“There is a moment between the 15th and 16th mouthful of Champagne when every man is an aristocrat”, wrote Amélie Nothomb in her novel “Le fait du prince”.
Champagne, a sparkling wine
Champagne is an AOC wine produced solely in the eponymous place, from three main grape varieties : the chardonnay (giving white colored grapes), the pinot noir and the pinot meunier (creating black berries). This beverage responds to a plethora of regional rules. For example, the bottles have to be stored for a period of at least 15 month before being sold. The Champagne-Ardenne is a region that often suffers from unsuitable climatic conditions to grow grapes (too humid, too cloudy). It might happen that grapes are picked up before they reach ripeness. Therefore, domain owners proceed to hide the fruit mediocrity by using two processes. The first one is called “sans année”, and consists in mixing different vintages in order to create a balance between the good and less good harvests, or to create a gustatory continuity over the years. The second one is the “dosage” and demands to add some “liqueur d’expédition”, a sugar-based addition, used to mask excessive acidity.
If you want to taste a high quality product, try to chose a champagne that does not overuse those methods. They should considerably differ from those mass-market brands found in superstores.
Storing the champagne
The sparkling aspect make this wine more difficult to store. The tasting temperature requires a special attention. If it is lower than 4°C, the bubbles might become minimal and make the beverage flat. If it is higher than 17°C, bubbles will explode in your mouth and the champagne will look more alike a cheap lemonade than like liquid gold.
It depends on the vintages and the grape-variety, but I think that the best temperature is 12°C. Before tasting it, refresh the bottle by letting it during 4 hours in your fridge, in a horizontal way, or refresh it 20 minutes in a bucket filled with ice and cold water. If the bottle traveled a lot, let it rest for some days in order to let the aroma come back to normal. Once it is opened, there is no sure way to keep the initial taste. The silver spoon is, unfortunately, an urban legend. Drink it as fast as possible. Trust me.
Pouring the champagne
Transparent flutes are particularly adapted to champagne, even if some people consider that an opened glass is more appropriate. Chose them transparent, so you can admire the robe. Pour half of the flute, so you can watch the nose without spoiling the bubbles. The bottle will be held by its base, and the champagne poured close to the glass. Flutes will be held by the base to limit the heat transmission. The best place to taste it is not in the living room, but at the dining table, to facilitate the concentration. I advice not to stuff yourself with loads of appetizers. It might alter the gustatory balance and the aroma perception.
As astonishing as it might seem, champagne should not be served with desserts or sweet food. Champagne should be drunk in accompaniment with fish or poultry, and why not salty biscuits or cheese cubes.
Tasting the champagne
Here comes the most interesting and the most complex part of the procedure. The champagne tasting differs from the wine by one additional criterion : the presence of bubbles. This could disconcert the oenologists but don’t worry!, once the gaseous explosion is passed, there is plenty of aroma to analyse.
Start by admiring it
Take the time to admire the flute. This first thing you will remark is probably the presence of the bubbles. How do they look? They can be large or small, persistent or not… The “collier de perles” (the bubbles around the glass) can stay a long time, or not.
The robe presents a large color palette, easily noticeable with a little bit of attention. The robe can be yellow, green, grey, pink… with all the shades that are associated to the color : gold yellow, salmon pink, light pink, green with shades of gold…
Next step: inhale
Wait a little moment so the first gas go away and that the exhalations release themselves. Then, approach your nose to the flute and inhale for a certain time.
There are five main categories of champagne aroma. The first one is the floral one : the smells are refreshing and may remind you of summer flowers, the violets, the hawthorn, the lime tree… The second one is gourmand. It goes from the cakes and bakeries, for example crumbs and brioche, to spices like cinnamon or vanilla, passing by the butter, caramel and honey…The third one is végétal : it smells like the woods, the hay, the fern, … and even the truffle! The fourth one is the fruits secs (dried fruits in other words) : wintry reminders of nuts, figs, raisins… The fifth and last one is fruité and smells like sweet, refreshing aromas of summer fruits, citrus fruits (lemon, grapefruit…), white fruits, yellow fruits, and even tropical ones.
It is said that young champagnes (2-3 years) smell floral and fruité, mature (6-8 years) ones smell like gourmand and that the old champagnes (more than 6-8 years) smell fruits secs and végétal.
A simplified version of the 5 aromas
Here comes the best moment…
You can finally delight your taste buds. Take a sip and let it roll around in your mouth. Observe the acidity, the taste, the strength, the bitterness, the aroma… It can remind you of green apple, toasts, tropical fruits, vanilla, citrus fruits, nuts… The more experience you have, the more aromas you will perceive.
How is the aftertaste? How long does it last? A high quality champagne is supposed to leave a long finish. Besides, does the taste match the smell?
Share you meaning with your friends or family. Does they think the same way about that champagne tasting?
An article that started with a quotation has to finish by the same way. So… as said Coco Chanel, “I only drink champagne at two occasions : when I’m in love, and when I’m not”. In moderation, of course !