The Tip of the Champagne Cork
Yesterday started the May holiday season with a May Day bang. It was Labor Day here in France, although Sundays are a natural “Labor Day” without needing any special label.
Saturday was as miserable a weather day as Sunday was glorious, and because of it, was a perfect moment for being in the cellar of Dilettantes, La Maison de Champagne for a champagne tasting, sponsored by Americans Forest Collins’ “The Chamber” and Preston Mohr’s “Paris by the Glass.”
The venue is relatively new (about two years old), in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, owned by Fanny Heucq, daughter of a winemaking family — Heucq Père et Fils in the Vallée de la Marne, Champagne. Her mission is to offer the “spectacular creations” of independent winemakers who have little access to the Paris market. We tasted four of these kinds of champagnes, each less than 30 euros a bottle, and each ranking in quality with the best of the bigger names.
The Chamber is not to be confused with the Chamber of Commerce or the Chambre de Notaires — this one is a social club for “modern urban cocktail lovers and gastronomes” of which I was not formerly familiar, sponsoring events that take place in private residences or other unique locations such as Dilettantes. Members have access to exclusive drink and food-related “PopUps” at special prices and offers a full calendar of events. Membership is limited to only 1,000 and Preston Mohr works with The Chamber to do tastings about once a month.
Paris by the Glass does tastings, private tours and day trips thanks to Preston Mohr’s love for France, its cuisine and wine. With a presentation on a screen for all to see, plates of Comté cheeses and cured ham on the table, about 15 people around the long table in the cellar of Dilettantes, Preston offered up a fascinating lesson on champagne and the four he served up in particular. I learned more in two hours about champagne than I had learned in my previous lifetime.
Women dominate the champagne industry — women such as the widow Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot) (Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin) and Lily Bollinger who expanded the production of their wines by purchasing more vineyards and personally publicizing the brand worldwide. Lilly wrote: “I drink it 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’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.”
Why women? Perhaps it’s because champagne is a “feminine” drink, or because it takes the feminine touch to make it well or because women have a stronger sense of smell. A study by Texas Tech University in 2013 concluded that “Meat is male; Champagne is female; Cheese is unisex” in an examination exploring the relationship between a metaphor of masculinity and femininity and different types of wine.
BUT we have Dom Pierre Pérignon to ‘somewhat’ thank for the invention of champagne — a French Benedictine monk who was the cellar master at the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers and thought the bubbles in champagne were like ‘tasting the stars.’ He pioneered a number of winemaking techniques in the late 1600s, including the introduction of corks and bottles made with thicker glass (to prevent explosion) although sparkling wines in Champagne occurred more than a century after his death.
The four champagnes we tasted were:
1. Vazart-Coquart, a “blanc de blancs” from the Côte de Blancs region made 100% with chardonnay grapes. 23€ a bottle.
2. Heucq Père et Fils (Fanny’s father’s winery), an extra brut “blanc de noirs” made from black grapes and in this case, Pinot Meunier. The color is a bit coppery and it ‘behaves’ like a red wine. 22€ a bottle.
3. J. Lassalle, a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes for a ‘classic’ taste, from the northern Montagne de Reims region, aged a minimum of three years. 25€ a bottle.
4. Elise Dechannes, Rosé de Saignée, from the Côte de Bars region, made 100% from Pinot Noir and aged no less than three years. The color is a light coral and comes from the skins themselves…on the way to becoming a red wine. 28€ a bottle.
While getting lighter-headed by the moment, not wanting to spit, but to swallow all four glasses, I learned a few tidbits that in all these years of living in France and often visiting the champagne region I hadn’t learned before:
* Don’t swirl champagne too much, or you’ll lose the bubbles.
* Serve champagne at no colder than 10 degrees Celsius to fully taste the flavor.
* Aging it longer reduces the size of the bubbles over time (which activate the salivary glands), and the longer it ages with yeast in the bottle, the better the taste.
* Six different grapes can be legally used to make champagne.
* While champagne is thought of as an “apéritif,” it’s actually quite “food friendly.”
* The best glasses from which to drink champagne are NOT flutes, but wine glasses and the worst kind of glass from which one drinks champagne is the wide-mouthed coupe that releases all its bubbles too quickly.
* 300 million bottles of champagne are produced annually and 60% of those are consumed in France.
* If it isn’t produced in Champagne, then it isn’t champagne.
* There are 16,000 independent growers and 5,000 independent winemakers producing 10% while there are 300 “maisons” producing 90%.
* It’s hard to make champagne for under 15€ a bottle.
* Chalky soil is the best, so that the vine has to work hard…the longer the root, the more flavor it absorbs.
* Growers must solely depend on nature…irrigation is not allowed.
* September is harvest time and must be done by hand, the dates dictated by the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), with only 10 days to harvest the crops.
* The grapes can be legally pressed no more than twice.
* Riddling is the traditional method of making champagne…a method invented by Madame Clicquot to allow the particles to settle out of the solution and purify the wine. The sediment is collected in the bottle neck, frozen to form a plug and then removed before adjusting the level of fill and finally corking it for market.
This is just the tip of the champagne cork, but I’ll bet you already knew all this? If so, then just keep drinking…and if not, then make a date with The Chamber or Paris by the Glass to learn more, drink and be merry!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group
P.S. Want to know even more about Champagne from someone who lives there!? Don’t miss Parler Paris Après Midi on Tuesday, May 10th when Janet Hulstrand, writer, editor and teacher talks about Champagne!…”Off the Beaten Track in France: L’Aube en Champagne.” Janet has spent much of her time over the past thirty-five years living, working and traveling in France. She writes frequently for the online magazines Bonjour Paris and France Revisited, as well as for her blog Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches classes in American literature about France at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the Queens College, CUNY study abroad program in Paris. She also teaches Writing from the Heart workshops in Essoyes, a charming village in the Champagne region that was home to the Renoir family. Less than three hours from Paris, about halfway between Troyes and Dijon, Essoyes is a great place from which to explore this part of France, which is not very well known even by many French people. It is a wonderful destination for a weekend away from Paris, or a stop along the way to points east, or the South of France. Janet first discovered it when she picked grapes there in 1978, and in the years since she has made it her second home. She will share with you stories of the Renoir family, and talk about all of the wonderful things there are to do in this part of France—whether your interest is art, history, cuisine, tasting the local artisanale champagnes, or enjoying the great outdoors. Visit Parler Paris Après Midi for more information.