently, releasing with a soft sigh or hiss. This is the prelude to a chorus of sounds that will soon become familiar to the attentive ear.

Listen carefully and you will learn to track the effervescence from first gush to its more sedate arrival in the glass. You can even judge the finesse of the bubbles – a key defining feature – from the sound they make once poured.

There is a discreet popping noise as the bottle is opened, then a crackling, fizzing sound as the wine is poured and the effervescence whooshes into the glass – a sound like the stirring of leaves in the breeze or the rustling of silk, taffeta, lace … The bubbles burst, hiss, chatter, babble, whisper then fade …

Sight

Observe the limpidity, lightness, fluidity and colour of the wine in the glass. Judge the density of yellow on a scale that ranges from golden blonde to straw yellow or grey gold. The human eye is capable of fine discrimination. What you should look for most in Champagne is brilliance, radiance and crystalline clarity – all qualities that appeal to the eye. An absence of limpidity, on the other hand, tends to be rather disconcerting.

Then there is the spectacle of the bubbles themselves – endlessly fascinating as they rise irrepressibly to the surface and collect in a jostling ring to form the ‘cordon’.

There are certain degrees of effervescence, each one an indication of a wine’s age and personality. Bubbles are synonymous with Champagne and always a welcome sight – but they should not overpower the nose.

Champagne sparkles with life as it is poured. The bubbles may be described as fine or medium-sized; steady, streaming or moving in groups; light and tiny; fast and furious, or slow and shy. Some whizz through the liquid like shooting stars, whirling and spiraling upwards. Others are more enduring and generous, settling in a delicate cordon round the edge of the glass. Others still are more discreet and dispersed or on the contrary very evenly distributed.

Wine critics often talk about tiny, silvery bubbles or bubbles that shatter into fragments of gold.

The mousse might be described as creamy, white, fine, enduring, lively, elegant, graceful, pale or frothy. The cordon formed by the mousse may be compared to a delicate string of pearls.

Smell

Champagne wines are so subtly aromatic that the effervescence may mask their delicate bouquet. Every bottle develops its own particular range of fruit, floral, wooded and spicy notes.

That first whiff of Champagne is like the overture to an opera: there is a recurring theme, followed by notes that reappear throughout the tasting. In a young Brut Champagne, for example, scents of white flowers are often the prelude to hints of orange peel and wild berries. The aromas in Champagne are inherently volatile, constantly evolving in the glass. How you describe them depends on how you perceive them, whether fruity, floral, mature, subtle or any other term that you might choose.

To appreciate the full aromatic potential of Champagne, you must allow the wine time to open – meanwhile studying its appearance in the glass. Once open, the Champagne releases its ‘first nose’ or immediate olfactory impressions, followed some time later by the deeper, more complex, more precise ‘second nose’. The aromas in Champagne are also an indication of grape variety and grape ripeness.

Taste

Champagne makes particular demands on the sense of taste, particularly the tongue and the palate. The moment when the wine enters the mouth is the high point of the tasting, especially for an experienced and attentive taster who will be looking for such qualities as intensity, completeness, sharpness, richness, perfection – sometimes even impertinence. How you define the wine very much depends on your ability to detect its subtle harmonies and tastes. Can your tastebuds distinguish between a touch of citrus and a hint of ripe pear? Would you say that the palate was round or long, lively or agile? What about the mouthfeel? Is it ripe with red berries, musky, toasty or brioche-like? It is delicate or ultra-refined? Look to your palate for the answers to these questions.

“The palate should be surprisingly but pleasantly sparkling, instantly seductive and velvety. The taste should have an underlying fruitiness, with a lingering fragrance that causes you to meditate silently and at length on the wine’s aromatic qualities – long after you put down your glass”. – Louis Bohre, an early 20th century Champagne ‘explorer’.

Feel

The bubbles feel like crystalline pearls on the palate, exploding with acidulous flavours that stand out against a rich, smooth background of ripe fruit and exotic wood interlaced with the fragrance of white flowers. Think of the bubbles as the musicians in a symphony orchestra. They rise to a crescendo then diminish by degrees to close on a note of peace and harmony. Excitement, completeness, tranquility – a symphony in three movements that intensifies our tasting pleasure.

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