Bubbles and such: A guide to appreciating champagne
Last holiday season, every time I told someone I was moving to France, I’d get the glaze. You know: the one when someone is fantasizing. I always wondered which cliché scenes were going through their heads. Romantic rendezvous with an impeccably dressed Frenchman? Rides through cobblestone streets on a red bicyclette, perhaps? Indulgent picnics with a cornucopia of croissants, charcuterie and cheeses while accordion music fills the air? Then the glaze would deepen.
What? You’re moving to Champagne?
At that point, I knew exactly what was being imagined: overflowing towers of champagne coupes. Popping bottles every day. Images of people practically bathing in the stuff.
I suppose I have tasted more bubbles this year than any other. Taking an average of all the champagnes I’ve tried since my move, it’s possibly more than one cuvée each day this year. But drinking champagne every day is not why I moved here. I moved to Champagne for a love of learning.
I’m a nerd. I love to read countless reference books, and to figure out how things are made and why things taste or smell a certain way. Understanding the science, the history, the philosophy and the people behind champagne, the sparkling wine – spelled with a lower case “c” – and Champagne, the region– spelled with a capitalized “C” – is my raison d’être.
Most people recognize champagne for its more glamorous side. It’s celebratory and romantic – but my addiction is to both the beauty of what’s in the glass and to the education and stories behind it. The more knowledge I gain about champagne, the more I want to learn.
With champagne, this can be endless. The complexities of terroir, the intriguing differences in each vintage, the philosophies for tending to the vines or the artistry of wine growing and wine-making are just a few.
I worked in the wine industry in Canada as marketing manager for some large champagne brands, but – even then – it was hard to be immersed in all that I wanted to know about champagne. So I left my job and moved to Reims – a city central to the champagne story – at the beginning of 2017.
This year will see my first Christmas in Champagne. But it won’t be my first with champagne during the holidays: no matter where I’ve lived and spent the season, I’ve always celebrated with the most famous of French fizz.
Champagne is fun, fresh and festive. I adore all the nerdy, niche bottles, but for a party where it’ll be a mix of people with different palates, I get a classic non-vintage champagne from one of the larger houses.
Why? Everyone will know it, everyone will enjoy it – and, chances are, it’ll be in the chilled section of the store. My go-to choice is usually the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, which always has bright, fresh aromas juxtaposed against rich flavors of brioche, tart tatin and lemon curd. Depending on the gathering, I might start with a big, splashy magnum or jeroboam.
For more intimate gatherings – especially when there’ll be friends who adore food and wine – I find that a champagne made by a Récoltant-Manipulant is perfect for the occasion and conversation. Récoltant-Manipulant is the French designation for producers who grow all the grapes that are made into champagnes, spurning the nickname “grower champagne”. Identified by the small letters “RM” on the label, these champagnes have flavours and stories that speak to the soil and terroir; the individual ways the growers tend to their vines; and the artisanal philosophy towards making the champagnes. Usually, these current-day growers are from families who have been growing grapes and producing champagne for generations. It’s fascinating, and it’s delicious.
There are so many producers that I admire – Emmanuel Brochet, Jean-Marc Sélèque, Raphaël and Vincent Bérêche, Pierre Peters, Pascal Doquet, Ruppert-Leroy, included. Your best bet is finding these producers in specialty wine shops, but many are making their way into larger wine retailers.
Wine pairings at dinner parties can be tricky, especially if you’re a guest and are not sure what your host is preparing. Western or Asian? Meat-fest or vegan? Hors d’oeuvres or ten-course?
Rose champagne works almost every time. Its brightness and acidity matches with seafood and any lighter dishes. The depth and subtle tannins complement weightier courses with meat or roasted root vegetables. It’s been the pairing of my favorite meals of the year: a treasured bottle of Jérôme Prévost Fac-Simile Rosé Champagne with Peking duck before leaving Vancouver for France. And then, once in Reims, sharing Frederic Savart’s Expression Rose with good friends over a homemade meal of grilled portobello pasta.
Champagne also makes the perfect gift. There is a style for everyone.
Grower champagnes are great for those who love good wine, good food, a good story. For those who like to know the provenance of everything, a personal touch – such as a little write up of the producer’s story – will be much appreciated. Many larger brands such as Veuve Clicquot come out with creative and charming gift packaging, which are sure to delight the trendiest of friends. Some champagnes can be from a specific vintage or year, so if there is a particularly special year in the past I want to acknowledge – such as 2006 for many of my friends who started their families that year – I try to find a vintage champagne.
In the future, I will be looking for a bottle or two bottles from 2017. To commemorate my first year in Champagne, of course.
Author: Ada Chan
Photography: Talia Kleinplatz