Tasting French Champagne: A Transcendent Experience
By Richard Frisbie
When touring the Champagne region north of Paris recently, many of the best establishments I frequented offered me champagne. Imagine if Heaven followed this tradition, you can be sure St. Peter would greet new arrivals with a glass of Taittinger champagne!
There are two cellars for the prestigious firm of Taittinger, one in the center of Reims, that I visited, and one in the countryside near Epernay. They have 19 million bottles in production, meaning in various stages of being readied for market.
Champagne is unusual among fine wines in that it is always ready to drink when it is purchased. So when a bottle of Taittinger is sold it is already aged two to ten years. Depending on the vintage, it can be cellared for decades longer.
The chalk (limestone) found throughout the region is a critical element in the terroir of champagne. Some of the abandoned chalk quarries located here date back to the 4th century. When they no longer supplied the building blocks of the cities, they began use as wine “caves”.
As an historical aside, during the world wars the chalk soil is credited with absorbing more of the impact from shells than other soil would. In effect, the soil that helped the French survive the explosive barrages of war is also what helps make French sparkling wine world famous as Champagne.
As part of the regulations involved in the designation of the Champagne District, no mechanization is allowed in the arbors, and no irrigation of the vines is permitted. It takes 700 people two to three weeks to complete the Taittinger harvest.
With 642 acres of vines under cultivation, Taittinger relies on nature, both for the weather and the chalky soil, to produce enough grapes for five million bottles of Champagne a year. And still there is a shortage of good champagne!
Origins of Champagne and Dom Perignon
The original wine made in the Champagne region of France was a still wine. The origin of champagne with bubbles is murky.
It is presumed that because of the fluctuating storage temperatures and the nature of yeast, some of the still wines were eventually converted into sparkling wines on their own. Subsequent tinkering and careful trial and error led to the process in use today.
Dom Perignon, who was the cellarmaster at the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvillers in the late 1600s, is credited with creating the first champagne. Actually the process of making sparkling wine had been around a long time before he came on the scene. But, it was he who had the idea to use cork as a stopper for the wine they called champagne, instead of the wooden stoppers previously used.
He also perfected the riddling process and the second fermentation. That, and the use of stronger glass bottles to contain the bubbly, are the signature of the Benedictine Abby’s wine – the first modern champagne.
Today, Dom Perignon Champagne is recognized for such high quality that it is a valuable long term investment for the world’s most distinguished champagne collectors. It is the most expensive champagne in the world, with a recent auction of two bottles of the “rarer than rare” 1959 vintage of Dom Perignon Rose bringing a record $84,700!
According to Richard Geoffroy, Dom Perignon Chef de Cave: “Dom Perignon Rose Vintage 1959 is a rare, superlative, mythical vintage. Powerful and solar, its light will inspire the creation of Dom Perignon Rose forever.” Wow! I wish I could have tasted one of those.
Turning Wine Into Champagne
The process of champagne making goes like this. When the still champagne is bottled, a bit of yeast and sugar is added for a secondary fermentation which takes place in the bottle. It contributes the bubbles, and, depending on the amount added, determines the “dryness.”
It also creates a sediment that has to be removed from the bottle. After a fermentation period, bottles are stored neck down in the chalk caves on a 45 degree to a 60 degree angle in a hinged, wooden A-Frame rack called a “pupitre”.
Workers turn each bottle every four or five weeks in a process called “riddling,” until the sediment is consolidated in the mouth of the bottle. A good turner will rotate 8000 bottles one quarter turn every hour.
Once the sediment is consolidated in the neck of the bottle, it is frozen and removed in a process called “disgorging.” At this point the bottles are stored for up to ten years. While much of the process described above is now automated, the finest of champagnes still use manual labor for the riddling.
Understanding the Terminology
Besides “pupitre” and “riddling,” there are a few other terms used with Champagne that are important to know. These describe the taste.
First, you have to understand that the word “dry” refers to the level of sweetness. “Extra Dry” therefore means extra sweet. “Brut” means the driest, or least sweet Champagne. It is the most popular style.
Typically, champagne makers save their best grapes for this category. In terms of the grapes used, “Blanc de blanc” refers to champagne made from only white grapes, usually Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. “Blanc de noir” describes the use of dark-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. “Cuvée” identifies Champagne made from the first pressing of the best grapes.
I learned much of this on a tour of the Taittinger chalk cellars in Reims. Then I strolled through the showroom to see the amazing artwork the Taittinger family collected while they’ve been making one of the world’s best champagnes.
There is even a series of limited edition artist commissioned bottles for special vintages called the Taittinger Collection. Robert Rauschenberg is just the latest artist so honored. His collage-style artwork decorates a Champagne Taittinger Brut 2000, which sells for $300.
The highlight of the tour is the tasting. Mr. Taittinger opened a $180 bottle of 1998 Comtes de Champagne for my visit.
Taittinger’s literature describes the taste this way: “The nose is intensely fine and ethereal, reminiscent of mineral aromas and the delicate fragrance of white blossom, with overtones of fresh almonds, vanilla and a subtle hint of pine forests. The first impression on the palate is of extreme freshness, with dominant flavours of citrus fruits, lemon zest and grapefruit and a lightly acidulous, beautifully balanced finish.”
It was such exquisite perfection in a simple Baccarat crystal glass that for a moment I thought I’d died and it was St. Peter serving me! Such rare moments are meant to be savored.
Knowing that I might never taste any better champagne, I inhaled the lemony bouquet, slowly rolled the champagne over my tongue, and swallowed the effervescent miracle that is Taittinger’s finest. It was stingingly fresh on the tongue with citrus overtones and a long smooth finish.
I felt like Dom Perignon when he first tasted champagne and exclaimed, “I see stars!”
Best Western Hôtel de la Paix (Reims)
Rate: 140 Euros and up, Breakfast 13 Euros
Richard Frisbie has been writing culinary travel articles for more than five years as a columnist for his local newspapers, and as a regular contributor to many Hudson Valley, Catskill Mountain and other regional New York publications. His most recent addition to that list is a wine column called “Fruit of the Vine” for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine. Online, he writes frequent articles for EDGE publications and TravelLady.com, as well as Gather.com