Wine

“COME QUICKLY, I AM TASTING THE STARS”

JIm and Nigel conduct extensive research at Le Select, Toronto

As the holiday season quickly approaches, one’s thoughts naturally turn to … Champagne! At least that’s what our wine contributor Jim Walker says. Following are some thoughts, facts, quotes and experiences about the blessed bubbly that he has uncorked for us.

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars,” is attributed to Dom Pérignon when he first tasted the effervescent elixir he had just created. Many credit the good brother, a monk and cellar master at the Benedictine abbey in Hautviers, France, with the discovery of Champagne. But he lived from 1638 to 1715 whereas what has become known in Champagne as the méthode champenoise was being employed in other wine producing regions at least 100 years earlier. But there is no doubt that Dom Pérignon greatly improved the wine making process and that, based on current prices, he and his successors were superb marketers indeed. You can find a regular bottle of 2009 vintage Dom Pérignon at the LCBO for an eye popping $281.95 while an equally fizzy Cava Marfil Brut Nature from Spain goes for $16.35. In fact you can get a 12-bottle case of the latter for much less than a single bottle of the former.

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink enough Champagne.”John Maynard Keynes, American economist and philosopher

John Maynard needn’t have worried about running out of his favourite tipple (as long as he was willing to discount global warming). The Champagne wine producing region of northeastern France encompasses some 83 thousand acres. The 360 odd Champagne houses there produce somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300 million bottles of the joyous juice each year, valued at about five billion Euros. If that’s not enough, there are another 1.4 billion bottles quietly resting in the extensive network of chalk caverns throughout the region.

Kate and Magee enjoying a standard-sized bottle

“Why do I drink champagne for breakfast? Doesn’t everyone?”Noel Coward, English playwright and composer

It long ago became the tradition in our household to pop open a frosty flagon of fizz on Christmas morning. There is nothing quite like flutes full of pink Champagne to put a family into the present giving and opening mood. Daughters Magee and Kate have taken to this Champagne custom with great gusto. And, they have gleefully extended it to many, many other occasions, such as any get-together with Mom and Dad. Mr. Coward would have been so pleased.

Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”F. Scott Fitzgerald, American novelist

Champagne comes in 14 different bottle sizes, most named after Biblical figures. Mr. Fitzgerald no doubt would have found the Melchizedek to have been just right.

“I only drink champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not.”Coco Chanel, French fashion designer

Champagne is usually crafted from a combination of Pinot Noir (more Pinot Noir is grown in Champagne than in Burgundy), Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes, but a tiny amount of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier are vinified as well. Champagne made from just Chardonnay is known as Blanc de blancs (white from whites).

Most Champagne is a blend of grapes from three consecutive harvests designed to maintain a consistent house style from year to year. This is called non-vintage Champagne. Bubbly made from grapes harvested in a single excellent year is known as vintage Champagne (millésime in French). Rosé Champagne is created by adding a touch of red wine from the region.

I strongly suspect that Ms. Chanel would have loved a vintage rosé for just about any occasion.

Family pet Faeden enviously eyeing a birthday bottle of fizz

“Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”Winston Churchill, British statesman and war time Prime Minister

There is no doubt that Sir Winston loved his Champagne, preferably from Pol Roger (which he began quaffing as early as 1908). In return for his patronage, the Champagne house named their prestige wine Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. And, no wonder he was worried, His countrymen are the largest importers of Champagne followed closely by the Americans.

“Only the unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking Champagne.”Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright and novelist

There have been countless books written about Champagne, but my favourite is The Widow Clicquot – The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It by Tilar J. Mazzeo and published by Harper/Collins. Serena Sutcliffe’s Champagne – The History and Character of the World’s Most Celebrated Wine (Simon and Schuster) is ideal for the detail minded. I too have scribbled some notes about the marvels of Champagne for Gentleman’s Portion: A Tale of Two Effervescent Cities along with I Never Promised You a Rosé Garden – Part one and Part two. Old Oscar would surely have applauded the imagination used in all these Champagne musings.

Michel Forget with an array of his treasures

“Champagne is one of the elegant extras in life.”Charles Dickens, English novelist

All this writing about Champagne has reminded me how parched I am! It is high time I popped open a bottle of 1er Cru Rosé Brut from Champagne Forget-Brimont. Permit me to describe it for you. This is the Champagne for those most festive occasions. Its rose colour comes from adding a touch of red wine from Brouzy to the Forget-Brimont reserve cuvée. The grape composition is 40 per cent Pinot Noir, 40 per cent Pinot Meunier and 20 per cent Chardonnay (premier and grand cru grapes only!). It possesses a delicate acidity that focuses the subtle flavors of ripe plum, wild strawberries and melon fruit. A hint of almond-tinged financier (cake) and mineral notes add complexity. In the glass the beautiful light salmon colour provides an ideal backdrop for its steady stream of tiny bubbles. Charles would have appreciated the elegance of it all.

Magee awaiting the ceremonial opening

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne.”Bette Davis, American film and theater actress

Quite possibly true, but first Bette would have had to have opened the bottle. I learned a secret about how to do it at Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley. First, remove the foil and then loosen the retaining wire. Then, tilting the bottle, grasp the retaining wire (which gives extra grip) and the cork in one hand and slowly twist the bottle with the other hand. As long as you haven’t shaken the bottle as if you were playing the maracas, the cork should come out easily with nary a drop spilled.

Kate and husband Ty in full celebration

“Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content, and sufficient Champagne.”Dorothy Parker, American poet and short story writer

I wonder if Dorothy understood what ‘Brut’ or ‘Sec’ on champagne labels meant? Basically, they are among the terms used to indicate the sweetness (or dryness) of a given bottle of Champagne. To say the least, they are very subjective – one person’s sweet may be another’s dry. However, the following, along with the limits of the residual sugar in grams per litre when the dosage (the mixture of wine and, usually, cane sugar used to top up the bottle after removing the sediment produced by the second fermentation) has been added, is a guide:

Champagne Sweetness Designations

Extra Brut: very dry indeed, 0 – 6g/l.
Brut: very dry, 0 -15g/l.
Extra Dry: dry, 12 – 20g/l.
Sec: slightly sweet, 17 -35g/l.
Demi-sec: sweet, 33 – 50g/l.
Doux: very sweet, more than 50g/l.

Source: ‘Champagne, Le Guide de l’Amateur’, Eric Glatre, 1999.

Champagne sabering at the Bearfoot Bistro

“I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate… and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.”Napoleon Bonaparte, French statesman and military leader

The Little Corporal obviously had many opportunities to knock back a flute or two of his favourite fizz. I wonder if he ever used his sword to execute sabrage, the nifty trick of knocking the head off a Champagne bottle with one’s weapon? Magee and I had the opportunity to watch this wondrous decapitation at the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler. The trick is to abruptly and firmly slide the sword along the seam on the neck of the bottle towards the cork (make sure to take the foil and the wire cage off first). I wouldn’t recommend trying this yourself. It is very, very messy.

“Pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial.”Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright and novelist

The height of pleasure – two warm pups and a cold glass of Champagne

I do hope that you have plenty of Champagne on hand in order to avoid those artificial pleasures. On the off chance you don’t, I have the answers. Two of my Champagne Forget-Brimont treasures are currently available at LCBO.com – the 1er Cru Brut (a measly $47.05) and the 1er Cru Rosé Brut (just $52.15). You might well ask, “What is this 1er Cru stuff? All of Champagne is comprised of 321 communes and each is classified on a scale from 80 to 100. Only 17 communes are rated 100; these are the Grand Cru. A further 46 communes are rated between 90 and 99; these are the Premier Cru (fewer than 20% are grand Cru or 1er Cru). Just so you know, the two Forget-Brimont beauties are crafted from 75% premier cru and 25% grand cru grapes. Mr. Wilde would have been so chuffed.

Thus endeth my ruminations on the subject of the fabulous fizz. I would like to wish you all a most Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from our family to yours.

Cheers, Jim

 

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