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Food & Wine

Big celebrations call for tiny bubbles


Joe Hu/Town Crier
A distinctive flower bottle marks the Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne, one of the elite French sparkling wines.

Now is the time of year to celebrate with bottles of the bubbly. In France they call it Champagne; in Italy, Prosecco; in Spain, Cava; in Germany, Sekt; and in most of the rest of the world, including the United States, sparkling wine.

Not everyone drinks Champagne to celebrate - Churchill drank it because it made his "wits more nimble." He also quipped, "Remember, it is not just France we are fighting for, it is Champagne."

Tiny bubbles are a good thing- they indicate that the gas created by fermentation has been under great pressure and forced to go into solution. The process may vary, but if done over time with care, the results are rewarding. Smaller bubbles make the wine easier to drink and, the story goes, the smaller the bubble, the smaller the headache! Besides a date on the bottle, there is another big difference between Vintage and Non Vintage (NV) Champagne. The Champagne region is in the north of France and, consequently, weather plays a substantial role in the grape quality of any given year. Close to 90 percent of Champagne is NV. Champagne houses declare vintage years when the weather is favorable. There were nearly 40 vintage years in the 20th century.

Blending 30 or 40 cuvées from as many different vintages as desired makes NV Champagne. The blending results reflect the style of the particular house and will show continuity over the years. For example, Moët et Chandon's popular White Star tastes the same year in and year out. Law requires that an NV bottle not be sold for at least 15 months. Most NV Champagnes are at their best for no more than two or three years, but they will become softer with some age.

Vintage Champagnes are the product of the climate as well as the winemaker. Olivier Krug calls it a "joint venture." Krug, arguably the best Champagne in the world, has a more wine-like, oaky style than most. Krug ages the wine in oak barrels before it starts bottle fermentation. No one else does this, and it makes for a unique nose and taste.

Krug always proudly proclaimed it made only Vintage Champagnes because they were superior. About 15 years ago, the company decided it needed to make money every year. The family promoted their new NV Krug Cuvée around the world, claiming it was equal to their vintage product. Fortunately, it was very good and offered at a slightly lower price.

Vintage Champagnes cannot be released for 39 months, and many are held longer. Krug released its spectacular 1990 in 2005. Vintage wines can be aged for a considerable time. I have tasted 40-year-old Champagnes that are still in good shape, but they are the exception. If properly stored, 10-15 years after release is standard.

The rating of Champagne is vineyard-based, with 17 percent of land in the Grand Cru status and 38 percent in Premier Cru. Growers often bottle their own wines, and they dominate the French market but not our market. Look for an RM on the label. Another group owns some vineyards but usually not enough for their own production, so they buy from the growers. An NM identifies the bottles. The largest producers are the co-ops, which tend to have the cheaper brands and have a CM on the label.

The top houses belong to a group called the Club des Grandes Marques. There are currently 24 members, and they produce the best Champagne: Bollinger, Krug, Moët et Chandon, Perrier Jouet, Pol Roger, Roederer, Taittinger and Veueve Clicquot.

My expensive favorites are the special Champagnes these houses produce, including Roederer's Cristal, Moët et Chandon's Dom Perignon, Veueve Clicquot's Grande Dame, Pol Roger's Winston Churchill Cuvée, Perrier Jouet's Fleur, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne and Bollinger's RD. These are always terrific - they make great gifts and cost anywhere from $120 to $220.

A word of advice when opening pressurized bottles: Never pop the cork. After removing the foil and wire, cover the cork with a dishtowel and gently work the cork out and slowly release the gas. Happy holidays!

Steve Hicks is a wine adviser and consultant. For more information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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