“Bubbles to You!” has long been one of my mother’s favorite expletives. It must be a Brit thing or a Welsh thing. At any rate, when it comes to sparkling wine, my attitude has generally been more like “Bubbles? Whatever…”
Like my white wine reluctance, bubbles have not been a favorite. Maybe from too many years of bad sparkling wines – Freixenet in the 80s anyone? (Did I really take that to the hospital room when my goddaughter was born? Apologies Carolyn and Juliet!) — And if I crawl back really far… there was the dreaded sparkling KoolAid-like Cold Duck in high school. Yuk.
But in fairness, if I go even further back, I have to admit that, as a child in the UK, I used to dream of being old enough to drink Baby Cham – a sparkling beverage made from pears (really a pear cider) popular in the swinging sixties … and advertised by the cutest baby deer this side of Bambi … also one of the first alcoholic drinks marketed to women in the UK (and, apparently to children, given the impact its prancing deer logo had on me)! I imagine I would find it ghastly now…
But I digress…
More recently, even when tasting good sparkling wines, as much as I love the delicate popping fizz on the tongue, I have often felt that the bubbles make it hard to taste the wine, that the overall effect is one of fizz, and a bit of toasted bread and maybe some sweetness, or worst still acid, but not much complexity. And I always think – enough with the bubbles and on with the flavor – give me back my still wine!
While I have often found it challenging to actually find the fruit in sparkling wines, maybe, just maybe, it is because I did not stop to smell the roses, or the toast, or the strawberries, or the lemons… because, in the really good stuff, all that comes together and literally effervesces to the surface quite gloriously and then lingers on the palate.
Yep. I am a new bubbles evangelist and again, I have my French Wine Scholar course to thank. Another example of how my ongoing wine education continues to help me refine my palate and my nose — because not only have I learned more about how to select the ‘good stuff,’ I have learned to take time when I taste.
And with Champagne, or any kind of sparkling wine, the environment, surely, is a relaxed one — so my advice is don’t rush it…take the time to let those bubbles tell their story…(although don’t be a slug about it, make sure you get the bubbles at the peak of their moussant magnificence!)
And, above all, don’t save your bubbles drinking just for wedding receptions … and if you do, skip either the cake or the bubbles, but for heavens sake, don’t do both (unless it is a Sec or Demi-sec). Sadly, many experience Champagne first (and last and only) at wedding receptions where a dry (sweet is out of fashion) and ‘economical’ head-ache-inducing version of bubbles tends to be served de rigeuer with that very sweet white wedding cake. Not a great idea. A rule of thumb for food/wine pairing is that sweet should be served with sweet, and this is especially true with Champagne – serving an Extra Brut with a tooth-achingly sweet cake just emphasizes the acid….not the best representation for that delicate wine. If you must serve bubbles with cake, make it an off-dry (Sec or Demi-sec) version, the results will be so much better.
Part of the romance of Champagne is the age-old process for making it – that second ferment that captures all those bubbles in the bottle, the laborious gentle riddling (still done by hand in some cellars and that can take as long as 10 weeks) that moves the lees to the neck for freezing and then expulsion; the cork, the muselet (wire cage) and the required aging… worthy of worship in my opinion.
Yes, good bubbles can be had from the transfer, tank and other sparkling wine methods and almost every wine region in the world has its own iteration of sparkling that can light up an evening. But for the really, really, really good stuff with ‘Champagne’ on the label (only sparkling wines that are actually from the Champagne region are allowed the appellation), if you take the time, you will not only be tickled with fizz, but you will definitely get to the fruit and all those wonderful autolytic (biscuity, nutty, creamy) characteristics that come from the second ferment.
Below are three Bottle Poems from tastings in my FWS Champagne class at The Wine House. All were delicious and left me wanting more…!
Lanson NV Brut $39.00
A non-vintage Champagne (meaning it is blended from a variety of vintages) and a pretty terrific one for the price. Lovely, if not deeply complex; utilizes the three main varietals used in making Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and each makes a showing. Green apples (Chardonnay) and cherries (Pinot Noir) fizzed to the surface and came through on the palate, along with toast, and a bit of cream (Pinot Meunier) and chalk. Good body and lots of lovely bubbles. I would definitely stock up on this for a celebration that calls for the real deal, without a huge price tag.
Canard-Duchene Blanc de Noirs Brut $56.99
A non-vintage beauty that is all black grapes (without the skins of course) – 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot Meunier – and it shows in its floral and berry notes: I could really smell the strawberries, roses and toast in this one. And on the palate – it was strawberries and cream, with nuts, brioche and spice and a touch of earth. Quite full bodied with spirited bubbles, and yet very feminine – good length. Yum. My favorite of the three, and a wine I would happily sip on its own behalf without a food pairing!
2009 Jean Milan Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc Brut $79.99
The only vintage we tasted and, unfortunately, 2009 was not a good year for Champagne, but this lovely wine fights a very good fight. 100% Chardonnay, it is made from a single plot of 72-year-old vines. Bursts into the glass with tiny persistent bubbles, and fizzes with green apples and lemon pith on the nose. On the mouth, more, if yellower, apples and pronounced lemon with a good balance of nutty brioche and cream. Like all three of the Champagnes I tasted (and in spite of the fact that our MW teacher for the day said there is no such thing as minerality!) this one definitely showed the chalk its vines were rooted into. It cried out for some very fresh seafood!
So, to quote another favorite expletive of my Mum’s, “Bottoms!” But in this case, “Bottoms Up and Bubbles to You!”