Tannic Panic! Issue #33: Poppin' Bottles in the Substack
Champagne in the membrane, Champagne in the brain: drinking bubbles, happying New Years, and giving France another chance
With New Years just around the humble corner, everybody and their tiny little cousin Tim is just jumping out of their jorts with excitement for the festivities that lie ahead. And what is a “new year” celebration without Champagne? (THE FRENCH KIND)
Indeed, Champagne, “the” sparkling wine, originated in the Champagne region of France. Its production is protected under French law, ensuring only wines from this region can be called "Champagne" (even if colloquially it refers to any sparkling wine your greasy little meat hooks can get ahold of).
DID YOU KNOW… The 1891 Treaty of Madrid was the first international agreement protecting the Champagne name.
Last week we smacked around French Chardonnay from Burgundy, and paid tribute to the influential legacy of the late Mike Grgich by hosting our own blind tasting styled after the Judgement of Paris. This week, we’re generously giving French wine (and French Chardonnay for that matter) another chance to “shine” above all others as we delve into perhaps the most iconic wine region and style in the “known” universe - Champagne.
We talked broadly about sparkling wines earlier this year, so if you want a little “background” on the various methods used to make bubbly, go ahead and give’er a read. That will give you a some context for the distinction between Champagne and sparkling in general (AS IF YOU DIDN’T ALREADY KNOW).
DID YOU KNOW… More deaths are caused by flying Champagne corks each year than shark attacks or poisonous spider bites. So even though popping bottles explosively may seem innocent enough on the surface, YOU WILL DIE!!! In spite of being considerable less fun, removing the cork gently also helps preserve the carbonation, so there’s that to consider.
A BRIEF CHAMPAGNE HISTORY & THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE
Champagne has a rich history dating back to the 1st century and is characterized by its unique climate, soil, and centuries-old expertise, which contribute to the production of the quintessential bubbly we all know and love. It all started years ago (pre-pandemic) with the ancient Romans furiously planting grapes in every dirty little patch of soil they could conquer. Little did they know, they were setting the stage for the world's fanciest fizzy drink in a nearly microscopic region now known as Champagne, France. These early vines were more "just-for-funsies" than "let's-make-a-luxury-drinksies," but BOY OH BOY, did that change.
Dom Pérignon (the monk, not the brand) is often wrongly credited with inventing Champagne. While that 17th century mensch (and troublemaker) contributed greatly to the techniques used in Champagne production today, like blending and balancing sugar levels throughout the process, he did not, in fact, invent the bevvo. In actuality, the bubbles were problematic for winemakers at the time, as bottles were not designed to withstand high internal pressure, so our wholesome and effervescent buddy Dom worked to prevent this natural process from occurring.
DID YOU KNOW… Champagne existed for centuries before it resembled the drink we know and love today. Up until 17th century, Champagne wasn’t carbonated (so was it really even Champagne?) But thanks to some happy little accidents and the invention of bottles that didn’t explode (LIKE ME), Champagne began to sparkle!
The climate of the Champagne region is really at the core of the style. Indeed, it all comes down to ye olde winter — a season that has a multitude of deep connections to the sparkling wine of Champagne:
Accidental Discovery of Sparkling Wine: The most significant impact of winter on the history of Champagne was the accidental discovery of its sparkling character. In the early days, the cold winters in the Champagne region would halt the fermentation process of the wine stored in cellars. This pause in fermentation was temporary, as the yeast cells were only dormant, not dead.
Secondary Fermentation in Bottle: With the arrival of spring and warmer temperatures, the dormant yeast would awaken and fermentation would resume. This second fermentation occurred in the bottle, and since the bottles were sealed, the carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation process had nowhere to escape. This led to the wine becoming naturally carbonated, giving it the distinctive bubbles that we associate with Champagne today.
Problems with Bottle Fermentation: Initially, this secondary fermentation was unpredictable and often undesirable. The bottles were not designed to handle the pressure of the carbonation, leading to many of them exploding in the cellars. The wine that did survive was found to have a pleasant effervescence, but the process of producing it was risky and inconsistent.
Refinement of Techniques: Over time, winemakers in the Champagne region began to understand and control this secondary fermentation process. The developmenet of stronger bottles and the technique of riddling to manage the yeast sediment was key. This control over the fermentation process turned an accidental feature into a refined and desired characteristic of Champagne.
Seasonal Influence on Grape Characteristics: Additionally, the specific climate of the Champagne region, including its cold winters, influences the type of grapes grown and the characteristics of the wine. The cooler climate leads to grapes with higher acidity and lower sugar levels, which are ideal for the production of Champagne.
Historical Challenges: The harsh winters also posed challenges for vineyard management and grape production in the region, influencing the economics and practices of viticulture in Champagne.
Cultural Transformation: Over time, the unique sparkling wine produced in Champagne gained popularity, especially among European nobility. The association of Champagne with celebration and luxury can be traced back, in part, to its unique production process influenced by the cold winters. Today Champagne remains intertwined with luxury and celebration, and with its enduring popularity the style sees sales surpassing 322 million bottles annually.
THE GRAPES AND STYLES
Champagne wines are made using three key grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (often blended).
There are a number of different styles of Champagne that you will find denoted on the labels, including ‘Blanc de Blancs’, which is made solely from Chardonnay grapes (the GOOD KIND!), ‘Blanc de Noirs’, made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, and Rosé Champagne, which is typically made by blending and can use any of the permitted grapes.
Additionally, there are non-vintage (NV) and vintage Champagnes. NV Champagnes are a blend of grapes, crus, and vintages, and are far more common than vintage Champagne (PRO-TIP: if it doesn’t say a year right there on the bottle, it’s a NV). Vintage Champagne is made from grapes harvested in a single specified year. The required aging process for Champagne is a minimum of 15 months for NV, and 3 years for vintage, with many high-quality examples aged for much longer prior to release.
ANYHOO — Since the most WONDERFUL time of the year is upon us, we thought we would take one for the “team” and start spreading some “holiday cheer” by reviewing these unrealistically wholesome bottlings of Champagne at unrealistically semi-reasonable prices:
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
Pannier Sélection Brut Champagne / 93 Points / $31 [VALUE PICK!]
Profile: Apricot, pear, baked apple, peach, cherry, white pepper, crushed stones, almond paste, biscuit and brioche.
Blend: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier
Dry, medium+ body, medium+ acidity, long finish
The wine has a medium+ body with a long finish. Compared to the Veuve Clicquot (also reviewed this week), this has a more aggressive effervescence and richer texture, in part due to a more prominent autolytic character from lees aging and riper fruit character. In addition, this wine has prominent chalky “minerality” that adds another level of complexity.
Gervais Gobillard Brut Champagne / 93 Points / $35
Profile: Sourbread dough, ripe pear, kiwi, strawberry, walnuts, hazelnuts, flint, vanilla, marzipan
Blend: 34% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Meunier
Dry, medium body, high acidity, long finish.
This bottle was a delight to drink, with layered and interesting notes ranging from autolytic (sourdough) to ripe red and green fruits (strawberry, pear, kiwi), vanilla, nuts and flint. Lively bubbles and a wonderfully long finish. I could guzzle this all day, and at $36 a bottle, I can almost afford to. A fantastic find.
Champagne Dalÿs Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru / 91 Points / $40
Profile: Citrus (lemon, orange peel), golden pear, honeysuckle, almonds, cookie dough, vanilla, maple syrup
Blend: 100% Chardonnay
Dry, medium+ body, medium+ acidity, long finish.
A well balanced, refreshing Champagne with great texture and a creamy mousse. This Blanc de Blancs (white sparkling made entirely from white grapes AKA Chardonnay) leads with citrus fruit and ripe golden pear, along with some floral character, followed by notes of almond pastry and cookie dough aromatics from the lees.
Bubbles dissipate perhaps a little more quickly than we’d like from a presumably recent NV bottling (but we both know you won’t be sipping slowly enough to find out). And if we’re being picky, the acidity may have benefitted from just a touch more sharpness to brighten up the flavors in the glass, but when it comes down to it, for $40, this is a great find, especially since we’re in grand cru territory here (THE GOOD KIND!)
Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne (Yellow Label) / 91+ Points / $54
Profile: Lemon, lemon peel, golden apple, pear, white peach, toast, blossom and almonds.
Blend: Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay
Dry, medium body, high acidity, long finish.
The bubbles on this are very fine and delicate. This is a smooth, fresh and linear style of Champagne, but in my ridiculously humble opinion, this lacks the charisma or “layers” of complexity that I would expect from a wine of this price and pedigree. This is likely in part due to the fact that the demand for Veuve Clicquot is very high owing to its high reputation as an "accessible luxury," widespread recognition of the “Veuve” brand, and its significant role in the history and development of Champagne.
DID YOU KNOW… The Widow Clicquot: Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, known as the "Veuve (Widow) Clicquot," played a crucial role in the early 19th century, innovating production techniques and expanding the Champagne market. It is she from whomst Veuve Cliquot takes its name.
At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with this classic wine, but you can ABSOLUTELY find wines of similar quality at a significantly lower price (SEE ABOVE).
As we frequently find when tasting bottles at varying levels of prestige and price, the most widely known labels (SIDE EYE AT YOU, VEUVE) are often not the ones that deliver the best quality to cost ratio. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference, but we hope you’ll take our recommendations under consideration and maybe, JUST MAYBE, you’ll be drinking something better than you ever conceived possible, for far fewer shillings than you planned to scrape from your rickety little coffers.
Until next time — HAPPY DRINKING PEOPLE.
Oh yeah, and HAPPY NEW YEAR.
Isaac & Zach
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