“I drink my champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I am thirsty.” Madame Jacques Bollinger
Now there’s a maxim to live by.
The cost of buying a bottle of champagne may make Mme Bollinger’s dream out of reach for many, but without doubt a bottle of bubbles elevates any occasion and most foods. Try a bottle of Taittinger Brut Reserve with fish and chips, and you won’t be disappointed. What is it, though, that warrants the cost of champagne, which can vary from ten to literally hundreds of pounds? Is there really that much difference in what is after all sparkling wine?
Starting with the haute couture champagnes – Krug, Cristal, Bollinger, to name but a few – these are produced in significantly different ways from the cheaper wines. They are often made by more traditional, gentler methods, using grapes grown on the estate and sometimes hand picked. The wine is fermented in oak casks and some in stainless steel – the wood is not to give flavour but to control the oxidation – and then carefully balanced between dryness and acidity to create a unique style.
The less well-known mainly buy grapes from various sources and sometimes from varying years to produce the best blend and balance possible. They also rely more on mechanisation. Though they are not as refined or complex as their snooty cousins, this doesn’t mean these wines should be ignored. Many are excellent, approachable products.
The style of wine in the bottle also helps reveal the price differential. A non-vintage (NV) champagne – using a blend of wines from several years to create a particular house style – is generally less expensive but good. A vintage champagne is produced from a single year and only released if the grapes are of satisfactory quality (thus making them more expensive).
Finally, cuvées de prestige are top of the range offerings from major houses, highly prized and priced. They are made with grapes from Grand Cru vineyards and are usually for cellaring. Dom Perignon is an example of the distinctively shaped bottles with classy labels you can expect.
Out of the bottle, the bubbles and the taste also mark the quality. A sign of excellence is the froth, which should be light, fine and persistent, the bubbles tiny and active.
Whether it’s a Krug Grand millésime or a cheapo from the local supermarket, serving champagne requires a little special treatment. Drink it chilled but never iced. The young and lively are best cooler, around 8°C; the mature or vintage closer to 10°C. Over-chilling makes the champagne too cold to release its aromas and flavours.
To fully appreciate the wine, give it the glass it deserves. The Babycham-style coupe glass may enjoy the infamous but unproven reputation of having been modelled on the breasts of famous women in history such as Madame de Poitiers and Marie Antoinette, but keep away from it unless you enjoy flat champagne. Use a tall, thin flute to see the pretty streams of bubbles rising through the liquid, or for a serious wine use a tulip glass. This gently flares in the middle then narrows again at the rim, which allows a little swirling to release the aromas and flavours in the bowl, so is important in a fine champagne.
But whether you have the budget of Bill Gates or want some fizzy fun to cheer up the day, there’s a place for every style and price. And thanks to Mme Bollinger’s wise words, little need to find an excuse.