Champagne by Caroline Kooshoian and Terry Bechakas photos by dellas
Once you get past the foil and wire and you reach that last twist that releases the cork and...
Once you get past the foil and wire and you reach that last twist that releases the cork and invites you into a bottle of champagne, you pour millions of bubbles into your flute. They roll and dive like playful frogs in water and they’ve fueled mystery, excitement and confusion since the 17th century. When Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk and abbey Cellarmaster, first tasted the tiny, sparkling bubbles he yelled to his brothers, “Come quickly, I’m drinking stars!”
Open a single bottle of champagne and you release the same amount of pressure that’s stuffed into a double-decker bus tire. That explains the POP and the fizz, but forget about those. When you open a bottle of champagne, the only thing you should hear is the sigh of a young lady. Terry Bechakas, owner of The Hourglass restaurant, has been telling that to people since the day he heard it from the Madame Lily Bollinger.
Madame Bollinger was one of the “Champagne Widows,” a series of women whose champagne producing husbands died young and left them to run the vineyards. These women–Madame Veuve (Widow) Clicquot, Madame Veuve Pommery, Madame Veuve Laurent-Perrier, Madame Olry Roederer–are a phenomenon of France’s Champagne region where, courtesy of La Veuve Bollinger, Bechakas had his first great champagne experience.
It was 1960. “I was 28,” he says. “In Champagne working for the Hilton chain negotiating a big national contract with champagne companies. Madame Bollinger let us taste all the different champagnes, and hers are some of the greatest. I thought I was in heaven. She asked me to open a bottle of wine, a 1950 Bollinger. Of course, I was nervous. I was shaking. I got the cork and I pulled on it, and I pulled it out very quietly but not quietly enough. Madame Bollinger said to me, ‘When I want you to open up a bottle of champagne, I want you to make sure that you open it up and I hear the sigh of a young lady.’ I blushed. ‘Oh, you Americans are all the same,’ she said.
By the time Bechakas met Madame Bollinger, he already had strong knowledge of wine and champagne. But in the 44 years that have passed since, he’s compiled a compendium of champagne facts, anecdotes and understanding on everything champagne: growing conditions, history, innovation, fermentation process, even what he terms, the language of wine. He chases the best bottles, uncovers the best stories and, fortunate for everyone else, he’s willing to share his secrets.
Here’s some of what Terry Bechakas thinks you should know about his favorite wine, champagne:
With the exception of Mosel, Germany, Champagne, France is the northern most significant grape-producing region in the world. It’s a chilly place with chalky soil and raw winter wind that for many years made it very difficult for grape growers to produce consistent wines. But men like Dom Perignon and women like “The Widows,” learned from the conditions and used them to improve their product.
Champagne exposure to cold northern winters made grape-growing a precarious operation with the quality of the wines varying from year to year. As a result, champagne is traditionally blended, not only from a number of different vineyards but also several vintages. Dom Perignon perfected the art of blending wines to create one consistent, superior blend. He also reintroduced the cork stopper to France and pioneered the use of a stronger English glass that could withstand the internal pressure generated by sparkling wine.
Madame Veuve Clicquot faced problems of another sort. She was simply educated and 27 years old when her husband Francois died in 1805. She held the business during Napoleonic war when Russia had an embargo on French imports. Somehow, “The Widow” got 10,000 bottles through the blockade and managed to send an additional 20,000 bottles ahead of her competitors. Madame Clicquot still had time to discover in her own cellars how to remove the sediment that forms after fermentation in the bottle. It is to her that we owe the process of remuage.
The language of champagne or Méthode Champenoise includes words like remuage and cuvée and dégorgement but also words and phrases with more pedestrian appeal, like topping off the bottle. Here’s a quick run down:
The Blend. Expert tasters agree that champagne is one of the most difficult wines to taste and judge at the early blending stage. Tasting is done at cold temperatures, with grapes of high acidity and from various wine locations and vintages.
Yeast is added to the wine and the bottle is sealed with a metal cap.
Riddling. Arranged in a rack, the champagne bottles are gradually turned and inverted during an eight-week period until they are upside down and the yeast and sediment produced accumulates in the bottle-neck.
Disgorging. The sediment is disgorged by freezing the neck of the bottle with super-cold liquid and removing the frozen plug of sediment.
The adding of sugar dissolved in wine to bring the champagne to the level of sweetness desired.
Topping off the bottle
Additional champagne is added and finally, the bottle is corked.
In all his years of loving champagne, Bechakas has identified the greatest champagnes from each of the several styles. If you’re building a collection, try to find some he suggests. But store them in the dark, in the coldest part of the wine cellar. Champagne is more sensitive to light and to temperature than other wines. But, in the proper conditions, the great vintages can be stored for decades and you’ll open them to nuances of coffee, coconut, cocoa and macaroons.
Champagne Brut non-vintage and multi-vintage
These wines should taste dry but not austere. The young champagnes possess fruit and the older will be mellow. The great ones are Krug NV Grande Cuvée Brut, Bollinger NV Special Cuvée, Brut, and Louis Roederer NV Brut Premiere.
Champagne Vintage Brut, 1995 and 1996
The grapes are grown in near perfect conditions during a single year. Although most champagnes are blends of various years, when the producer thinks that a single year is particularly good, he will bottle that vintage alone. The 1995 and 1996 champagnes have just been released and some of the best are: Bollinger Grande Année 1995 and 1996; Salon 1995 Blanc de Blanc Brut; Cuvée Dom Perignon 1995 Brut, Moët & Chandon; Pol Roger 1996 Brut Vintage; and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin 1995 La Grande Dame, Brut.
Champagne Blanc de Blanc, 1995 and 1996
These champagnes are usually from the Chardonnay grape although in some years they use Pinot grape. For the best of this variety try Pol Roger 1996, 1995, Brut Chardonnay; Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1995 Blanc de Blancs Brut; Billecart-Salmon 1995 Blanc de Blancs; and Pierre Gimonnet 1995 Millesime de Collection.
Champagne Blanc de Noirs, 1996
The best of these champagnes created from black grapes is Bollinger 1996 Vieilles Vignes Francaises Brut.
Champagne Vintage Rosé
This champagne is made either by adding a small proportion of red wine to the blend or, less frequently, by letting the juice remain in contact with the skin of the grapes for a short time during fermentation. Gosset Celebris 1998 Rosé Brut, Louis Roederer 1995 Rosé Brut, and Pol Roger 1995 Brut Rosé are among the best.
If you get your hands on one or some of these bottles of fine champagne you may be tempted to tear right in when you’re ready to drink. But there’s a right way to open a bottle and it’s part of the whole experience. Here’s what you do:
6Remove the foil at the base of the wire cage;
6Untwist the wire and loosen the bottom of the cage without removing it;
6Hold the bottom of the bottle in cloth with your left hand, if you’re right handed;
6With other hand enclose the cork and cage;
6Twist both ends slowly forward and backward;
6You will feel pressure form the cork coming out. Keep pushing back and twisting backward and forward until the cork is released with a sigh, not a bang.
Drink your champagne from a flute or tulip shaped glass. Other shapes, like a coupe glass, will kill the mousse and take the bubbles from your bubbly.