Champagne has been associated with celebration for the longest time. It’s the quintessential drink to have on New Year’s Eve, during a much-awaited reunion, or a night you want to remember. Status, wealth and celebration are also synonymous with the bubbly wine, but oenologist Vincent Chaperon of Dom Pérignon thinks otherwise.
“One of the misconceptions that has grown over the past 40 to 50 years is that wine is only for people who are ‘in the know’. We all have the aptitude for champagne appreciation, to smell and taste the complexities of the wine. We have to trust our senses when approaching it, then drink with confidence,” he advised.
If the man who makes Dom Pérignon can tell you that champagne is a democratic beverage, it’s time to shirk the assumptions. While the steps to champagne appreciation is largely similar to most wines or liquors, understanding the craft behind it and what makes the wine so unique and highly prized can enhance your tasting experience. Also, it’s bound to impress the table.
Here are some tips from Chaperon for a beginner to glean some understanding about the crowning jewel of sparkling wines, and how to fully enjoy it.
Champagne isn’t just the name of the wine, but the region in France where the grapes that go into making the wine come from. “It’s a limited region, because you can only use grapes from there to be able to call it champagne.”
“Champagne has to only be matured for 15 months to be sold. Dom Pérignon goes beyond that and matures it for nine years or more, so the champagne acquires a vintage.”
“Historically, people have been following the sugar levels of the grapes to decide optimum harvest timing, but that is not the most accurate. It’s still prevalent, but it doesn’t give you all the information you need to decide whether it’ll make a good wine. Judging by taste is one of the only ways we can know whether it is ready, but there’s no definitive barometer just yet.”
“It’s a process of transmutation, like alchemy. This is the stage where you mix the blend with the yeast in order to perform secondary fermentation. Through that, there’s more intensity and vibrancy in the champagne. The lees in the bottle will interact with your blend, as well the oxygen that enters the bottle. This is an intimate relationship that comes from three components. The lees will slowly, progressively fuse with your wine, and it recreates the aroma, balance and texture of the champagne.”
“The bubbles come from ageing on the lees. Fermentation is a process that is alive. The yeast, as it ferments in the bottle, is consuming the sugars and oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. The gas dissolves into the wine when it is sealed, but when the cork is popped, you get the bubbles. It adds a third dimension to the champagne, and it greatly influences the texture.”
“If you drink a champagne when it’s chilled, you experience more of the minerality and fruitiness of the wines. When it gets warmer, the flavours begin to go deeper. To understand the full complexity of a champagne like Dom Pérignon, you have to let the wine sit and breathe. Drink it too quickly, you’ll lose its nuances. The best thing to do is enjoy the wine throughout a full dinner. You’ll be able to observe the way it changes, and appreciate it with food.”
“You can always play with the types of glasses you use. There’s no perfect glass. You can start off with a flute, but you’ll lose some of the depth because of how narrow it is. This, however, will emphasise the acidity and freshness of the wine. You can also use a wine glass, or any wider glass to really enter into the many flavours of the champagne. The wider the bowl of the glass, the more you experience.”
“You can pair it Japanese food, like miso soup or sushi, or mildly spicy Thai food. Start off with light ingredients like shellfish. It brings out the iodine flavours of the champagne. Then you can move on to richer foods, even pairing it with firmer textures like fish or poultry. With a rosé, you can pair it with red meats. Cheese is another obvious one, but opt for drier cheeses that aren’t as fatty. Avoid having it with desserts that have too much sugar, as it will disrupt the balance of the wine. Pick desserts with natural sugars and biscuit notes, like fruit, pastry or brioche. Creamy desserts are good as well, as long as they aren’t too fatty.”