I was having lunch with a Loire Valley winemaker, who had poured me a glass of his sparkling Vouvray, a French Chenin Blanc with bubbles.
The wine was delightful and a bargain compared with Champagne. As we chatted about the challenges he faced in trying to market such an obscure wine here, he lifted my glass and stirred the liquid with a spoon until it was flat.
“If a sparkling wine is great, there has to be a fine wine behind the bubbles,” he said.
One of the points he made was that anyone who tried to compare his wine to Champagne was making an error that had no point. “A flashlight and a candle both give off light, but they are not at all the same.”
I’ve enjoyed sparkling Vouvray, Prosecco, and vintage-dated Salon (considered one of the finest all-Chardonnay Champagnes ever made) and I never compare them. Each does something the others cannot do.
But the king is Champagne, one of the reasons for its usually high price.
Of all the fine wines in the world, Champagne also may be blessed with the greatest lore, history, and legend, most of which are passed along inaccurately.
One (possibly apocryphal) tale of Champagne actually comes from Germany. When German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck dined with his host Kaiser Wilhelm II, the latter served German sparkling Riesling, called sekt.
When he tasted it, von Bismarck said he couldn’t drink “German champagne,” and got the reply that Wilhelm’s effort was mainly patriotic. Champagne is from the enemy, he said.
In response, von Bismarck is said to have replied, “Your majesty, my patriotism stops at my stomach.”
Perhaps the most widely quoted homage to real Champagne comes from the owner of Champagne Bollinger, Lilly Bollinger, who was asked about her consumption of Champagne.
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“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
And since sparkling wines are different from still wines, the way we treat them can be different. Here are a few suggestions:
— Some people think all bubbly should go into only one special glass – the slender flute. However, most Champagne experts say a better vessel is the standard tulip-shaped glass.
— Store Champagne upright, not lying down. On their sides, some long-aged sparklings may have cork problems.
— Bubbly should never be opened using a corkscrew. Remove the cork by unwrapping the wire cage while firmly holding the top of the cork so it won’t fly out. (For safety, cover the cork with a towel or potholder.) Hold the bottle pointing away from anyone. And be careful that the cork doesn’t get away from you.
— If a cork doesn’t budge, never use something not designed for bubbly-cork removals. A gadget called a Champagne key helps in gripping the cork top. The bottle can then be turned until the cork comes out of the neck. (A small pair of pliers also works, but it’s riskier and not as reliable.)
— Perhaps the best time to seek out pricey sparkling wines is after the holidays, when many wine shop operators realize they over-bought for the holidays and realize some discounting may be necessary.
— Most high-quality Champagnes should be served cold, but not nearly frozen, so the delicate aroma can be appreciated. With less expensive products (under $6), chilling to very low temperatures is less risky. Some suggest it’s best!
— Almost all bubblies, no matter where they are from, are meant to be consumed when released. Older Champagnes rarely are better, and often are worse. (This “rule” does not apply in England.)
Ending the year with Champagne is a tradition that likely will not fade, but remember that it’s best with food.
Wine of the Week: NV Sutter Home Fre Brut ($8) – Festive parties at which a lot of adult beverages are served can be a pitfall. Among the dangers: slurred speech, headaches, hangovers, potential accidents, and excessive costs. Here is an actually tasty solution – an alcohol-free (thus the name Fre) wine that’s fresh, balanced and carries a slightly wine-like taste. It’s nearly impossible to make tasty wines without any alcohol, but Trinchero has worked diligently to make strides in this area.