Let me be clear- I love bubbles.
But most of all… champagne bubbles.
Last December I was invited to a very special champagne tasting at Tim Varan’s wine shop on Orange Ave. Tim invited his clients who he knows have a fondness for bubbles. I, being one of them, actually skipped our law firm annual Christmas dinner to attend this special tasting. Laurent Perrier brought in several extraordinary vintages of Champagnes, and having a daughter getting married in six months, I jumped at the opportunity to sample a few of these special wines.
My tastes in Champagne matured years ago because of a lovely little champagne available by the glass at the Osprey Tavern: Vorin Jumel, Blanc de Blancs. It has fine crisp apple notes and delicate bubbles. It is a special champagne- at least to me. Tim began stocking it, but sure enough, Disney got wind of the label and it has become harder to find in Central Florida. Osprey Tavern– please bring it back. After discovering what a great champagne should taste like, boy have I become a champagne snob. If I found a vintage I loved, Tim would order it by the case for me. Once when a surplus of splits of a favorite champagne became available, I ordered two cases and ended up sharing with friends.
But back to this event. At this tasting in December Norie Chines, of Laurent Perrier, educated us about the history and philosophy behind the Laurent- Perrier brand. Their founder, Bernard de Nonancourt, believed no one year can ever produce the perfect wine. He was only interested in blending perfect grapes, so he used “iterations” to blend “the best with the best”. Three years of grapes blended and aged to create his idea of the perfect Champagne. Vintages are only released on a limited basis meaning the wines have time to mature. There is little oxidation. I sampled at 15 year vintage and it was bright, crisp and full of delicate bubbles. Hard to believe it was 15 years old. I ended up purchasing the Grand Siecle #24- We will most likely share it at our daughter’s wedding.
Even the design of the bottle of these wines is beautiful. The bottles are designed after 17th century master glass blowers works which were champagnes presented to the French Courts. The long slender neck of the bottle, resembling a swan, allows the wine to become like a “song” as it is poured.
I want my champagne to sing, don’t you. Sigh.
I asked Tim Varan , whose large collection of Champagnes has no rivals in Central Florida, for some feedback on champagnes.
MW:What do you look for when buying champagne?
TV: So the big thing is that if you want to buy high quality Champagne, focus on grower examples. For this category the producer is growing the grapes and making the wine, hence controlling the quality from beginning to end. This is important because the yield of grapes per acre harvested in Champagne is higher than most other regions of France, so it allows for some very uninteresting wines to be produced from flat land, machine harvested, overcropped grapes, that still carry a high price tag. Your grand marques such as Veuve-Clicquot, Moet et Chandon, Mumm’s and Perrier Jouet purchase most of their grapes, or source from an area known for low end production (called the Aube) so you are really just paying for label. In addition to using their own grapes, growers typically have higher standards in the cellar as well. Typically they use a higher percentage of reserve wines in their base, which means that the product going into the bottle for secondary fermentation, when bubbles are formed, is better. They also usually allow the wine to age longer “sur lie” which contributes to higher quality and complexity as well. Finally, when they make their adjustments after the aging time they use less residual sugar to correct the wine. This is because the higher quality means they do not need to mask the sharpness or lack of complexity with sweetness.
MW: How can you tell you are getting a “grower champagne?”
TV: You can tell if you are getting a grower Champagne by finding a code that is on every wine bottle that designates the origin of the product. For grower Champagnes this code will begin with the letters RM, meaning récoltant-manipulant, followed by a series of numbers that identify the house. This means they grow at least 95% of their grapes. Producers who purchase their grapes begin with the designation NM, or négociant-manipulant. This does not mean they are universally poor quality. There are many good brands out there, particularly Laurent-Perrier, Billecart-Salmon, Lanson and Besserat de Bellefon, who do excellent work in this category. There are other designations, such as CM, or coopérative de manipulation, that should generally be avoided unless you are making mimosas. Ace of Spades is such a wine by the way.
MW: who is producing really special champagnes right now:
TV: For grower examples, right now J. Lassalle is making some amazing wines. They were the first grower Champagne we found in the early 1990’s and their quality has never moved, and if anything just improved. Of course you also have to look to the Terry Theise portfolio because he really is the one to champion the cause. Terry is the importer who selects so many great estates that they are too numerous to name. My current favorites this year include Mousse et Fils, Aubry, Pierre Peters, Marc Hebrart and Gaston Chiquet, but that is really leaving too many producers unmentioned. Then there are the non-Terry superstars, Bereche, Lahert, and Lallier are just a few. Of course not all grower Champagnes are worth the money too, so it is important to shop with a merchant you trust who knows the difference.
MW: How can a home cook know what to look for?
TV: Personal taste is always first and foremost. Not everyone likes the austerity of true Champagne, so for those who want something softer they should look to a good quality Prosecco. Great labels include Salvatore Lovo and Bortolotti. The other great challenge is that good Champagne starts around $50. If it costs less than that it is likely a private label, co-op wine and not likely worth the price. For value look to Method Cap Classique from South Africa, with really good examples from Graham Beck and Boeschendal. Another great source, and easier to find, are high quality Cava from Spain. Skip over the under $10 stuff and look for examples from Gramona, Raventos and Torelli Mata. They do not always use the name Cava as Gramona and Raventos feel the name means nothing thanks to the hijacking of the category by big brands, like Freixenet. Which brings me to the most important thing to look for, freshness. Buy your bubbles from places that sell a lot of it. Grocery stores and your corner liquor store are not usually turning inventory and so the wines oxidize quickly. Seek out a neighborhood wine shop where you will get real, knowledgable help.
Whether it be Champagne, Cava, Proscesso or Cremant , one thing I have noticed with very good champagnes is the lack of a headache after a glass or two. I shipped some special bottles to Montana for Thanksgiving this past year and my girls commented on the difference between this and lower cost, mass produced champagnes we had a party. I had a blazing headache in particular after one party. Ouch. But, that is not to say you cannot find a great bottle that is under $50 to enjoy. Saint Hilaire which you can find at Tim’s and at the Fresh Market is a lovely champagne- and it is a great base for a Kir Royal or mimosas. It sells for about $20 a bottle.
Finally, you may think, I just cannot enjoy champagne because the bottle never stays fresh after opening and who can drink an entire bottle in one evening? After experimenting with champagne corks, sterling spoons in the neck of a bottle, I have discovered the best way to store champagne is simply just open in the coldest part of your fridge ( ideally away from any blue cheese) . After one day, the wine is still relatively fresh and bubbly. If I haven’t polished it off by day two, on day three, add a splash of Chambord , a twist of lemon peel and you have a lovely Kir Royal.
Let me know in the comment section, your favorite champagnes. I am still looking for a special wine I can serve to 100 guests at Elizabeth’s wedding this summer. If you have any suggestions for something that would taste great at a horse ranch in Montana, send your ideas my way. Cheers!