Some of what you know and don't know about Champagne
You may think there's nothing new under the sun in classic wine regions like Champagne, but there are recent updates that surprised me and may surprise you, too.
Champagne's permitted grapes are primarily Chardonnay, Pinot's Noir and Meunier. Correct, for now. But in 2010, Champagne joined Europe's top agricultural research team in ResDur, a 15-year program to create new grapes resistant to disease and climate change. Seedlings with promising DNA are now under observation in experimental vineyards, with extensive winemaking trials, tastings and final approval to come. Mark your calendars for 2025 and the release of a new Champagne.
France gets the credit for Champagne. The French may have put the sparkle in Champagne, but the Brits helped keep it there. Early in the 1600s, Champagne was dubbed le vin du diable (Devil's wine), not only for its mysterious sparkle but for injuries caused by persistently exploding bottles. Around the same time, Great Britain's James I banned using oak for anything but rebuilding his Royal Navy. Out of necessity, coal became the fuel of choice, heating homes and firing furnaces at much higher temperatures than wood. Hotter furnaces produced sturdier bottles to withstand the pressure from Champagne's bubbles, as well as to usher in a new era of making wine that could be safely cellared and matured for added complexity.
Here are some deeply held beliefs about Champagne and some new information.
• Flutes and tulips are the preferred sparkling glassware. Save your coupes for Champagne fountains and your flutes for bud vases. Today's sommeliers recommend stemmed, white wine glasses, with extra air space for Champagne aromas to expand. The shift also saves breakage costs of replacing fragile flutes.
For a sommelier-approved universal glass set, choose Schott Zwiesel Pure 6-Piece Cabernet Glass Set, about $85 in department and bath supply stores. For everyday drinking, look for Libbey Vina White Wine Glasses, a set of 6, about $30. For portable occasions, choose Govino Go Anywhere Champagne Flutes, 8-Ounce, pack of 4, about $25. Check washing instructions in all cases.
When tasting Champagne, we don't swirl. Swirl away, but gently, to season your glass with delicate Champagne aromas.
• Extra dry means very dry, i.e., less sugar. In fact, in Champagne-speak, extra dry means sweet. Originally, because of technology and taste of the time, Champagne was sweet, similar to today's style "doux" (pronounced do), about 50 grams per liter (g/l) of sugar, about two teaspoons per five-ounce glass. As technology and tastes allowed, Champagne became less sweet: Demi-sec, about 32 g/l; Dry, about 17 g/l; and Extra Dry, about 12 g/l.
• Brut means dry. Yes and no. Brut (brute or broot like brook) is allowed 0 to 12 g/l sugar. Most people perceive sweetness at 6 to 10 g/l. For little-to-no sweetness, look for labels reading Extra Brut, Brut Nature or Brut Sauvage, allowed 0 to 6 g/l. If possible, taste before purchase. With its cold climate and chalky soil, Champagne produces wine with aggressive acidity and stony flavor. Do you like chewing gravel? Maybe a sprinkle of sugar suits your palate after all.
Many producers have catered to America's sweet tooth by increasing sugar, with the added benefit of masking wine faults. Moet et Chandon Brut Imperial -- the planet's top-selling Champagne -- has decreased theirs to 9 g/l. It's got a crystal-clean flavor, dry, with pear, apple and mineral nuance and a finish that calls for another sip, especially when paired with creamy cow's milk cheese, smoked seafood, oysters, or luxurious polenta or pasta. Vivacious and sophisticated with fine creamy bubbles. Available just about everywhere, about $40.
On Thursday, Dec. 31, join The Chopping Block and me for a Virtual Celebration of Champagne and Bubbles. We'll discuss "the night they invented Champagne," as well as prosecco and domestic sparkling wine. Wines may be purchased at The Chopping Block Lincoln Square or your preferred wine merchant so you can taste along. The virtual seminar runs from 8 to 9 p.m. Reservations are required. It's $20 per person, not including wine. For more information and to register, visit: thechoppingblock.get occasion.com/xp/46XrQxVF
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ross' choiceName: Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay)
Producer: Champagne Charles Heidsieck
Region: Champagne, France
Availability: Fine wine shops and major wine and spirits chains, $96
Distributed by: Breakthru Beverage of Illinois, Cicero
Tasting Notes: Elegant and powerful with aromas of toasted brioche, decisive entry evolving to flavors including ripe apple, expansive minerality, firm texture and a finish that ends only by melding with your next bite of grilled seafood (lobster, scallops, whitefish), stuffed mushrooms and many dishes prepared with butter and cow's milk cheese. One taste of this stylish and complex wine and you'll cancel your membership to the "Anything but Chardonnay" Club.