Avoid this shopping frenzy by giving wine. The United States consumes more wine by volume than any other nation. Chances are most adults in your life have some experience with wine.
One of the most luxurious and angst-free wine gifts is champagne. From an early age, we know it is special as we see heads of state, royalty, movie stars and sports figures toasting, quaffing and celebrating with the stuff.
That it became a luxury item is due mainly to Mother Nature. In this age of global warming, it is hard to imagine this luxurious bubbly wine came to be as the result of a mini ice age that stretched across Europe from the mid-15th century to the mid-19th century.
Non-bubbly wines had been made in the region of Champagne since Roman occupation. When this extended cold period came along, still wines became so cold that fermentation ceased. When the temperatures rose in the spring and summer, the unspent yeast again became active, creating carbon dioxide, which caused wines to bubble and fizz.
For hundreds of years, efforts were undertaken to tame the bubbles. Finally, the Champenoise gave up, and in the late 17th century they started making champagnes similar to today’s styles, using labor intensive methods discussed in this column on Nov. 14.
Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is often erroneously credited with inventing champagne, but wines were already buzzing and fizzing when he arrived on the scene. Pérignon was more of a vineyard manager than a winemaker. He sought to improve the wines. He was the first person to succeed in making white wine from dark grapes.
True champagne comes only from the small delimited area of Champagne, some 90 miles north of Paris. Champagne is France’s northernmost grape-growing region, and also the coolest.
True champagne is made from three grapes — chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier — in individual lots of a single varietal but more often a combination of the three.
Approximately 15,000 growers through contractual arrangement provide fruit for the major champagne houses of the region. Some small growers retain fruit to make champagne under their own labels, but these rarely make it to the States.
Approximately 65 percent of all fruit grown goes to the big champagne houses, where it is made into three levels of champagne.
By far the most prevalent type is non-vintage. These champagnes are blends not just of the three allowed grapes, but of wines from multiple years.
Next in the pecking order is vintage champagne, which carries a date. If a producer declares a vintage in an exceptional year, 85 percent of the wine must come from the vintage declared.
The most prized champagne is the prestige cuvee. These wines come from exceptional years and the most prestigious vineyards.
Möet & Chandon’s prestige cuvee, Dom Pérignon, was launched in 1936. Louis Roederer’s Cristal launched in 1945. All top houses make prestige cuvees.
Now brace yourself for sticker shock. True champagne is very expensive because a) it requires intensive labor; b) it comes from a relatively small growing area where production rarely keeps up with demand; and c) harvests in this cool region are often meager. This happened in 2012, so expect price increases next year. Stock up now.
Tyson’s Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs has two prestige cuvees in stock, Möet & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon for $161 and Louis Roederer’s Cristal for $227.50. Give these to special people who appreciate fine wines and understand the concept of sharing.
Non-vintage champagnes can make spectacular gifts at a fraction of the cost. Consider Veuve Clicquot in the $50 range at both Tyson’s and The Wine Cellar on Quintard, or Möet & Chandon’s Imperial Brut for $49.50 at The Wine Cellar.
Contact Pat Kettles at email@example.com.
How to serve champagne
1. Chill bottle upright in the refrigerator or in a bucket of ice.
2. When ready to serve, place bottle on a nonskid surface, leaving it in an upright position.
3. Remove wine cage incasing bottle stopper.
4. Leaving bottle in upright position, cover top with a towel and gently grip the top and twist as if removing top of a ketchup bottle. Keep gently twisting until wine opens with a soft pop or hissing noise. Do not lean over the bottle when executing this maneuver, as flying champagne corks will put your eye out.
5. Serve in glass of choice. Many people use champagne flutes or shallow coupes, but the true Champenoise serve their champagne in chardonnay glasses, because this allows the wine to open up and allows celebrants the pleasure of sniffing and swirling their bubbly.