In Vino Veritas Part XXIX: Champagne!

Once you pop, the fun don’t stop! That’s the marketing slogan for champagne, am I right? In any case, with it being December with holiday gatherings and New Years parties galore, it’s the best time of the year to discuss this classic celebratory drink.

I previously talked about Moscato D’Asti sparkling wines usurping the popularity of champagne, but this is mere conjecture or decades away at best. In most bars and restaurants, when it comes to the bubbly, champagne represents the status quo for taste and class. I see no reason why your servers shouldn’t be able to easily help patrons at your hotel restaurant with their sparkling wine selections and convince them of this elixir’s worth.

For most, champagne is an expensive and sugary treat, served in fancy tall and thin glasses otherwise known as flutes. The backstory is, of course, far from boring.

First off, you and your team should know how sparkling wines are produced. This is done by bottling regular wine with lightly pressed grapes so that the skins don’t become a factor and bestow their colors onto the end result (for ‘white’ sparkling wines at least). Then, a little bit of extra yeast and rock sugar are added so that a secondary fermentation process occurs as the fungus feasts on the simple carbohydrates, thus creating alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.

Centered on the Marne River around the towns of Reims and Epernay roughly two hours drive east of Paris, the Champagne growing region traditionally uses the pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes in the production of its bubbly varietals. As one of the most northern appellations, this means finicky summer conditions and an early harvest. And for the record, only sparkling wines made in this area can technically be called champagne, even though many use the two terms interchangeably.

The reason why the Champagne region became famous for its sparkling wines is due to a longstanding rivalry with Burgundy, whereby winemaking houses in the former decided to bow out from the race and differentiate its viticultural enterprises by focusing on said bubbly concoctions. Stemming from this initial divesture came about many of the table names we use today: Veuve Clicquot, Moët &Chandon, Pommery, Dom Pérignon, Laurent-Perrier and Tattinger among others. As is customary for all major growing regions, there’s a controlling body to ensure adherence to quality production standards and to grade the final vintages according to the classic French system of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Deuxieme Cru.

Aside from any classifications or a customer’s previous knowledge of one branded house or another, what’s most important with champagne is to meet one’s desire for a dry or a sweet bottle, which is determined by the amount of sugar added prior to the secondary fermentation and the residual amount after this process has finished. You and your team should learn to heart the following:

  • Extra brut – very crude
  • Brut – crude
  • Extra Sec – very dry
  • Sec – dry
  • Demi-sec – semi-sweet
  • Doux – very sweet

One aspect of this system that still baffles me is that the ‘sec’ grades – originating from the Latin for ‘dry’ – aren’t at the bottom of the dryness scale, but are instead midway through after the ‘brut’ label, which comes from the French for ‘crude’. This might cause some confusion, so be ready to alleviate any customer confusion; I try to remember that ‘dry’ is smoother than ‘crude’.

There’s a lot more going on which factors into the taste of sparkling wines. Aside from anything terroir-related, the finest champagnes have specific vintage years – many do not because they are blends. The rule of thumb is that these wines drink best ten years after the year on the label. Moreover, some believe that champagne fermented in magnums – a larger offering between two to three times the size of a regular bottle – actually taste better because of reduced surface area. All these factoids should serve as good fodder for an upsell.

As a final image, imagine yourself witnessing the time-honored champagne tradition of sabrage. The adjacent table orders an expensive bottle of sparkling wine and, instead of simply popping the top, in one fluid stroke the server slashes the head of the bottle with the blunt end of a saber (or other readily available large knife). Talk about a quick visual surprise to add to the overall experience; it might even be enough to push you over the edge and compel you to order your own bottle!

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, originally published in HotelsMag on December 5, 2014)