An Unfiltered Liz Look at Champagne + a Review
Heya Substackers! I have some fun info for you on this, the day before the Made Up Holiday of Love.
We all know about the tradition of serving and imbibing the bubbly for celebrations, like the one that helped us turn the page away from the last few months-that-fee-like-years and launch ourselves headlong into…whatever happens next. But what do you know about that bubbly, hmmm? Never fear. Liz is here. And what follows is a quick, possibly too short, but wholly useful guide to World of Sparkling Wines.
First off, as you may or may not know, the word “Champagne” has meaning. In that a wine that is made from pinot noir, chardonnay, or pinot meunier grapes (mostly) and has undergone Méthode Champenoise (been fermented in the bottle) to obtain that distinct bubbly-ness is NOT automatically called “champagne” unless that process occurred in the Champagne region of France. The best way to remember it is thusly: “All Champagnes are sparkling wines but not all sparkling wines are champagne.”
Bottom line, as with many wine styles, there is a wide variation in style, sweetness and taste. But by golly if it is not made in Champagne, France, don’t go calling it champagne. I realize this seeming snobbishness goes against all the inclusionary style booze imbibing that I recommend, but I don’t make the rules on this one—I’m just here to try and explain it.
Basically, your bubbly wine options include “Champagne” (only made in the Champagne region of France) but also these Big Dogs:
Sparkling Wine (America)
There are other types of sparkling wines made in France, such as Crémant de Loire, Burgandy, Alsace, or Jura. These are essentially “champagne but not made in Champagne.” The word crémant means “creamy” which is how really great Champagne should feel in your mouth. It’s made using the same secondary fermentation in the bottle method and in many cases the same grapes as the ones made in Champagne. But again, not made in Champagne so…you know the rest.
Other Italian sparkling wines include Lambrusco—a red bubbly wine which was kind of the joke of the wine world for a while but is apparently making a hipster-style comeback sort of like Hamm’s Beer and Old Grandad bourbon. Franciacorta is another Italian bubbly that’s made near Milan in the style of Champagne but tends to be more expensive. There are some even sweeter options from Italy—Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqi made from moscato and brachetto grapes respectively that are usually served as an aperitif or for dessert.
Bottom line so far: If it’s Champagne, by definition we now know that it is “French.” I.e. don’t call it “French Champagne.” That’s the equivalent of calling something American spray cheese, or British fish and chips, or Canadian poutine—yes I know it’s from Quebec we can quibble about that later I think you get my point.
As with most alcohols, there is some “craft” tradition in Champagnes. “Grower Champagne” refers to sparkling wine that is not only made in France’s Champagne region (as we’ve already established and mostly beaten to death), but is also specifically crafted by families who are cultivating the grapes on their own land. A sort of “farm to bottle,” as it were. It’s made in much smaller volumes than what you will find at large producers such as Moët et Chandon and Krug and showcases the “terroir” of the farm—which is craft booze fancy talk for “it tastes like the makeup of the dirt it was grown in” which can vary widely from year to year, giving grower champagne a lot of leeway in the sort of tastes that result. No it doesn’t taste like dirt. It takes on the various characteristics of the soil, the climate, and the topography of the area where it was grown.
Grower Champagne is best thought about this way: It’s not unlike the concept that while Anheuser-Busch makes batch after batch (after batch after batch) of the same beer over and over (and over) again which results in the Bud heavy you open today tasting exactly like the one you expect to open six months (or years) from now, “craft beer” is has more leeway to vary from batch to batch in flavor and experience. Same deal with “grower champagne.” As you might expect, it can sometimes—but not always—be pricier, but if you’re bored with the same old Veuve or Dom experience and you’re super into the bubbly, then check with your local wine shop expert to see if they can locate something from Bérêche et Fils, or Chartogne-Taillet, or Champagne Dhondt-Grellet for your next celebration.
“Okay Liz,” you say. “Now tell me how to read a sparkling wine label, already.”
Okay. Here’s the thing. I don’t have the column inches available to me to explain all the details of French wine labels. But one element is kind of cool and I want to pass it on to you so you can show off while traversing the Champagne aisle this year.
There are two upper case letters on a label of Champagne at the bottom edge, usually followed by some numbers that are unimportant to you, the drinker. The letters however, bear understanding. The letters “R-M” (Récoltant Manipulant) mean you’re holding a bottle of grower champagne. The letters “N-M” (Négociant Manipulant) means the producer of the bottle in your hand bought the grapes instead of growing them. “C-M” (Coopérative Manipulant) is as you might expect from a “co-op.” There are apparently more cooperatively affiliated vineyards in Champagne than in any other French wine region. Finally, if you see “M-A” (Marque d’achetuer) you’re holding a private label or a “BOB” (Buyer’s Own Brand) which represents a big chunk of Champagne production.
I could go on for days about French wine labels but I won’t. The other, more important thing to know about a sparkling wine label is understand how sweet or dry it is. Extra brut is the driest of all the styles. “Brut” means “unsweetened” so there you go. The producer of an extra brut sparkling wine has allowed the yeast to eat every last drop of sugar produced by the grapes. A brut option is slightly less dry than extra so the winemaker stopped the fermentation just before the last of the sugar was consumed. The next level is called, confusingly, “extra dry” which is in reality sweeter than both brut and extra brut. Most Proseccos are “extra dry.” A “demi-sec” is a sweet sparkling option best used to accompany dessert or something else that can match it’s sweetness. For the record, go with a mid-level dry (brut) version for your mimosas. Prosecco is also an excellent mixing option.
Finally, let’s talk about how to drink that bubbly concoction. The ideal temperature to serve it is 47 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Any colder and it will freeze your taste buds. Any warmer and it’s gross (which is a technical term indicating that the wine is “too heavy” and “less bright”). Don’t chill the bottle in the freezer. Make a plan to purchase it in advance so you can let it rest in the bottom area of your fridge for at least four hours before you serve it. Hit me up off line for a trick that involves using the freezer for about an hour but that I’m afraid to state here lest I be mocked.
Use a cloth napkin or towel to make sure the cork does not fly directly at someone. That sucker shoots out under serious pressure and will give the nearest person a black eye. It’s less an art form than something that takes a bit of practice but shaking the bottle beforehand is ill-advised.
You get the best results, bubbles-wise if you then pour it directly down the inside of non-chilled glassware, not unlike pouring a beer to allow for proper head formation. But about that glassware….While slim to skinny flutes are all the rage, you’ll have a better tasting experience if you use something closer to a white wine glass but not something as big and bowl-like as a red wine glass. The wider brim will allow the wine to breathe a bit and will release more flavors as you drink it but a smaller bowl keeps the bubbles fresh.
But those are not rules, pe se, merely guidelines. You know me. If you want to toss that hundred dollar Dom back right from the mouth of the bottle, or drink it out of a coffee mug while soaking in the hot tub and channeling your inner Roman Roy, then you should definitely do you.
My review this week is for a book that is coming out on June 28 from Carina Press. The Romance Recipe is the perfect name for this entertaining novel. Sophie and Amy are both strong characters in their own right. The author presents them each in first person POV in alternating chapters which is one of my most favorite and least favorite thing about the story structure.
I enjoyed experiencing how each woman sees herself--and how that directly conflicted with how they saw or considered each other. Women are notorious for self-criticism. I would know, as I am one of them and do this almost non-stop. I thought that juxtaposing negative self-talk from one character with the exact opposite opinion from the other woman was a wonderful way to develop the characters. And can I just say that "she looked like a bomb had gone off at the hot girl factory" is a line I will forever wish I had written.
The reason I didn't the back and forth first person POV has more to do with a lack of dialogue tags. It took me out of the flow of the story when I had to stop and double check whose chapter (and whose POV) I was in and I had to do this more than once.
The Romance Recipe is a realistic look at women in relationships--be they with their parents, their friends, their siblings or each other and I found it to be a top notch, 4 out of 5 stars read.
See y’all next week.