Add a little sparkle to your summer
PUBLISHED: 15:59 07 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:18 20 February 2013
You can't beat a beautifully chilled, delicious glass of Champagne for perfect summer drinking, says our bubbly afficionado Henry Speer
You cant beat a beautifully-chilled, delicious glass of Champagne for perfect summer drinking, says our bubbly afficionado Henry Speer
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim the poet Keats reminds us of summer sunlight sparkling on the fine mousse of a cool enticing glass of Champagne.
Any time is good to drink the bubbly nectar, but surely it is at its most wonderful when the light-wingd Dryad of the trees singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Fantastic stuff Champagne. Its got everything a golden hue, the beaded bubbles and a feeling of celebration and luxury that surpasses all other wine.
Theres the special ceremony of opening the bottle the pop and the little wisp of smoke that wafts out of the bottle; and the sight and sound of pleasures to come as the first fabulous flow fizzes into the flute; and for the wine enthusiast the nose as he or she savours the toasty aromas of fruit, or maybe herbs or new-baked bread; and then the first sip when subtle and complex flavours overwhelm the palate anything from honey, apple, lemon, caramel, nuts and sherbert to spices and yeasts, for all good Champagnes can display a range of qualities, but above all they must be finely balanced with a crisp touch. When it has been opened for 10 or 15 minutes, these flavours will intensify as it develops character flavour and depth
In all, a truly sensuous wine.
And at a more basic level, more than any other wine, Champagne reaches the parts that other wines do not reach, or at least gets there sooner. This is scientifically recognised; the bubbles release the alcohol into the bloodstream more quickly, so sensations of good cheer are not far behind. Better still, the lightness and purity of good Champagne will prevent these sensations evaporating into less happy feelings later on.
Much of the magic is in the bubbles themselves; coarser fizzy drinks, beers and ciders, have carbon dioxide pumped into them by an industrial process; but with champagne the bubbles come from the more subtle and natural process of secondary fermentation in the bottle.
When the raw young wine is bottled, a little sugar and yeast are added, and the bottle is capped off and rested for a couple of years or more. During this time the sugar and yeast ferment; but because the bottle is sealed, the gases created during this second fermentation are trapped in the bottle. Later the yeasty deposits are quickly removed after they have added some of their flavour to the character of the wine, and the bottle is sealed before the bubbles can escape.
There is a huge amount of pressure in a bottle of Champagne, three times more than in a car tyre, so strong, thick bottles are needed, and the cork has to be held in place by the distinctive wire casing that we are so familiar with. When it is finally released there is the pop and the wisp of smoke and all those wonderful bubbles.
Most sparkling wines cannot be called champagne. To qualify for the name, the wine must come from the Champagne region of France, about 100 miles east of Paris, centred round the towns of Reims and Epernay. Champagne must only be made in permitted vineyards in this region, and only three grape varieties can be used; pinot noir, pinot meunier (both red grapes although they make white wine), and chardonnay.
Sparkling white wines from other places cannot be Champagne, even if made by the methode champenois from suitable grape varieties. Other sparkling white wine may be made from other grape varieties, and have its secondary fermentation in tanks. It is seldom as good, partly because the special soil and climate of the Champagne region, and some of the more specialist aspects of production, help give Champagne a character and quality difficult to replicate elsewhere.
So with summer upon us, what Champagne should we be drinking?
For parties, weddings and regular summer drinking, good dry non vintage Champagne will be entirely suitable at prices from about 17 to 35.
There are big name luxury brand Champagnes. Often these brands make small quantities of high quality vintage Champagnes and rely on the reputation of these to market high production champagne, which is often released too young (to improve cashflow) at prices which are not very good value. These are often much improved if stored in a cool place for a couple of years before drinking. Some big names such as Pol Roger, Roederer, Bollinger Taittinger and even Joseph Perrier are less heavily marketed and are good value and Krug is wonderful, though pretty pricy.
Vintage Champagnes are made with particular care from the grapes of a single year, and are generally very special, and suitably more expensive. Great years are 1996 and 1998. Another good year is 1999, but drink it younger, and 2000 is less brilliant. Recent vintages will need some room for improvement 2002 and 2004 will be good, but avoid 2001 and be careful of 2005.
Top of the range are the prestige brands Cristal (P Diddys favourite!), Dom Perignon and others, which seldom cost less than 100 per bottle but are often wonderful.
At the other end of the spectrum, avoid many of the supermarket special offers for under 15. These are often inferior Champagnes, briefly displayed on the shelves at inflated prices, before becoming half price bargains. This is not true of some of the supermarket own brand Champagnes, which are often reasonable quality and value.
Lastly, and close to my heart, are the Champagnes of the 4,000-plus small producers usually well made but lacking the marketing clout of the big names. They are mostly non vintage and very good value within the 18-25 price range and are obtainable from independent merchants.
My suggestion? Enjoy Champagne this summer; look around and try as many as you can around 20 a bottle and see what you like. Remember, Champagne is not only for special occasions, its great for cheering you up whenever a flute or two takes your fancy, whether its sunny or grey, and you can drink Champagne twice as often if you buy half bottles!