For many of us, Champagne is a beverage we imbibe but once a year'on New Year’s Eve. Indeed, sparkling wine and tiny bubbles have become synonymous with New Year’s revelry. I’m not sure exactly how Champagne came to be the beverage of choice for ringing in the new, but I’m happy it did. Because for me Champagne is more than just a wine; it’s a state of mind.
Has anyone ever drunk Champagne when they were sad? I doubt it. Champagne’s effervescent promise brings a smile to every face. So why don’t we drink it more often, as the natives of Champagne, France, do? In Champagne, folks are serious about their bubbly. They drink it with everything, from exquisite dinners in Michelin Three-Star restaurants like GÃ©rard Boyer’s Les CrayÃ¨res, to grilled Gruyere sandwiches in tiny cafes.
Visit the marvelous CathÃ©drale Notre-Dame in Reims, France, and among the evocative stained-glass windows certain to command your attention is the hundred-foot high tribute to the winemakers of the Champagne region, where Reims is located. In the radiant window, there are panes depicting grape-pickers laboring in lush vineyards, as well as those that illustrate the ultimate fruits of these hardworking men and women: finished bottles of Champagne. The gorgeous stained-glass window is a homage to Champagne, the lifeblood of an interesting and industrious people. The Champagne window of the CathÃ©drale Notre-Dame exhibits a people living a productive and effervescent life'a bubbly existence that is the essence of Champagne.
The Champagne region of France, where all French champagnes are produced, is actually quite tiny, with most Champagne coming from the towns of Reims and Epernay, some 20 minutes apart. Imagine all the world’s great Champagne coming from an area about the size of Ogden and Bountiful, and you get the idea. Of course, if the wine did come from Ogden and Bountiful, it wouldn’t rightly be called Champagne, since'according to the French, at least'only wine from Champagne, France, that is produced in accordance with the strict Appellation ControlÃ©e requirements qualifies as “Champagne.” Quality sparkling-wine producers from California, Spain and even non-Champagne areas of France might take umbrage with this notion, but it’s generally agreed that “if it’s not from Champagne, it’s not Champagne.”
In this country, we tend to think of Champagne as a sweet drink, maybe because we often link it to wedding cake. However, most good Champagne is not sweet, but quite dry, with high acidity. When you’re shopping for New Year’s Eve Champagne, consider whether you’ll be serving the wine solo or with food. This will help you to decide on what style of Champagne to purchase. For example, I’d be tempted to serve champagnes at the sweeter end of the spectrum all by themselves, whereas the more dry and refined champagnes can match nicely with all sorts of foods.
For practical purposes, champagnes are ranked and labeled according to sweetness or dryness. From least sweet (more dry) to most sweet (least dry), the categories you’re most likely to find are these: Brut (dry), Extra Dry (medium dry), Sec (slightly sweet), and Demi-Sec (very sweet). There are also extreme categories at both ends of the spectrum'Extra Brut (extremely dry) and Doux (extremely sweet)'but these are reasonably rare. Most of what you’ll find in our stores is Brut or Extra Dry.
I’ve always found New Year’s Eve to be a good excuse for Champagne tasting and comparison. So this New Year’s Eve, you might want to sample a range of different champagnes to help zero in on a style that you especially like. And once you’ve found it, don’t save it for special occasions. Uncork a bottle of bubbly the next time you sit down to a grilled cheese sandwich.