Over-estimates of the amount of champagne that would be drunk on Millennium night has meant that there are bargain bubblies available - so why not encourage customers to make it a regular tipple?
Hopefully, regular readers of Your Business know by now that we aim to cut through much of the mystique which surrounds wine. Champagne is one of the worst offenders in this respect, but there are a few things you can do to make sure it is enjoyed at its best.
Champagne prices are still at reasonably low levels thanks to producers' wild over-estimation - by about 40 million bottles - of the amount we would all knock back on Millennium night. There are still plenty of bargain bubblies out there, provided you shop around.
Properly promoted and served, champagne can be a regular part of your customers' drinking repertoire, instead of only being reserved for special occasions.
Like all white wines, if champagne is served ice cold it loses some of its flavour and aroma. Most pub champagnes will be perfect at about 8ºC, while if you are serving vintage champagne it should be around 10ºC. The main difference is that vintage champagne loses some of its sparkle, making it possible to enjoy some of the wine's subtler flavours. Whichever you are serving, plan ahead to avoid the temptation to put it in the freezer to chill quickly.
Champagne can be stored and served straight from the fridge. It should be laid on its side, and will take three to four hours to reach the correct temperature - but it will not be harmed if kept in the fridge considerably longer.
If you are chilling champagne from cellar temperature, an ice bucket is the recommended method - and will also create a touch of atmosphere for customers. A bottle plunged into a mixture of water and ice should reach the right temperature in 15 to 20 minutes.
Uncorking the bottle
The main reason for opening a champagne bottle "properly" is to avoid the cork shooting across the room and injuring customers. Undo and remove the wire cage and, rather than twisting the cork, hold the cork and twist the bottle - the cork should come quite easily.
A young champagne should "pop" as the gas escapes, while a vintage champagne will give a much less dramatic hiss. Over the years, the bubbles gradually become smaller - something you need to be aware of if a customer complains his expensive vintage champagne is flat.
Champagne is normally served in either a tall flute, or a bowl-shaped tulip glass - which according to legend was modelled on Queen Marie-Antionette's breast.
Both shapes are better than a standard wine glass for preserving the fizz, and allowing the bubbles to form and rise to the surface.
As a note of caution, the residue of strong glasswasher detergent on the side of glass can prevent the formation of bubbles - a rinse in clean, warm water after the main wash will prevent problems.
There is a popular legend that a silver spoon placed in the neck of an open champagne bottle will preserve the fizz. Feel free to try, but you may get more reliable results with a commercial champagne stopper.
History of champagne
There have been vineyards in the Champagne region of France for almost as long as there have been people, with the roots of wine-making stretching back into prehistory.
The early recorded history of champagne is tied in with the Church. Saint Rémi, bishop of Rheims, anointed the first King of France with wine from the Champagne region.
Over the centuries, monks of the region developed the art of viticulture, and by the 12th century Champagne had become associated with a still, crisp, light white wine suitable for celebrations.
In the 17th century, Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk was in charge of the vineyards at the monastery of Hautvillers. One summer, there had not been enough sunshine to for the grapes used to produce Dom Perignon's blanc de blancs, a dry fruity white wine which had become the monastery's main source of income.
Dom Perignon set about to make the same quality white wine from black grapes. The result was a very pure white wine with a longer cellar life.
Another peculiar characteristic of this wine was that it sometimes underwent a secondary fermentation. This worked on any sugar present in the wine to make it effervescent, or bubbly.
Dom Perignon sought to control this secondary fermentation and keep the effervescence in the wine. It took some years of trial and error, but in the late 1690s, at the age of 60, he succeeded in producing champagne as we know it today.
Moët & Chandon, which bought the vineyards of Hautvillers in 1794, uses the name of the creator of champagne, Dom Perignon, for their best-known wine.
How's it done?
With a certain amount of refinement, Dom Perignon's method is still used today. Without getting too technical, a small amount of sugar is added to the wine in the cask to start the second fermentation. The wine is bottled rather than kept in barrels, on order to prevent the gas escaping.
The dryness of the champagne depends on the amount of crystallised sugar added before the bottle is stoppered with the mushroom-shaped champagne cork. There are three basic descriptions:
- brut - 0 to less than 1.5 per cent sugar
- sec - two to four per cent sugar
- doux - eight to 12 per cent sugar.
Categories such as demi-sec and demi-brut are used for in-between varieties. The original fashion was for the very sweet champagne doux. Today, tastes tend to run more to the dry, with champagne brut accounting for 90 per cent of production.
Protecting the brand
Once other wine producing regions began copying the champagne method to produce their own sparkling wines, the producers of the region banded to together to protect their exclusivity.
The Champagne Appellation was defined early in the 20th century, establishing the producers, or crus, which are authorised to make genuine champagne. As well as defining the region, the Appellation sets out rules which are designed to maintain the quality. These include the three grape varieties permitted, the maximum yields, the pruning method, height, spacing, density, and harvesting of vines, and many other arcane regulations.
All attempts to call anything "champagne" which is not produced in the defined region using the specified method have been successfully fought off, often in the courts.
Which is not to say that there aren't some excellent sparkling white wines made using the same method in other parts of the world. Many are high quality, relatively cheap to source, and may be very popular with your customers - but they definitely aren't champagne.
- Thanks to the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne for some historical and serving information - www.champagne.fr