In “A Certain Sparkle,” Gayle Keck participated in a traditional grape harvest in Champagne. Here she shares some tips for enjoying a bottle of bubbly—including chilling, opening and tasting.
WHEN TO POP IT
The French typically drink champagne as an aperitif, before meals. No need to save it for a special occasion! As Madame Lily Bollinger, of the famous champagne-making family once said, “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.”
VINTAGE OR NON-VINTAGE
Most champagnes are a blend of wine from different grapes (the classic ones are pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay) and component wines from different years. Unlike with other wines, vintages are only declared in exceptional years, so don’t feel that you always have to drink vintage champagne—there are many fine non-vintage options, too.
AGED TO PERFECTION
By law, French champagnes must spend a minimum of 15 months maturing in producers’ cellars after bottling. Of that, at least 12 months is “maturation on the lees,” when sediment formed by dead yeast cells decomposes and imparts its flavor to the wine. Vintage champagnes are cellared for at least three years. But some producers age their wines much longer—seven years, nine years, and more. As champagnes age, they tend to take on a golden hue and a toasty bouquet, and the bubbles become more delicate.
The recommended temperature for serving younger champagnes is 46 degrees. Vintage and mature bottles should be served at 50 degrees. If champagne is chilled too much, you’ll miss out on delicate flavors and aromas. Cool it in the fridge for 3-4 hours or in a bucket of ice and water for 15-20 minutes.
To open a bottle of bubbly, after removing the wire cage or “muzzle,” grasp the end of the bottle in one hand and the cork in the palm of the other hand. Twist the bottle and then tilt the cork slightly to release pressure from the bottle.
GLASS HALF FULL
Experts say a tulip-shaped glass (filled only halfway) is perfect for tasting champagne. That shape lets bubbles form and rise, but also provides you a chance to take in the wine’s aromas. Flutes are a good second choice. The old-school wide “coupes” don’t do justice to a good champagne, despite being big on glamour. Experts also recommend that you clean your glasses with only warm water and let them air-dry. Soap residue and towel lint can impact the bubbles.
TASTING AND JUDGMENT
When you pour a glass of champagne, here’s the proper way to appreciate it:
Look: Admire the bubbles and the color. It should be bright, and anywhere from nearly colorless (younger champagnes) to golden (older bottles).
Aromas: Swirl the wine in the glass and inhale. The aromas are divided into five groups, flowers, fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, and “indulgent delicacies.”
Taste: Take a sip and let it roll around in your mouth (professionals swish it around in their mouths as aggressively as you might rinse after brushing your teeth). What do you taste? Green apple, citrus, tropical fruits, vanilla, toast, and nuttiness are common notes that you might discern—but there’s a vast number of nuanced elements that a trained palate can tease out. Consider the weight or viscosity of the wine, too.
Finish: After you swallow, contemplate the aftertaste that lingers on your palate. The longer the finish, the better the quality of the wine.
Photo by Marie Hennechart.