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Make merry in style— by breaking out the bubbly

nol-dec07_medres_page_44_image_0003.jpgIt has helped to celebrate countless weddings, blessed millions of boats and prompted myriad toasts. I, for one, can’t imagine any special occasion, least of all the holiday season, without it. Ahhh, Champagne. These tiny bubbles of euphoria have a natural and uncanny ability to turn an ordinary evening into a jubilant festivity. Since ’tis the season to celebrate—and no civilized holiday party is without bottles o’ bubbly—I thought it the ideal time to bring you the scoop on Champagne.

To start, true Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France, where only three varietals can be used to create it: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Bubbly wines produced anywhere outside of Champagne are technically sparkling wines even if they are produced in the same fashion and use the same grape types. You will find sparkling wines labeled as “méthode champenoise,” which simply means that they were produced by using the traditional method used in Champagne. When choosing the perfect Champagne for your merriment, it’s important to consider the style, which is indicated on the label.

Champagne styles and classifications

The basic blend of a Champagne house, non-vintage is usually a blend of a single year with reserve wines from older vintages added for complexity and immediate enjoyment. The purpose of the blending is to achieve high quality, complexity and a consistent house style from year to year. Minimum aging before release is 15 months, but the best houses age their wines considerably longer.

Vintage: Champagne that is derived from a single year’s crop and is made from the finest grapes. Not every year is declared a vintage year, as vintage Champagne is only made if conditions are good enough. Most good Champagne houses will age their vintage Champagne for five to seven years for further development before they are released.

Late Disgorged: Signifies a Champagne, usually a vintage wine, that has been aged on the lees for longer than the standard time in order to achieve extra complexity. Late disgorged Champagnes will usually state the year of disgorgement on the label.

Prestige Cuvée/Tete de Cuvée:
This is the finest Champagne of the house and is usually a vintage Champagne, but not always. These are special, highly prized and quite pricy.

Rosé: Traditionally the pink color is gained by a careful and short maceration of the black grape skins with the juice. However, this method is unpredictable and more often now a little red wine from the region is added to the white just before bottling.

Blanc de Blancs: The term means “white of white” and is made only from Chardonnay. It typically producers a lighter, more delicate style of Champagne than a Blanc de Noirs.

Blanc de Noirs:
The term means “white of black” and is made exclusively from red grapes, either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or a combination of the two. It is usually fuller-bodied and more robust than Blanc de Blancs.

Crémant: A Champagne with less than normal effervescence. Today, however, Crémant is no longer used by Champagne producers and is used only by Champagne-method sparkling wines made in other parts of France, such as Crémant d’Alsace.

In addition to classifying Champagne according to styles, classifications are also used to refer to sweetness (or the absence of sweetness, called dry). Producers can regulate the sweetness by controlling fermentation. For example, stopping fermentation early leaves some natural grape sugar in the finished wine. A Champagne labeled “brut” means that it is the driest; one labeled “extra dry” will be a tad sweeter than brut, somewhat off-dry. Demi-sec, which means “half dry,” will be a fairly sweet Champagne and one labeled “doux” is the sweetest you can get in Champagne and is virtually a dessert in itself.

Now that you’ve selected the perfect Champagne for your holiday gathering, its imperative that it be served properly to ensure optimum pleasure. Champagne is most enjoyable when served 43 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, which can be achieved by placing it in the refrigerator for roughly two hours or in a Champagne bucket with half ice and half water for 20 to 30 minutes. Champagne looks and tastes best when served in a long-stem tulip-shaped glass or flute, which enhances the flow of bubbles, concentrates the aromas and prevents your hand from warming the bubbly. Contrary to popular belief, a bottle of bubbly should never pop with a loud bang, as it is considered rather gauche and bubbles are wasted.

Not only does Champagne add a touch of elegance and a festive flair to any occasion, but it also is quite food friendly and pairs well with a variety of cuisines. It has a natural affinity for oysters, caviar and smoked salmon, but also complements assorted hors d’oeuvres, many cheeses, sushi, lobster, shrimp, pork, spicy dishes, fresh fruits and desserts. So, this holiday season may your home be filled with love and laughter and your glass filled with beautiful bubbles of bliss.

Champagne Picks

Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne 1998, $115

This striking and recognizable “flower” bottle launched in 1969 boasts an equally stunning and stylish Champagne. Elegant, crisp and lively with fine, even bubbles, this distinctive sparkler offers lovely aromas of white flowers and citrus fruits and a lingering finish.

Billecart-Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs NV, $75

Rich and complex, this fabulous 100 percent Chardonnay bubbly emits an aromatic bouquet of almonds, toast and ripe white fruits. It is well structured and possesses a fine mousse of delicate bubbles and a long satisfying finish.

Krug Vintage 1995, $195

An exceptionally robust Champagne that is rich in style, deep in flavor and bursting with fine bubbles. Aromas of spice, dried figs and roasted nuts precede the delicious and intense flavors. The only problem with this bubbly is that you simply can’t get enough.

Salon Blanc de Blancs Brut Le Mesnil, $200

This 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne has a stunning bouquet packed with green apple, pear and grapefruit. Lively, rich and powerful with fine bubbles, it is complex and well made, displaying a distinct mineral quality and a refreshing finish.

Mumm de Cramant NV, $50

This rare cuvée is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes and displays small, delicate bubbles that rise to create an elegant mousse. It’s lovely bouquet releases fresh, fragrant scents of lemon and pure white flowers. Delicate and balanced, it has a gentle effervescence in the mouth, which leads to a delightfully refreshing finish.

Piper-Heidsieck Rose Sauvage Viktor & Rolf, $110
Dutch designers Viktor and Rolf have turned the traditional notion of fashion on its proverbial head, so it’s no surprise that the Champagne bottle they designed for Piper-Heidsieck appears to be upside down. This bubbly is bursting with flavors of red cherries and citrus fruits and offers crisp effervescence.

Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV, $50

Smooth and complex, this brilliant bubbly is bursting with ripe, toasttinged flavors of honeysuckle, almonds and citrus fruits. It shows all the hallmarks of a fine Louis Roederer Champagne—exceptional fruit and freshness, combined with structure and richness.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Rosé 2000, $65
This exceptional cuvée includes a high percentage of reserve wines to ensure consistency from year to year. Fresh, fine and elegant, this outstanding bubbly offers generous aromas of cherry, raspberry and strawberry with hints of brioche. Perfectly balanced with a sublime mousse, it displays elegance and charm.

Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs NV, $60
Pale golden in color, this beautiful bubbly is ripe, harmonious and impeccably balanced. On the palate it is medium-bodied with a supple texture and displays distinct notes of apricot, cherry and fresh citrus fruits.

Guy Larmandier Cramant Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV, $48

This classically styled 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne produces a delightful bouquet of white chocolate, toasted almonds and candied berries. Soft and lush, it has a persistent mousse and a nice, delicate finish.

Please note: Prices listed above are approximate and may vary.