Monday, May 11, 2015

Champagne: In Victory and Defeat

Few people in the world today think of bloodshed and war when they think of Champagne. And yet, the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the violent civil war the Fronde, the Napoleonic Wars, the Wars of Spanish Succession, all were fought primarily on Champagne’s soils.

As Champagne authors Don & Petie Kladstrup say, it’s one of the greatest ironies that Champagne, “site of some of mankind’s bitterest battles, should be the birthplace of a wine the entire world equates with good times and friendship.” Napoleon was known to have said, after battle, that “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate…and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.” And Churchill famously stated that “In victory, we deserve it, in defeat we need it.”

What is it about Champagne that has inspired so many men and women of influence to wax poetic about the region’s wines? Even Dorothy Parker famously wrote that “three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content and sufficient Champagne.” Most wine experts say Champagne’s magic starts in the region’s mineral and fossil-rich chalk soils (a quick note that True Champagne comes exclusively from the region of Champagne, France located about 90 miles outside of Paris), and ends in what was originally a complete accident.

As one of the coolest wine regions in France – and the world – some of Champagne’s first wines were made in the fall. Cool winter temps would halt fermentations before all of the grape sugars had been converted into wine, and when warm spring temps began to warm the wines, they would often begin to re-ferment in the bottle.  Many of Champagne’s first winemakers worked desperately to stop the fizzing and effervescence that resulted, however, over time, those same Champenois vintners realized that those bubbles were actually the thing that made their wines unique. They began to market their bubbly accordingly.

The appellation is divided into five sub-regions and its vineyards are planted with three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. While many Champagnes are a blend of all three grapes, wines labeled blanc de blancs are made exclusively from Chardonnay. Other styles of Champagne include blanc de noir and rosé.

Today, wine regions across the globe are turning out excellent bubblies. Spain has its cava, Italy its Prosecco, and California and Australia its sparkling wine.  We’ve even had some delicious cremants from the Loire Valley and Burgundy. None, however, seem to possess the magic found in a great bottle of Champagne. Billecart-Salmon, Tattinger, Krug, Bollinger, Morlet…these are names that roll off our tongue with joy and anticipation. Hoard away as many bottles as you can, to pull out in both victory and defeat.

As Lily Bollinger so famously stated, “I only drink Champagne 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 when I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it…unless I’m thirsty.”  Cheers!

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