Drinking Stars: Dom Pérignon and Champagne’s Every Day Pleasures

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”

That’s what French Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon reportedly said when he tasted the first sparkling wine he made in Champagne, France, commonly known now as simply “Champagne.” (Sparkling wine made elsewhere is NOT Champagne BTW!)

However, according to Wikipedia, this quote first appeared as part of an advertising campaign in the late 19th century!

Regardless of the truth of the source of this quote, drinking Champagne is like drinking stars — there’s no denying how delightful the experience is of drinking real, quality bubbles  from Champagne.

Even if Dom Pérignon spent most of his career trying to get the bubbles OUT of Champagne!

The third Friday of the month of October is Champagne Day, and I’ve made a point of celebrating it every year in one way or another: Champagne Day 2011  and Champagne Day 2012 and Champagne Day 2013  and Champagne Day 2014 and Champagne Day 2015  and Champagne Day 2016 when I shared these fun facts.

This year, here’s a brief primer about Champagne and a history of Dom Pérignon, the granddaddy of them all, plus some notes on a few prestige cuvees I had the opportunity to taste as well as two that are a bit more down to earth and easy to find wines: Veuve Clique and Jacques Bardelot – Brut which we paired with appetizers including the French triple cream brie cheese St Angel, oysters, and caviar as well as a meal of caesar salad, pesto pasta, and chicken.

And what, if anything, have all the fires, floods, and hurricanes taught us? That our special occasion is now. Don’t wait.

If someone gives you a bottle of champagne, don’t keep it in the cellar, the closet or on or in the refridgerator for the next five years. Drink it! And what better day than today?

A bit of Champagne’s history

Vineyards first appeared in France between the first and the fourth centuries. The Romans planted vineyards EVERYWHERE in the France, because they weren’t exactly sure where the grape vines would succeed and they required wine for their troops for sustenance — and for inspiration: they needed enough wine to provide a buzz to eliminate fear and provide courage.

As the Roman Empire declined,  “Barbarians” overran Champagne, and the vineyards were abandoned because they preferred beer and mead.

But in 987, Reims coronated the king; the wine used from Champagne became associated with royalty.

The Dom Perigean Champagne brand dates back over 400 years, and today Champagne is one of the most iconic, significant, and important wine productions on Earth.

And it’s true: Dom Pérignon indeed spent half his life trying to ge the bubbles out of the wine. And after twenty years, he decided that God must want these bubbles in the wine so he switched his perspective. You could even go so far as to say that he switched from seeing the glass half empty to a glass half full of bubbles!

After Dom Pérignon gave in to the inevitable, he spent the next 27 years perfecting what we now call the method champenous –or the classical method — and he wrote a treatise about the region’s viticulture in 1694.

The Champagne Region

Champagne is located in the northern part of France, at between 49 and 49.5 degrees, right at the edge of where wine grapes can be grown– but global warming may change that!  With less sunlight, wines tend to be very harsh and acidic.

In fact, the average hours of sunlight per year in Champagne only 1650 while Bordeaux it’s 2069 hours and in Burgundy it’s 1910. Spring frosts like the one in 2017  are very common and can burn the buds requiring the use of smudge pots just like they had around southern California o protect the citrus orchards.

The continental climate’s very cold winters can stop fermentation of the wine so when they bottled it in spring, often the yeast would wake up with the warmer temperatures. The hungry yeast would devour any remaining sugar causing bubbles in the bottles that would at times cause explosion that led the monks to suspect the devil was at work.  Dom Perginon even brought in exorcists but he had no luck in getting the devil out of those bottles!

Champagne and the Sea

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it bearing within him the image of a cathedral  — The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Or a vineyard… Or a winery…

In ancient times, the area of Champagne was underwater. The former seabed is “chockfull” of fossilized sea creatures that have turned into a chalky terrain that contributes aromatics and minerality to make the wines unique. The chalky soil also acts like water retainer and regulator: the soil soaks up the water but only releases it if the plant sucks it out which creates a hydro and thermal regulator. Rain and other water sources dilutes the minerals brought into the grapes via this capillary action, but they show up in the wine as notes of chalk, oyster, shellfish, and brine.

Diego Meraviglia led the seminar about Dom Pérignon and helped pour while we learned and tasted wine from Krug and Ruinart. I’ve attended several seminars that he has led and I learn so much every time! Not to mention the opportunity to taste some amazing wines.

The Grapes in Champagne

Up until the 20th C, it was common to find a mix of grapes including chardonnay, pinot blanc and some obscure varietals rarely seen today. These days, Pinot Noir offers structure, acidity, and age ability while Chardonnay brings fruit, softness,  and aromatics.  Pinot Meunier is used as an “insurance policy” because it performs regardless of the weather.

Dom Pérignon

As Dom Pérignon has been making Champagne for over 400 years, they have many of the best sites; they hand select each berry and don’t use Pinot Meunier. Some years like in 2007, they don’t even make a wine, selling their grapes to  Moet Chandon.

All prestige cuvees come out of the historic wineries: they were there first and acquired the best land.

So it was Dom Pérignon who was the one who saw that “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it bearing within him the image of a cathedral” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) 

Dom Pérignon was the one said he was setting out to make the best wine in the world. Because of his dedication to excellence and his desire and discipline to achieve his goal, in 1668  Dom Pérignon was appointed curator of the cellar.

By 1694, Dom Pérignon wrote his treatise about viticulture– about how he was able to turn a wine that tended to be sour and harsh into a gem:

  • by hand selecting only the best berries,
  • by innovative vineyard practices,
  • by being more intentional with which grape varietals went into the wine, and
  • by blending vintages to get a more consistent product.

Some of his wine got to the King who maybe was the one who said he was drinking stars…

Dom Pérignon also came up with the idea of pricing differently to reflect higher quality, and the wine was marketed with a picture of Marie Antoinette getting rpesented with a bottle of Champagne. It soon became favorite wine and associated with royalty.

Dom Pérignon is ALWAYS a vintage champagne

According to Dom Pérignon, Champagne is a reflection of God’s creation. Every year requires reflection to bear witness to that year — but also to an aesthetic.

Every year there is a process of creation but that process comes with a constraint: the wine is dictated by the vintage’s weather and whether what happned that year was good or bad. This is a risky proposition and requires a real commitment to express the vintage and the terroir of each year no matter what BUT only to do a vintage that’s exceptional. This offers tasters vintage variations in a vertical. This requires the luxury of time and the discipline of patience: will it be nine years? 16 years? or 25 years aging on the yeast? who can affird to do that? But that time rounds and smooths and deepens the wine, making it extraordinary, and a wine that requires a very low dosage of sugar because the time rounds out the edges and reflects the monks’ discipline to keeping the wine as close a reflection of God’s creation as possible. In keeping with this philosophy, the wine is not exposed to oak.

In the process of bearing witness to the vintage, the wine must reach an aesthetic ideal that includes:

  • Harmony
  • Ability to select grapes from 17 grand crus (all; 14% of the area is grand cru in historic subzones)
  • each cluster observed and sorted
  • gather crus to make base wine, blend together, bottle, 2nd fermentation
  • DP is usually around 50/50 PN for power and chardonnay  for elegance
  • Only one assemblage made
  • Must reflect minerality: earth and sea
  • Intensity from focus and precision — harmony
  • DP ages in leaps with “dumb” or dormant phases : P1 9, P2 16, P3 25 years
  • Aged on yeast lees which protect the wine from oxidation (and death); interacts
  • First released, then riddled and disgorged, ages on cork for one year then released

Dom Pérignon P1

Minerality—seawater and earth:  iodine, briny, toasty
Tactile – soft bubble, pinheads, creamy not gassy, fine grained and silky, even creamy
Complexity– maturity on the lees, reveals new facets over time; licorice root

Dom Pérignon P2

When harmony is achieved, Dom Pérignon releases P1 which is 20% of the bottles then are placed so the lees land on the cork and they rest 16 years total on the dissolving yeasts. On the palate this brought a licorice candy – more like a pastille. It offers a similar profile to the P1 but with MORE of everything– and so much lively, intense, energy. Next P2 vintage will be the 2000.

Dom Pérignon Rose 2004

This is the vintage on the market. It is swoon worthy. It is fleshy like a red wine, yet ethereal. The color is a delicate seashell pink.

These wines are all very special, very rare, and very expensive. The ones in the photo below are less so — all clocking in from $20-$80 — but wonderful all the same!

There is a quality bottle of Champagne out there at EVERY price point — and while we adore it with oysters and caviar, it also pairs well with a wide range of food choices. This is a wine that you can pair with food for the entire meal. Consider a rose with a pink or even a red meat!

GLASSES

Before we get any further, a reminder that Champagne is a wine that should be served in regular white wine glasses and rose should be in burgundy glasses. We actually really like Champagne in sauvignon blanc glasses!

The bottom line is to treat a prestige cuvee Champagne like a top tier Burgundy or Bordeaux: these wines are just as serious — and as pricey.

Jacques Bardelot – Brut – 12% alcohol SRP $20 at Whole Foods

Color – Very pretty – pale gold, with underlying rose tones,

Clarity – brilliant

Bubbles – fine, slow (seafoam on the sides of the glass)

Aromas – brioche, toast, citrus blossom, vanilla and nutmeg

Taste – Almond, apricot kernel, almond paste, very fresh  and vibrant, bit of cut grass on the finish.

Finish – delicate

It does not have a lot of minerals or stoney qualities to it. Drink this chilled, ice bucket recommended  – nice flavor for the price. This wine stood up to the Clicquot in many ways. The nose was much more enjoyable!

Thank you to Made in France and Whole Foods for the sample of Jacques Bardelot – Brut.

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin – Brut – 12% alcohol SRP $40

So like I said at the beginning of this post: If someone gives you a bottle of champagne, don’t keep it in the cellar, the closet or above or in the refrigerator for the next five years.

What have all the fires, floods, and hurricanes taught us?

That our special occasion is now. Don’t wait.

SO DRINK IT! NOW!

This wine was a birthday gift that got buried in the cellar waiting for the right occasion — or when that friend visited from back east and it was chilled. Even with a bit of age, this is truly a lovely, complex wine that is ready for anything.

This wine went beautifully with our caviar: it was a wow factor pairing. And remember, if you buy a jar of  caviar off the shelf, put it in the fridge to chill so it is the same temperature as your champagne.

Color – yellow gold

clarity – Brilliant

Bubbles – plentiful, lively (lasting)

Aromas – butter, vanilla, (caramel)

Taste – bubbles are vivacious on the palate

Finish – complex

At first, I was not very impressed with this wine, but after adding the food (caviar) I realized how you might become addicted to this combination.

It was good with the oyster but Sue liked it much better with the caviar. They are different and I love them both!

Caviar and Champagne are a perfect appetizer.

The finish on this wine when you have it with a bit of St. Angel, and Peach & Lavender jam  because of the herbal, peachy quality in the wine is superb and made us decide that this would be a perfect ending or dessert course. Open up a bottle of wine, pair it with some triple cream brie or marscapone on top a cracker with a bit of the Peach & Lavender jam on the top. Mega yum factor. I got this preserve at the International Food Blogger Conference in Sacramento in September but it is available at Whole Foods which is also supporting this small start-up with a grant as you can see from the check in the tweet below.

Sweet foods rarely work with wine. What makes this jam from Maison de Monaco works so well is that it really is low on sugar which allows the fruit to shine through.

A fan of the bubbly? Break out a bottle, pop the cork and let the bubbles fly! Share your Champagne of choice on social media using the hashtag #ChampagneDay.

Save the date: Sparkling Wine Event at the Ventura Cave December 10 from 2-4pm.

This tasting features only Champagne and sparkling wines, ranging from everyday affordable Cava and Prosecco options to Premier Cru and Vintage Champages. Cost is $60 per person. Tickets are very limited to the event and can only be purchased in store at The Cave 4435 McGrath Street STE 301 Ventura, CA 93003 or by calling the store (805) 642-9449.

Executive Chef Alex Montoya will prepare the perfect appetizer pairings to enhance the tasting experience. Guests will enjoy the sounds of the Tom Collins Jazz band and take advantage of special bubbly promotions offered on select retail purchases. For optimal enjoyment, dress to impress for this event.

**All ticket sales are final, and entry is limited to adults only 21+ years old.

And stay tuned: we have more Champagne coverage to come in December so please subscribe! Wines include Champagne Bruno Paillard Extra Brut Première Cuvée (SRP $50).

And now —

Let there be bubbles!

 

PS For more French wine and food pairings, but about the newly named region Occitanie (formerly Languedoc/Roussillon) subscribe or check back tomorrow when the #Winophiles group explores the area and shares food and wine pairings!

 

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