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Champagne Galore

A short history of bubbly, with a few “tasting notes"

Champagne. For this holiday hymn to that fabulous effervescent diversion, a few “tasting notes” are in order. Something light and fizzy, like the nectar itself. After all, it’s not just any sparkling wine we’re talking about, but the nonpareil of aperitifs.

Let us begin with the matter of when to drink Champagne. There is no better authority than the venerable Madame Lily Bollinger, who until just a few years ago headed the famed house founded by her ancestors in 1829. Mme. Bollinger’s advice was simple: “I drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have guests 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 am thirsty.” It is said that Madame particularly liked to serve Bollinger with her cheese soufflés.

No less a force in promoting the Champagne grown and produced only in that sacred region of France was another female vintner, Mme. Nicole Clicquot—or, as she was later known, La Veuve (The Widow) Clicquot. Honored in the 18th century by having the house and main brand named for her, the exquisite Veuve Clicquot vintage called “Grande Dame,” which came along in later years, is a testament to how much she was revered.

Moving fast forward, we come to the big Champagne news of 2010. From Stockholm, where schnapps generally holds sway, it was reported there that a shipwrecked, 18th-century cargo schooner had been discovered on the Baltic seabed—just off the Finnish coast. Among the items aboard, divers retrieved 30 bottles of Champagne, still in excellent shape, even though their labels had been consumed by eels. One bottle was opened—the capsules, cages, and corks being in pristine condition—and its contents pronounced “fine and intense, still sparkling, and of a rather dark golden color.” Could these green-bottled “ghosts” be the oldest extant examples of Dom Pérignon—considered by some the finest Champagne maker in the world? Off investigators went to Moët & Chandon in Epernay, France, for some forensic testing. The verdict: with 98-percent certainty, based on codes etched into their corks, the bottles contained Veuve Clicquot Brut from the mid-1780s.

Producers of the official Champagne—numbering only about 60 houses in a region roughly the size of New Hampshire—have operated since the 16th century under a mind-boggling set of regulations. Legal, technical, communal, national, pan-European, marketing, labeling, moralistic, whimsical, and others just plain mysterious—all told, there are about 85 to 90 rules. Add to that, as anyone who watches the History Channel knows, devastating wars have been waged over the region ever since Attila and his Huns got smacked upside the head by Roman legions in 451 A.D.

Then, too, the weather is only so-so in dear old Champagne, and the soil has an acidic, chalky consistency that wouldn’t seem fit to support a dandelion. Well, hooray and three cheers for irony. Deep in their hearts, oenophiles know that the three grapes of Champagne—pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier—thrive best on adversity. It takes a tough region to give birth to so tender a libation.

And now, let us burst a bubble of Champagne lore. The Mimosa—a cocktail served ubiquitously at brunches, parties, and “Sex and the City” gatherings—sounds as if it originated on a tropical island. But non; to the contrary, the charming concoction is actually a Bucks Fizz, named for a private club set up by the King’s guards officers in 1919 London. At Bucks, of which Sir Winston Churchill was a member, the Fizz was made of Pol Roget Champagne and—de rigueur—ripe, freshly squeezed Seville oranges.

Arguably, the most sublime and sensuous Champagne cocktail of all is served just steps away from Bucks, at The Ritz. Take notes. Put a generous-sized cube of sugar in a flute along with a dash of bitters; add two dashes of brandy—just enough to cover the sugar cube—and top up with Champagne. Finish off with a twist of orange peel and cherry. Voilà—heaven. Legend has it that Noël Coward, inspired by this creation, came up with what many believe is the most original Champagne toast of all time: “Here’s Champagne to my real friends, and a real pain to my sham friends!”

four champagne secrets

1. Start every party by offering a glass of champagne or sparkling wine. “It immediately puts a sparkle on the event and sets the right mood,” says Monica Brown, founder of Cellar XV and No. 109 Cheese & Wine.

2. It’s a great complement to many main dishes, in place of wine. “Rosé for example is great with beef dishes and cheeses,” says Brown. “Champagne is so cleansing and crisp. It leaves your mouth feeling refreshed.”

3. It makes any vacation memorable. “Todd and I always bring a really nice bottle on vacation,” she says. “Champagne is a great way to share time together.”

4. “There are many small-grower labels that make champagne and sparkling wine that don’t get the attention of television and food and wine magazines,” says Brown. “Veuve Clicquot and Moët get all the attention, but as with wine, the good possibilities are many.”

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