I’ll be writing a lot about bubbly over the next couple of weeks. After all, the holidays tend to make us want to break out the champagne, although I prefer to break it out for any reason I can think of.
My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne.
– John Maynard Keynes
Champagne can soothe the soul and ignite romance. From the moment the cork issues the familiar pop, Champagne fuels excitement.
There are a lot of sparkling wines on the market, but they aren’t all Champagne. In order to be labeled “Champagne,” the wine must come from the Champagne region of France. This region pioneered the method of making Champagne that is now used worldwide. But it is the unique terroir of the region that makes true Champagne special. The region is uniquely suited for growing the three grapes that can make up the bubbly wine: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. This northern French region is cooler, and the chalk in the soil contributes to the acidity and character of the grapes.
Large Champagne Houses, such as Taittinger or Moët & Chandon, grow some of their own grapes. However, a large percentage of their grapes are purchased from farmers throughout the Champagne region. Alternatively, grower Champagnes, often called “family fizz” or “farmer fizz,” are created by farmers who grow the grapes and tend the vineyards. Grower Champagne often meets or exceeds the quality of large House Champagne, but has a smaller price tag. Brett Davis, Sales Manager for importer/distributor Vintner Select, says that the “best values are your grower-producer Champagnes as far as quality to price ratio.”
Jen Stewart, wine buyer for MicroWines in Cincinnati, OH, prefers the grower Champagnes. “The growers put a lot of their heart, soul, and pride into the product. I’d rather have a wine that speaks of a sense of place, people, and their heritage. I find farmer fizz much more interesting and it is a better value because you’re paying for what you’re going to drink rather than the name and the label.”
Tyler Colman, author of the book “A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season,” echoes her sentiments. “I really enjoy good grower champagnes for a lot of reasons. First, is clearly taste since they often have a lot of charm, reflecting greater individuality than the Champagnes from the big houses. Second, buying a grower Champagne supports a family business and, as with car rental firms, I like to believe that the little guy tries harder. Third, they often pack more punch at lower price points than wines from the grandes marques.”
How can you recognize a grower Champagne when you’re shopping for bubbly this holiday season? On the bottom of the front label, there will be a tiny number preceded by two letters. NM (Négociant-Manipulant) signals a larger house that purchases many of their grapes, whereas RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) tells you that the winemaker grew the grapes. According to Terry Theise, one of the leading importers of grower Champagnes, there are now nearly 180 RM Champagnes imported into the U.S, up from 33 in 1997. Grower Champagnes occupy only 2.95% of the market, presenting a great opportunity to try something new.
Champagne is one of the elegant extras in life.
– Charles Dickens
Whether you try a grower Champagne or opt for a larger house, you should understand the different types of Champagne available. A Champagne label includes a large amount of information about the wine, starting with vintage (or lack thereof).
Champagne is divided into vintage and non-vintage (NV) wine. NV Champagnes are the most common and often include grapes from 3 or more harvests. Every so often, a vintage is so remarkable that the winemaker will declare it a vintage year. Remember that while one House may declare a vintage, another may not. Vintage and NV wines are at the discretion of the winemaker.
Champagne also comes in several different styles that you’ll see on the label. Blanc de blancs means that the wine was produced from all white grapes. In Champagne, this means the wine is 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de noirs means the Champagne is produced from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. You should also pay attention to the sweetness levels, denoted by French terms on the label. Extra Brut is usually very dry champagne, whereas Brut is dry, but may still be a bit rich on the finish. Extra-Sec and Sec are usually medium dry wines and Demi-Sec is usually the sweetest style you’ll find on the market.
Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it.
– Napoleon Bonaparte
In his 2008 Champagne catalogue, Theise relates a story of comforting a grieving friend with a bottle of Champagne. “What other wine can be at once appropriate for both celebration and consolation? The very sight of the tiny rising bubbles, dancing upward as if to snub their noses at gravity and exploding in a soft wash of foam, are heralds of unquenchable hope.”
And while Champagne has built a reputation as the bubbly of celebration, the bubbly has also earned a place at the table for many wine lovers. In our own home, we have thrown a breakfast party, pairing a simple quiche with our favorite farmer fizz. Natalie Maclean, who publishes an award-winning wine newsletter at www.nataliemaclean.com, believes that “Grower Champagnes have a depth and richness that is especially versatile with food. I pair them with everything from potato chips to Thai dishes. But they work with so many dishes: seared tuna, spinach quiche, pasta in cream sauce and even fried chicken.”
Ryan Leitner, of Northern Kentucky’s Cork-n-Bottle, takes Champagne pairing a bit further. “Pinot Noir-based Champagnes will show more richness,” he says, “and will pair with meats and a smorgasbord of cheeses. Blanc de blancs are often enjoyable on their own. Keep your pairings light, such as a simple bistro salad with lobster claw.”
Whether you’re having potato chips or pasta, Champagne might just be the perfect match.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Taste magazine in 2008, and republished last Nov 30 in Palate Press. I re-published it here because I figure the information is at times local, timeless, and useful. Cheers!
Image from Flickr user TinyTall via Creative Commons license
So you have a hot date? Congratulations! There are many aspects of a first date that can be stressful, so today I am going to try to help you check one thing off the list: what to drink.
Beer is a great option for several reasons. First, it usually takes longer to become intoxicated. No one wants to get sloppy on a first date, and beer will let you loosen up without becoming completely untied. Also, you can pair your beer with your food, making your meal more enjoyable and possibly scoring some Food Network points. The last reason why beer is a good choice is that it you can make it last a long time. You drink at your own pace, casually sipping if the night is going well or guzzling if the date is not going so well. If love is a battlefield, then beer is a versatile ally.
Local beers are a solid choice because it shows that you did a little research and want to literally drink in your current surroundings. A good choice in Cincinnati would be a Christian Moerlein OTR Ale. In Louisville, Falls City is an excellent beer if you can get it and the Bluegrass Brewing Company should offer a beer that you can enjoy as well.
Seasonal beers are a way of showing that you are hip and current. A Christmas beer will let your date know that you are not a Grinch. This also varies by location, but if you do a little reconnaissance work, most restaurants have their drink list on their website. If you are going to a place without a website, your date probably won’t care what you are drinking anyway. Most places will have something seasonal on tap. Check ahead or ask your server.
What Not To Order
The only ‘rule’ that I can give you is to get something you know you like. So if you like lager-style beers, it would not be advised to order the double I.P.A. As impressed as you think your date will be, the ‘choking-down-this-beer-that-I-hate’ face is not attractive. A first date is no time to get experimental with your beer palate. Stick to what you know.
In the event that your first date destination has a beer special, I would avoid it. Most of the time, it is Bud/Miller/Coors, and what does getting the special really say about you? I am cheap and enjoy cheap beer.
Some restaurants have gigantic beers as an option (i.e., Hofbrauhaus 1-liter mugs). Shy away from this option for three reasons. Strike one, your date may think you are an alcoholic. Strike two, you are on this date to interact and socialize, not to drink. And strike three, assuming you are as charming as I imagine you are, your beer will get warm as you converse with your guest. The “Big-Ass-Beer” is out.
First dates are a time for high nerves and small talk. By putting some thought into your drink selection, if the conversation runs dry you now have something to talk about, your beer! Good luck.
Cheers to your good health!
Can’t figure out what to buy for the Cincinnati-based wine lover in your life? How about tickets to the Cincinnati International Wine Festival.
Held next year on March 10-12, tickets are already on sale.
It’s also the 21st birthday of the wine festival – for a festival dedicated to alcohol, there is a bit of humor in that.
Visit www.winefestival.com and get tickets to winery dinners (special winemaker guests are still TBD), Grand Tastings, the charity auction & luncheon, and hotel packages.
Additionally, the Wine Festival has announced that this year’s honorary chairperson is Justin Baldwin of JUSTIN Winery in Paso Robles.
Using the random number generator at Random.org, the winner is …
Commenter #6: Kelly!
Kelly, I will be in touch ASAP … congratulations! You’re now the proud owner of a DVD copy of Blood Into Wine and a book of entertaining wine-related essays.
I have one more copy of the movie to giveaway, but I’m hanging on to it until mid-January. I’ll give it away on my birthday. Additionally, I should have a coffee/tea related giveaway coming before Christmas if the PR Rep gets me the prize in time.
Cumberland Brews is a great watering hole in Louisville, Ky. It’s a mix of brewery, hipsters, and featured quesadillas. And every Monday, they will fill your growler for $5. Yes, $5 for a growler refill.
Not every draft is available with the deal, but their staple brews (Nitro Porter, Cream Ale, Red Ale, and Pale Ale) are there every week along with a seasonal or two. Recently I snagged a jug of the Brown’s Brown Ale.
Brown’s Brown is a nut brown ale (i.e., Newcastle), which is one of my favorite styles of beer. It has a very dark brown color and a coffee colored head. A nut aroma is expected along with some mild caramel notes. A great aspect of this particular beer is the smooth mouth-feel. I am not sure if it qualifies as a session beer, but beware that you can consume pints quickly. The balance of the beer flavor and the nut flavor is well done. You know that you are drinking a beer. There is a great hazelnut flavor that carries throughout the drink and through the aftertaste. It is slightly less sweet than a New Castle, but they are in the business of beer not candy.
If you are in the neighborhood, I would highly recommend dropping in and grabbing a brew from Cumby’s. The Brown’s Brown is a solid choice for all you New Castle fans out there, or for anyone trying to impress their friends and upgrade from Bud Light. If you miss their Brown’s Brown, they also have a Simcoe IPA and a Special Bitter (the latter is eligible for a growler refill).
1576 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Cheers to your good health!
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