Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Champagne! (and Cotes du Rhone)

"I only drink Champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty"
Lily Bollinger



Finally!  The long-awaited Champagne portion of my class!  It was well worth the wait.  Champagne is an interesting deviation from all the norms of wine making.  It's discovery by the British, by accident of course, having unknowingly stopped the first fermentation of imported French wine mid-process, so that a second fermentation spontaneously happened some time later, is one of those things that we should be as thankful for as the accidental discovery of penicillin.  Dom Perignon's ingenious little crown cap is at least as important as Louis Pasteur's ingenious hand-washing idea.

It was interesting to read how different the wine making process is with champagne.  For example, every champagne is back-blended with wines from previous years, and chaptalisation is a normal part of the process (whereas it's looked down upon and even forbidden in other AOC wines).  The back-blending is done to ensure that each house's champagne tastes the same from year to year - so that Moet et Chandon's Dom Perignon is uniform, regardless of the particular season.  The only exception is in particularly outstanding years, where a house will submit the flat wine - long before it ever becomes champagne - to the national organisation for AOCs to see if it can be declared a 'vintage'.  'Vintage' in champagne's case is only applied to the label if it's approved as a truly excellent harvest; there are perhaps three or four vintages declared per decade.

Anyway, all that is interesting, but what's better was tasting the wine.  My favourite was the bottle pictured right:  Champagne LaCourte-Godbillion Brut.  The wine was a greeny gold with platinum rim, and had superfine bubbles streaming straight up from the bottom of the glass.  The nose smelled like peach, candied peels, and bread - this is the key indicator that you have a champagne (or Champagne-method) on your hands, because the double fermentation gives the wine a distinctly yeasty aspect.  The whole nose was like a fresh warm christmas cake.  The flavour was creamy lemon and toffee, with a lovely round body and huge bubbles in my mouth - that's the other key to champagne, because the bubbles should get bigger in your mouth.  Delicious!

My least favourite of the evening was a prosecco - which isn't even champagne, since only wines from Champagne can be called 'champagne' - but it's an Italian sparkling wine and the instructor threw it in there for good measure and comparison purposes.  This prosecco, it turns out, is made in with a non-traditional carbonization process, so there are many ways that it differs from champagne, more-so than other sparkling wines that use the Champagne-method.  Anyway, it was unimpressive, and it made me laugh to myself about all the people who use the word 'Prosecco' as a synonym for 'I was at a swanky event and lots of people with money were around.'  I have to say, it's a good wine to give away if you're a restauranteur; that is, it makes you hungry, it's light, short, and inoffensive, and if you are going to comp a couple of bottles of something sparkly to get the clientele into the eating mood, there's no better option.  But in and of itself, this wine gets a solid 'meh'.  

I'll also tell you about a third wine, because I can't leave out the Cotes du Rhone.  The Cotes du Rhone wine region is split into the north, where syrah grapes are favoured, and south, where grenache rules the stage.  Not only is this one of my favourite wine regions, but it's home to two famous appellations: Hermitage of the north, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) of the south.  Wine from the Cotes du Rhone are most often blended, but unlike champagne, they're blended from different grapes all of the same year (so no back-blending).  The AOC has set strict minimum amounts of syrah content in the north and grenache content in the south, ensuring similarity of taste and character.  It turns out that I very much like grenache.



CdP is really up there in terms of my favourite wine appellations.  A few in particular from the appellation are in my top ten.  Last night we tasted one of them, which I had already had the pleasure of drinking with my friend Elaine, while visiting Flagstaff.  This was Vieux Telegraphe.  It's a very elegant wine, smelling of smoked meat, licorice, cloves, roses, and pepper.  It tastes similar, with a lovely cinnamon, clove, and licorice palate, still with a hint of smoked garlic sausage and smooth, persistent tannins.  Holy yum Batman!  I could have had a relaxing glass of this quite happily, even after all the lovely champagnes.  It's my bias, I admit it.

Next week: Burgundy!



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