A bluffers' guide to French fizz for the festive season
Champagne, despite all the ritz, has had its detractors over the years. Hawkeye from the classic television series M*A*S*H for one exclaimed “I'll stick with gin – champagne is just ginger ale that knows somebody.”
For many this still rings true, but in my view there is simply no better celebratory beverage around. The imbibing of champagne is used to mark momentous or not so momentous occasions alike and enjoying its bubbly pleasure is an event in itself. It makes you feel singular and distinctive - like you belong to some exclusive club.
But the trouble with fancy French bubbles is, as with any clique, there's a certain set of jargon that needs to be decoded for you to truly belong. So here's a bit of a bluffers' guide to champagne to have you speaking the lingo ahead of the festive season:
NV simply stands for Non Vintage. Unlike the majority of still wines, your average bottle of champagne contains wines from various vintages blended together. The chef de cave (winemaker) has the important job of blending the still wines together (before undergoing further fermentation in the bottle to get its fizz) to maintain a consistent house style. Vintage champagne – those with a year boldly emblazoned on the label – is only made in exceptional years so expect to pay a premium for it.
Sur lie, rather than the attitude of the insouciant waiter serving you, literally means 'on lees'. It refers to the amount of time that a wine spends in contact with the dead yeast cells (lees) after fermentation. Why should you give a damn? Time on lees adds a wonderful biscuity, brioche and nutty complexity to a wine. Champagne, by law, must spend a minimum 18 months on lees.
Like the name might suggest, dosage refers to a dose added to a bottle of champagne after secondary fermentation. The dosage (a sugar syrup sometimes including a little brandy) makes up for any lost volume in the bottle after the lees have been removed after aging. The dosage determines the final sweetness/dryness of the finished product. The majority of champagne in the Australian market is Brut – a dry style of sparkling wine containing no more than 15 grams of sugar/litre. Extra Brut is drier and Brut Nature or Zero Dosage is drier still. Occasionally you'll come across a Demi-Sec, Sec and Doux – they're off-dry styles and good examples will still display a vibrant acidity making for a refreshing post-prandial tipple.
Common Champagne myths (and tips)
Wine historian and writer, Edward Washington is a champagne enthusiast who likes to dispel some common misconceptions about this famous beverage.
“There's the belief that some brands are 'less sophisticated' that others,” says Washington. “All champagne adheres to rigorous laws of production – thus it is all of the utmost quality. It's simply that champagne firms make a range of wines at different price points to allow more people into what I call 'the champagne circle'.”
It's also not very well publicised that Champagne (the region) doesn't solely produce sparkling wine. “Small amounts of still wines are produced in the sub-region of Bouzy,” explains Washington, “although usually you'll have to go there yourself to find it.”
Washington has some advice for champagne buyers: “Work out your budget and hunt around for good offers like 'two for one' etc – retailers will be offering good deals over the Christmas period. And if you're after something interesting, try; Blanc de Blanc (made solely from Chardonnay grapes) or Blanc de Noir (made only from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).”
Champagne was born out of economic hardship in the 18th century, and through ingenuity and courage has risen to be the most powerful wine brand in the world. “For a region that has been plundered throughout history – most notably the First World War which laid it to waste – its successes are worth celebrating with a bottle of their finest,” concludes Washington.
Working behind the stick for over a decade, Simon McGoram, knows his way around jigger, beaker and flask.