On the Bubble with Champagne

The sublime flavours of yeast carcass, exploding bottles, sparkle capture, and smaller as actually better.
By Keith B. Hoffman
hat feeling in your guts when you’re about to heave from the smell of something rotten is an evolutionary and valuable muscle contraction designed to ensure we don’t eat dangerous, bacteria-laden food. The tang of rotting fish; the layered stench of an overripe, molded and almost crawling cheese; and the tangible face-spank of a degassing, bloated carcass are all proud members of guild vomitas. Apparently, the taste manifestations of a long death are not high on our culinary favorites chart. Exceptions occur such as “1,000 year-old” eggs, fermented fish sauce, “stinky tofu”, and, surprisingly, Champagne. Turns out that the sublime flavours of Champagne come from fungi carcass discharges over the many months that yeasts stew in your favorite bottle of bubbly. Yes, the beverage much of the adult world associates with class, revelry and freshness obtains its signature flavour by a long and intimate association with death. Keep that in mind next time you raise a flute to, ironically, life.

T

SoilS, GrapeS and Flavour The soils of the Champagne region of northeast France are full of chalk, which lends itself not only to easy excavations for cellar construction, but retains moisture well and is rich in nitrogen. The latter two characteristics are quite beneficial for grape production and are even more important in Champagne, as grape yields are naturally lower because the climate is significantly cooler than most wine-growing regions. Champagne is almost exclusively made from the juice of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes. The Pinots give the wine backbone and lengthy finish, sometimes also referred to as its “carpentry”. The Chardonnay adds biscuit flavours and needed acid. This acid component ensures a long life for the wine and is therefore crucial to Champagne, as the wine needs to be aged for many months prior to drinking. The charisma of Champagne builds after about eight to 10 months in the bottle, at which time the yeasts begins to die and break open.

Proteins, volatile substances, and individual amino acids slowly relocate from the walls and guts of the yeasts into the wine. This is sometimes termed the “awakening” of the wine, and this leeching constructs the aromas and tastes that set Champagne apart. After at least 15 months, this detritus, known as “lees” is slowly collected, via gravity,

È Champagne: it all stems from special grapes.

label basics
Blanc de BlancS—White wine made from only white grapes, in this case Chardonnay. Blanc de noirS—White wine made from only the juice of red grapes, like Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. If the skins were used, the wine would have a pink to red tint and would therefore not be termed “blanc”. Added sugar, in grams per litre (g/l): extra brut (none), brut nature (less than 3), brut (less than 15), extra-dry (from 12-20), sec (17-35), demi-sec (33-50), and doux (50).

È Don’t judge a bottle by its label. Champagne is actually the product of yeast and fungi discharge.

know your...
Champagne faCTs
• Only 82,000 acres make up the official Champagne growing region. The
major Champagne houses control a scant 10 percent of this land, yet their exports amount to most of the Champagne in the world outside France.

• Dom Perignon was

• 19,000 individual growers oversee the remaining 90 percent of grapes
not controlled by the big houses, and their Champagnes are becoming more accepted outside France with each harvest.

• The total planted acreage of the individual grapes is approximately 38

percent Pinot Noir, 34 percent Pinot Meunier, and 28 percent Chardonnay.

• Only the juice from the grapes is used, and all juice from either red or
white grapes is clear. Great care is taken to ensure that none of the skin pigments, so coveted in red wine production, leech into the wine. Grape pressing techniques are therefore very gentle.

• 300 million bottles are produced each year in the Champagne region. • In most cases, the entire yield from a single vine is required to make
one bottle.

• Elegantly, the harvest begins each year 100 days after the middle
of the flowering period.

• The production rules in Champagne are staggering, with most producers
not even allowed to determine their own harvest dates. Harvest machines are forbidden and all grapes must be taken during one session, etc.

responsible for much of Champagne’s eventual success, but he was originally the object of some scorn from his Abbey fellows. A demand was made for him to rid the wine of bubbles, as the bottles were quite prone to spontaneous detonation. In fact, in the 1700s massive bursts, including chain reactions, were so common that cellar workers had to adorn themselves in unwieldy iron masks and heavy clothing to prevent injury. If you can visualise thousands of glass bottles in front of you, all primed to explode and pierce you with razors of glass, one can imagine that the cellar employees of old were notably anxious.

• Open your Champagne by holding the bottle at a 45-degree angle, and

• Most Champagne is non-vintage, meaning it’s a blend of different

yearly harvests. If you see a year on the label it signifies a particularly good harvest, and the wine inside has been aged for much longer than normal Champagne. in the neck of the bottle. The neck of the bottle is typically frozen solid, the top taken off, and, due to the internal gas pressure, the lees slowly self-extrude out of the bottle in a solid gunk unit. After the lees are removed, a dosage of sugar is added directly to the bottle to determine the final sweetness level, from no sugar added (extra brut) to a large dollop (doux). Cork is inserted, wire mesh affixed, and labels pasted. The caging of joy for another day complete. Those BuBBles “Nucleation sites” are a general term for a location where bubbles can form. To make sure you get proper bubbliciousness, be sure to wipe down your flutes with a cloth prior to pouring. Science has informed us that the little fibers left over from the wiping will operate as excellent bubble genesis sites. The resultant globes of carbon dioxide gas do some wacky things. They can spring from the nucleation locales in singles, doubles, triples and even in a group of a dozen. Their patterns can last for just moments, or many minutes

slowly rotate the bottle around the cork as you hold on to it. Ease the cork out with a slight “sigh”, not a “pop”. The bubbles should be enjoyed in the glass, not on the floor.

• Try not to wrap up the bottle like a swaddled newborn. The label should
be proudly displayed.

È Pyrotechnic rendition of what goes on inside a bottle of Champagne–and in our heads once the cork flies.

of repetition. Right before the show is about over the bubbles from a given site will lapse into single spaced boringness, signaling that the entertainment from that site is almost over. There are many ways to cause carbon dioxide to dissolve in wine, the cheaper techniques of which include the “bicycle pump” method, or the action of yeasts in large fermentation vats. Such processing results mostly in large bubbles

that spasm out of your glass like a fireworks show on a tight budget. To get small, lasting bubble happiness, one must go though the long and arduous production symphony that defines Champagne. The yeast farting ferment action that goes down in the bottle, while time consuming, expensive, and, in the past, dangerous, is the only way to get a sparkling wine with coveted small orbs of carbon dioxide.

All that quality fizziness is called the Champagne’s “mousse”. The number-one faux pas in Champagne land is known simply as “the beater”. You are one if you dip a stirrer into your flute and swirl it around to release the bubbles. In just seconds, you’ve just quite condescendingly destroyed the years of care and pain it took to get those bubbles in there. Don’t be a beater.

Names that sparkle
For a sparkling wine to be termed “Champagne” is must be 100-percent produced within the geographic confines of, and from grapes grown in, the Champagne region of France. Even other locations within France cannot use the term. For example, bubbly made in Burgundy is termed “Cremant”. In Italy the term Spumante is used, in Spain Cava, while bubbly made in Germany is called Sket. In the United States, Champagne production methods are widely copied, and the wines are called “Sparkling” with labels that denote their similarity to Champagne by such terms as “fermented in this bottle”, “champagne method”, or “traditional method”. Much of the Californian-made bubbly is now being very carefully produced, and recent results are rivaling even Champagne’s best. If you want to see how California bubbly stacks up to true Champagne, give the pricier selections from Domain Chandon, Roederer, Schramsberg, Mumm, Thomas Fogarty or Scharffenberger a shot.

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The moment of truth. Years to develop but only a few minutes to savour. Make it last.