I have never wasted a single penny on champagne, because champagne is never a waste of money.
Champagne is the most perfect drink, but does champagne rival cocktails? If cocktails can be the finest dishes created by the most talented chefs, champagne is their muse. Champagne has a perfect acidity that allows it to pair with any dish or even just with a second, third or fourth glass of champagne.
Was that too froo froo of an intro? Instead, to understand the beauty of Champagne, try to understand the divine glory of ketchup. Yes, ketchup. People wiser than I have called ketchup the best flavor possible. It is engineered to balance salty, sweet, savory, sour and acidic. Ketchup is great because of its flavor balance, and champagne does the same thing – it balances. Champagne also goes great with French fries.
Look, I love champagne, (perhaps you don’t, if not, forget about it, I’ll write the next post in a few days) but let’s face it, understanding champagne is hard. The last place I worked had over 50 champagnes on the menu, 40 of which were Grower Champagne (we’ll come back to explaining that term), and even if you could read French, said menu is nothing more than a list of words. Champagne’s truths often hide in a shroud of perceived status. Champagne also lives in a tall ivory tower, a tower with stairs of made of money; this makes it invulnerable to criticism. Fortunately for you, I am a battering ram of criticism and I know enough French to read a label of champagne.
Here is my guide to understanding Champagne in four steps:
Step 1: A Champagne Primer. Questions on what is really in that bottle.
Step 2: Ordering Champagne. These questions explain when and how to order.
Step 3: Choosing a bottle Champagne. Questions about how to read the label on the bottle and how to get a good value out of Champagne.
Step 4: Opening a Champagne bottle. The dangerous way, the correct way and the awesome way.
Step 1. A Champagne Primer
Q: What is Champagne?
A: Champagne is quite simply sparkling wine from a bit of land called Champagne right in the top middle of France. There are other sparkling wines the world over, some made from the same grapes in the same fashion, some may be as good but I’m not here to give you a bunch of minutia about what might be as good. I’m here to talk about a sure thing.
Q: What is it made from?
A: Champagne is mostly a red wine. Champagne is just a couple of the worlds favorite grapes and another no one has heard of. The housewives’ little helper; Chardonay, the Sideways’ source material: Pinot Noir and this other thing: pinot meunier. Take my word for it that 2 of those 3 are red.
Q: Why does it bubble?
A: Champagne bubbles from a secondary fermentation that occurs inside of the bottle. Think about it the same way that Belgian beer is made. Be sure to keep the Champagne cold for the best longest lasting perlage (bubbly-ness). There is no excuse to not keep champagne cold under any circumstance:
Step 2: Ordering Champagne
Q:When should I order Champagne by the bottle?
A: Whenever there are 6 people or more at the table, begin with a bottle of champagne. Most bars or restaurants will split a bottle of bubbles 6 ways just right. It is the perfect beginning to any meal. And if you ask me, getting 6 friends together is reason to celebrate. The acidity in Champagne allows it to pair with almost any food you’d begin with.
Q: Should I order champagne by the glass?
A: Sometimes. I pretty much never send a cocktail back, I feel like to do so is like telling a 3rd grader they can’t draw a fire engine for shit. You know, they think they did a good job. Wine is different and Champagne doubly so, I send that back a lot. Wine can show up corked or oxidized and a glass Champagne will often show up flat. It is OK to ask if it was opened yesterday. If so ask for your glass to be poured from a new bottle. Avoid ordering Champagneby the glass at the beginning of service or at places you know aren’t moving enough of it.
Also note that there is a great invention called the Perlage System that will keep Champagne fresh for a long period of time.
Step 3.Choosing a Bottle of Champagne
Q: How do I pick out Champagne?
A: Ask someone else. There is a great bit of kindness in asking people questions, doubly so when asking someone who has made it their life goal to be paid for their opinion. Folks at the wine shop fall into this category as do sommeliers. But when you find yourself bereft of these fine folk, you’ll need to read the label on the bottle yourself.
It’s ok, I’ll teach you how to understand this label without having to learn any foreign people’s language or culture. Two huzzahs for ignorance and one for pictures!
Q: WTF? How do I read this bottle?
A: There are a few terms to know and they are more than just preferences. The most important word that means fuck all is, “Brut.” Almost all of the Champagne you’ll ever see is indeed brut and hardly ever will you find a sweet bottle. When you do run across a sweet bottle for dessert it will be labeled, “sec,” or “demi sec.” That is the stuff people say they don’t like but is actually quite good when you pair it right. Two other terms to know are “blanc de noirs” which translates to “black from white” aka white wine made out of red grapes, and “blanc de blanc,” means the opposite, and it is made completely from chardonnay.
Q: Does vintage matter?
A: Yes and no. Almost all Champagne is a blend of vintages but a vintage is named (all of the Champagne from one year) when a good year happens for weather and harvest, so yes a vintage is better. Only about 3 vintages will be named in a decade per brand. But, what you are really paying for is someone else’s opinion and for the rarity of the bottling. Vintage Champagne can cost 50-100% more for subtle differences. So don’t ask me if vintage matters, ask yourself.
Q: How do I get a good value out of Champagne?
A: To find a great value in Champagne wait for it to go on sale at the grocer, go to cheap restaurants…or understand the real secret: order Grower Champagne. There is a tiny pair of letters on each bottle that designates who makes the Champagne. Most of the time the letters stand for a giant corporation making you a bottle of ‘bub to drink in da club. But, a small RM on the bottle stands for “Récoltant-Manipulant” meaning: Grower Champagne. These are Champagnes made by farmers that don’t have to pay advertisers. These wines are unique, taste of the land and no one is paid to sell them so the savings are passed on to you.
Step 4. Opening a Champagne Bottle
Q: How do I open Champagne correctly?
A: First off, what happens if I open it incorrectly? Could someone be harmed? How fast does that cork fly out? The Internet says between 40-100mph, so you could put someone’s eye out. But, does it really hurt? lets watch:
Now that the safety issue is settled, let’s get this bottle opened correctly. There are a bunch of misogynistic sayings about how to open Champagne correctly. When I’m talking to table of people I don’t know I say, “It should sound like a nun farting,” when I want to be a mustache twirling sleeze-ball I say, “It should sound like the sigh of a contented woman.” In case you are immune to subtly, I mean, “POST ORGASM.” Entendre aside do as I say:
Right hand: on the base of the bottle
Left hand: completely remove the top of the foil
Left thumb: cover the cage of the champagne
Right hand: untwist the cage of the champagne, 6 times, it’s always 6 times
Left hand: back on the base of the bottle
Right hand: don’t fucking move
Left hand: gently move back and forth until the cork makes the afore mentioned “sexy sound”
Q: But what if I wanted to be awesome?
A: Then you must learn how to saber Champagne. You can start with a big fucking knife, or get a Champagne saber. Basically all bottles are 3 pieces of glass fused together, two halves that run lengthwise and a bit on the top that is just the mouth of the bottle. That mouth of the bottle is the part that wants to pop off and explode with awesomeness. What you’ll need to accomplish this is a large knife and a very well chilled bottle of Champagne, an instructional list for life. Throw the bottle in an ice bath upside down for about 15 minutes. This will make the glass break easier, and ensure that the champagne is less volatile so there is more for you to drink.
Step 1: find the seem of the bottle
Step 2: place the knife at the bottom of the bottle, blade towards you. The BLUNT side of the knife will be used to hit the champagne bottle’s neck.
Step 3: while yelling, “Je suis Napoleon!” press down on the bottle and sweep a full head chopping off blow. Follow through, be the ball have the flow.
Q: How do I toast?
A: Short sweet and personal, just like my editor. Don’t ramble and don’t be an asshole, thank people for being with you and be happy in their company; the truth and inspiration will come from there. But when in doubt have a spare toast in your back pocket. A classic for Champagne is, “Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends.”