A wine expert’s rules for getting the most bang for your bubbly
By ELIN MCCOY
This is peak Champagne season, when holiday revellers start thinking bubbles and obsessing over buying and drinking fizz. (I do it all year.)
UK-based marketing company Wine Intelligence just released a report that estimates 45 million Americans partake in sparkling wine annually — and some of them drink bubbly only during the holidays. Of course, not all of that is expensive Champagne. But if you’re not going to splash out a little more for effervescence around New Year’s Eve, when will you?
Join the party. Just make sure you’re doing it right.
You’re Fooled by Flash and Familiar Names
Most Champagne is the less expensive non-vintage stuff that blends vintages to achieve a consistent taste and style. That way you’ll know what you’re going to taste when you open a bottle of Roederer or Veuve Cliquot.
But you’ll almost always get more bang for your buck by picking a bottle with a vintage date on it. (Krug Grande Cuvée is one exception.)
That means avoiding the stuff you’re familiar with, like non-vintage bottles of Moët, Ruinart, Taittinger, Bollinger, etc (all make splendid vintage-dated cuvées, by the way).
For vintage Champagnes, grapes must come from a single harvest, the year on the label. They’re made in small quantities, usually only in top years, and are aged longer before release.
As a result, the wines have more distinctive personalities, with deeper and fuller flavours. They cost a lot less than a Champagne house’s flashy prestige cuvée (such as Dom Perignon), but many people actually prefer them.
Top recent vintages: 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012.
Good value bets: 2008 Henriot Brut (US$85 or RM351.90), 2009 Pol Roger Brut (US$78), 2008 Delamotte (US$76).
You’re Buying Just a Couple of Bottles
Buy a case or two. Demand for Champagne skyrockets during holiday season, but at the same time, prices drop sharply.
A few years ago, Fivethirtyeight.com estimated the average price of a bottle was 18% lower at holiday time than during an average week.
The site cited research from two University of Chicago economists that explains why the usual supply-and-demand model doesn’t hold — because seasonal Champagne buyers are also super price-conscious, and retailers lower prices to reel them in. Maybe they’ll fall in love!
You’re Getting Regular-size Bottles for a Party
I don’t know about your friends, but mine aren’t satisfied with only a glass or two of bubbly. If you plan to entertain more than four people, spring for magnums (the equivalent of two regular bottles).
The big size shouts celebration, makes you look incredibly generous, and besides, you won’t have to open so many bottles.
You’re Storing Champagne in the Refrigerator
A refrigerator is not some wine-preserving cryogenic chamber. Three or four days in a food fridge before popping the cork is fine, says Moët & Chandon’s wine quality manager, but the conditions are too cold and too dry for longer-term storage. They dry out the cork, which lets in air that flattens a wine’s flavours and causes it to lose its sparkle.
Should you stand the bottle up in your refrigerator door or keep it horizontal? Opinionated fizz maker Bruno Paillard insists it will lose bubbles if you store it upright.
In general, take the bottle out about 15 minutes before serving. Like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the temperature should be just right.
Serving the wine too cold blanks out the aromas, and if it’s too warm, it loses the bright crispness that perks up your taste buds. The ideal temperature is 47°F to 50°F (8°C to 10°C).
You’re Casual About Opening the Bottle
The pressure in a Champagne bottle (because of the bubbles) can shoot out a cork at nearly 25mph (40.2kph). Flying corks can and do cause damage to lamps, guests and more.
Remove them properly, the way the pros do. No, that doesn’t mean hunting down a Champagne saber and learning how to slash off the top of the bottle.
First, take off the wire cage over the cork. Tilt the bottle so it’s pointing away from anyone and put a towel over the top.
Grab the top of the cork with one hand, while you twist the bottle with the other until the cork starts to loosen and gently pops out.
Pour slowly, so the bubbles don’t overflow the glass. And don’t you dare shake before opening.
You’re Dragging Out Those Flutes Someone Gave You for a Present
By now, let’s hope you’ve bowed to the pressure of fashion and put away those model-thin flutes (although I still like them sometimes).
Real Champagne glasses have curves. One of my favourites is glassmaker Lehmann’s tulip-shaped, rounded-bowl Jamesse Prestige Grand Champagne Glass (US$37.50 each), which highlights aromas and keeps bubbles fizzing longer.
You’re Serving Champagne with Chocolate
The chocolate and Champagne pairing is Valentine’s Day marketing nonsense — the idea that two items people love belong together. They don’t. Chocolate is far too sweet, points up the wine’s acidity and makes it taste bitter.
Despite what producers say, Champagne doesn’t go with everything, and an entire dinner with only Champagne to drink is awfully tiresome — even on New Year’s Eve.
Yes, it’s great with salty and fried foods including fish and chips, French fries, even truffled popcorn and hot dogs. The zesty acidity cuts through the salt and fat.
But it’s also a great partner with soup, as I learned at a long-ago dinner at Heitz Vineyards, where winemaker Joe Heitz splashed some fizz in each guest’s soup, then in the glasses. Besides the delicious hot soup/cold wine contrast, the bubbles made the soup’s flavours pop.
You’re Trying to Cork Up Leftover Champagne
Or worse, you’re wrapping the top of the bottle with Saran wrap. Have some pride! Instead, invest in a proper Champagne stopper with a tight seal that will keep fizz from losing its bubbles for several days.
You can find a basic clamp model at any wine store or places such as Williams-Sonoma for US$6 to US$10. The key factor is the tightness of the seal. You want one that’s leakproof.
And don’t always dump leftovers in orange juice for mimosas at the next day’s brunch. To me that’s a waste of good Champagne, which doesn’t need extra flavours to be the perfect way to greet a new year. — Bloomberg