Food & Drink

Eats & drinks: The best of the bubbly

Champagne creates a festive holiday mood like no other wine.
Champagne creates a festive holiday mood like no other wine. TNS photo

Remember the millenium? This is when the following column ran, in December 1999, with the first-world problem of a champagne shortage as the focus. It was a different era, pre-911, before random acts of cruelty were a common occurrence. While the State Store system still exists in Pennsylvania, all the people quoted are since retired. Here is a historical perspective to consider when toasting the passage into the 2016 New Year.

With the Korbel digital millennium clock flashing milliseconds at nearly the speed of light, it’s easy to feel a sense of urgency standing outside the state liquor store on North Atherton Street. A mini version of the digital timepiece that bedecks the Eiffel Tower, the millennium clock counts the seconds left for champagne makers to cash in on what is surely their most lucrative time in history.

Contrary to early media reports about a champagne shortage, there is plenty of bubbly available. The only variety that is sold out is Dom Perignon, the tete de cuvee, or prestige label of Moet et Chandon that retails for about $100 a bottle in Pennsylvania.

“Dom has been sold out for a while,” says Bob Scott, manager at the Hamilton Street liquor store, “ but in the high-end line there is still some Taittinger, Perrier-Jouet and Mumm on the shelves. And there are dozens of kinds of domestic and imported sparkling wines in a wide price range.”

“We ran out of Dom six weeks ago,” said Glenn Myers, manager of the Atherton Street store. “We sold five cases in one month while we usually sell five cases in a year. We have one bottle of Dom Perignon Rose left in the specialty shop, priced at $225.99.”

The best local selection of wines is at the North Atherton Wines and Spirits Shoppe, where Randy Lose carefully orders for and stocks the specialty department. Unlike the regular stores, where each item is “listed” on a monthly flier and necessarily available at any store within the statewide system, specialty stores stock products that are from smaller producers or are of interest to connoisseurs. The selection of wines changes frequently and currently includes the largest selection of California sparklers between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

Understanding the state store system is a challenge to residents and visitors alike. Pennsylvania is a “control” state, one of 14 in the nation where the state dictates the selling of alcoholic beverages. Because it is geographically the largest of the control states, Pennsylvania is the largest single purveyor of alcohol in the world. Since the state’s liquor control board packs the purchasing power of millions of adults, purveyors scramble to make it into the system.

Considering the latest Consumer Reports study on champagne and sparkling wines (Consumer Reports, November 1999), consumers can spend far less than $100 per bottle and still celebrate with excellent wines. Their ratings order listed some true champagnes (Piper-Heidsieck, Brut, $30; Moet et Chandon Imperial, Brut, $35; Mumm Cordon Rouge, Brut, $32; Taittinger La Francaise, Brut, $34) and a California sparkling wine (Domaine Carneros, produced by Taittinger, Brut, $19) all above the prestigious Dom Perignon.

“Buyers are going upscale this year,” Lose said, “even with domestics. Some of our highly regarded domestics are two California wines, Schramsberg and ‘J’ champagne, produced by Jordan. We are very nearly out of the Domaine St. Michelle, a Washington state wine that got a score of 89 in the Wine Spectator ranking. Most of that wine was purchased by our licensees (restaurants and hotels that are licensed to sell alcohol.) Our overall best seller is Korbel, and we still have a good supply of that.”

When asked about his personal favorite, Lose revealed that he was fond of a Spanish sparkler, Paul Cheneau Cava. The term Cava denotes a wine that is produced in Spain by the time-honored method used in the champagne region and uses the native grapes Monastrell (red) and Parellada and Macabeo (both white.)

When speaking of champagne there are some points to keep in mind. True champagne is the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France, an area 90 miles east of Paris that is roughly the size of Washington, D.C. The 70,000 acres in the region are planted in two black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which give a fruity, ripe flavor, and the white Chardonnay grape, which lends crispness and elegance to the finished product. Most champagne is a blend of the three varieties. Still wines had been produced in the region, the most northerly of the French wine growing areas, since Roman times, when Caesar conquered Gaul.

It was during the 17th century that the sparkling wine now associated with Champagne was “discovered” by the blind Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, who exclaimed (according to legend) “I am drinking the stars!” Perignon’s significant contributions included using bark as a stopper for the bottles so the sparkle could be held for a long time and introducing the art of blending. With his extraordinary palate, he was able to determine which vineyards the wines originated from and he combined those that were dry with those that were rich and full bodied to create balance and finesse. His blending style is still practiced there today and guarantees that each champagne house will produce a cuvee or blend that will be distinctively their own from year to year.

Most champagne is non-vintage, which means that it may be a blend of several different years. Vintage champagne is relatively rare, based on the merits of the houses, and only 80 percent of the harvest may be sold to guarantee that there is wine to blend with other wines produced in non-vintage years and maintain the standard of quality.

True champagne — according to the French laws of the Appellation Controlee, established in the 1930s —must be produced by the methode champenoise which involves a second fermentation of yeast and sugar in the bottle, which must be carefully monitored by daily twists of the upside down bottles in the cellars. Other methods used to produce less-expensive sparkling wines include the transfer method, where the wine is indeed fermented in a bottle, though not the one in which it is sold, and the charmat, or bulk process where the wine is fermented in a closed vat.

Sparkling wines from other countries include espumoza from Spain like the Freixenet and Codorniu labels, German sekt from Henkell produced along the Rhine River and popular Asti Spumantes from Italy.

The labeling of the sweetness level can be somewhat confusing:

Brut: extremely dry, less than 15 grams of sugar per liter

Extra dry: slightly sweet, but still dry between 12 and 20 grams of sugar per liter

Sec or Dry: medium sweet, between 17 and 35 grams of sugar per liter

Demi sec: sweet, between 33 and 50 grams of sugar per liter

With the impending millennium celebration, many people are buying oversize bottles to match the magnitude of the event. Unlike most consumer items, larger size does not result in a decrease in price. These big-bottle bubblies cost more to produce and ship due to their unwieldy size and a recitation of their names reads like a page from the Old Testament:

Magnum: 1.5 liter/ 50.7 ounces, 10 approximate 5-ounce servings

Jeroboam: 3 liter/ 101.4 ounces, 20 approximate 5-ounce servings

Methuselah: 6 liter/202.8 ounces, 40 approximate 5-ounce servings

Salmanazar: 9 liters, 60 approximate 5-ounce servings

Nebuchadnezzar: 15 liter/507 ounces, 100 approximate 5-ounce servings

How to serve champagne

  • Chill champagne in the refrigerator — never the freezer — for about one hour. For quicker chilling, place the bottle in a bucket half-filled with ice and water for about 30 minutes. It should be served chilled, not cold, which would mask the delicate bouquet.
  • Contrary to popular belief, champagne corks should not pop with a loud sound and a geyser of champagne. To open, hold the bottle in one hand and with the other unwind and remove the wire cage. Hold the cork firmly and tilt the bottle at a 45 degree angle away from you and your guests. Holding the cork, twist the bottle slowly in one direction and pull the bottle down gently and gradually. The cork will ease itself out with a small pop.
  • Serve chilled champagne in tall, slim flute-shaped glasses so the bubbles are retained. While sipping, hold the glass by the stem to avoid warming the contents. If you chill the glasses in the freezer, the foaming will be minimized and you will be able to enjoy a more gradual release of the bubbles.

Champagne and Food

  • When serving champagne with food, keep in mind the degree of sweetness. A dry champagne is best served with fish and seafood, especially oysters, because of its crisp acidity. With dessert, a sweeter champagne will be complementary.