It's that time. Days of commencement and mothers. Days to pop corks, raise glasses and make toasts.
We don't tend to think much about what's in the glasses we're raising, and that's as it should be. The focus should be on loved ones, on pasts and futures, not on a quick swallow of wine. But the moment is right to consider what we generically call champagne.
Is there a more widely misunderstood wine? To begin at the name, many people are aware that the word champagne is like the word love: It shouldn't be thrown around unless you really mean it. The Champagne region of France, one of the world's northernmost viticultural areas, is the only place that can legally call its wine "champagne." This is not just about litigation and trademarks. For although there is plenty of wonderful sparkling wine that isn't Champagne, Champagne tastes like Champagne—like it could come from nowhere else. Yet the term has become so synonymous with effervescent wine that we can correctly, imprecisely write it in lowercase.
The first step toward giving Champagne its due is "treating it as a real wine," says Peter Liem. He visited Durham in late March to promote his new book, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, and to attend a sherry dinner at Mateo Bar de Tapas. Before Liem devoted himself to sherry, however, he was (and still is) a Champagne expert. He spent years living in Épernay, in the heart of the region, and his devout website, champagneguide.net, remains virtually peerless.
The best thing about Champagne? "You can drink it any hour of the day," Liem says, with a face that is simultaneously dead serious and gleeful, as he sips from a flute of Diebolt-Vallois over brunch. "That's not true of any other wine," he adds. Heavy reds and light whites are time-dependent wines, but Champagne can be drunk morning, noon and night, and in all four seasons. It goes well beyond toasts (although many of the best Champagnes do have a distinctly, inimitably toasty nose), anniversary tipples and clubhouse celebrations. Nor is it only for unaccompanied drinking. Champagne is a wonderful wine for almost any meal, and not just haute cuisine. Look at the website of Beasley's, part of Ashley Christensen's Raleigh restaurant constellation, which gushes: "We believe that fried chicken and bubbly might be one of the most perfect pairings out there."
That claim is not mere marketing rhetoric. What immediately defines Champagne, of course, is bubbles, and carbonation rescues your palate after you've attacked it with rich food like fried chicken. The sudsy effect is a cleansing one, scrubbing the mouth clean and readying it for another bite. Champagne's crisp bubbles have a natural affinity with the crunch of fried chicken, too. (Red wine tannin has a similar scraping effect, but tannic reds are a tough match for picnic-inspired fare. Beer's bubbles can work well, although it's quickly filling.)
Those bubbles are among Champagne's many singularities. They are the perfect size. There is fine sparkling Vouvray from the Loire Valley, Franciacorta from northern Italy and Cava from Spain, and some of them are even made using the complex méthode traditionelle developed and patented in Champagne. But none of them reliably match Champagne's just-right bubble: not so small that it only annoys the tongue, not so big that it strafes it.
There is more to Champagne's specificity. Liem notes a curious contradiction among Champagne winemakers. Few actually grow their own grapes (although "grower Champagne" is now a hip wine). The bigger, more prominent houses, such as Veuve Clicquot, generally buy readymade "base wine" from regional sources, and claim to prefer as neutral a wine as possible, which they can manipulate to create their recognizable "house style." Yet according to Liem, many Champagne producers are fully cognizant of distinct qualities among base wines from the various communes of the region, and some casks will be labeled and set aside for use in a particular cuvée. Thus, Liem argues, better Champagnes express terroir as much as brand. Some are chalkier, others zingier (and so on) because of the wine itself, not the winemaker's ministrations.
Liem also gainsays what he calls the "farce" of so-called "non-vintage" Champagne, much of which rivals the more expensive vintage stuff. Most of the wine blended into a given non-vintage (better perhaps to say multi-vintage) bottling is actually from a single year. Liem cites Jacquesson, which numbers its successive cuvées—suggestive of annual variation, not uniformity.
Let's face it, Champagne is expensive. That is reason enough to think of it not as frippery or froth but as serious wine. When you sit down to brunch, lunch or dinner after this weekend's cork-popping pomp and circumstance, you might be tempted to abandon the bubbles for still wine. But you may not need to change course. Champagne goes with the egg, caviar or otherwise (especially the yolk), and the chicken, fried or not, no matter which comes first (or alone) to your plate. It's the skinny that balances fat—the pause that refreshes, to borrow from another carbonated drink. You'll happily keep drinking it with that celebratory cake you baked for dessert, and long after the graduates and moms have gone off to bed. Then stopper it and have it with breakfast.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Joy in the bubble."