Champagne is for show-offs, making it the perfect bluffer’s beverage. Don’t know your Champagne from your Cava? We’ll help you bluff your way through the fizz.
WHY IS CHAMPAGNE CALLED CHAMPAGNE?
Let’s get one thing straight. Champagne comes only from the Champagne region in France. Refer to any other sparkling wine as ‘Champagne’ and you might as well hand in your bluffer’s badge and go home now. If you can afford to buy Champagne regularly, say that nothing else comes close. If you operate on a more frugal fizz budget, you could say that the best sparkling alternatives are a match at a fraction of the price. It’s called fancy footwork and politicians do it all the time.
5 Champagne Cheats
- Crémant - For French bubbly on a budget, look out for crémant wines. The term refers to dry sparkling wines made by the traditional method anywhere outside Champagne
- Cava - Spanish Cava, you can explain, is made by the traditional Champagne method but mainly from the Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo grape varieties and is at its best when young and fruity.
- Prosecco – Italian Prosecco is mostly made by the charmat method and has become the Italian aperitivo of choice. It’s light and fresh, occasionally quite aromatic, with an apple-and-pear fruitiness. Off-dry is the default style, with truly dry quite scarce.
- Buck’s Fizz - First served in 1921 by a barman named McGarry, Buck’s Fizz is two parts orange juice to one part champagne. Legend has it the drink was invented to justify early morning drinking but it also legitimises the watering down of expensive bubbly.
- Mimosa – A Mimosa is very similar to Buck’s Fizz, but with equal parts Champagne and orange juice. So that’s Buck’s Fizz for the neighbours and Mimosas for you.
WHAT DO I DO WITH A BOTTLE OF BUBBLY?
First impressions last, so make sure you open the bottle with appropriate pomp. Strip away the foil and free the cork from its wire prison (la cage). Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, keeping the cork still while gently twisting the bottle, tilting the cork sideways slightly and allowing the carbon dioxide to leave with a sigh rather than an undignified bang. Make sure the bottle has adequately chilled before handling (nothing fizzes like warm Champagne) to avoid both injury and the embarrassment of premature ejaculation. Before you pour, wrap the bottle in a white napkin to conceal the label because a) it is bad form to boast, and b) it might not be Champagne at all. Quarter-fill each glass, allow the foam to subside, then top up, leaving sufficient space to ‘nose’ the heavenly elixir.
HOW ARE CHAMPAGNE AND OTHER SPARKLERS MADE?
All Champagne is made by the traditional method (méthode traditionelle), otherwise known as the classic method (méthode classique). All you really need to know is that it involves a bottled wine undergoing a second fermentation which creates the fizz. This second fermentation is called the prise de mousse, which is best translated as ‘capturing the sparkle’, and usually lasts for about three to five years. It should be apparent by now why Champagne is so expensive.
The second-best method for making sparkling wines, by some distance, is the charmat or ‘tank’ method, where everything up to the final bottling is done in a pressurised tank. It is much cheaper, quicker and less labour-intensive, but can you taste the love?
The cheapest method of all, favoured by misers and meths drinkers, is the injection or ‘bicycle-pump’ method, as used in the production of soft, fizzy drinks. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped from cylinders into a tank of wine, which is then bottled under pressure. The resulting liquid has lots of big bubbles when poured, but they rapidly fade, leaving the disappointed drinker feeling as flat as his ‘fizz’.
OKAY, SO SHOULD I GO SWEET, DRY, OR SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE?
The dry/sweet nomenclature of Champagne is very peculiar, so pay attention. Brut is dry, but rarely bone-dry. For that, you need wines labelled extra brut, ultra brut, brut sauvage, brut zero or zero dosage (no added sugar). Curiously, ‘extra dry’ denotes a style that is less dry than brut. Champagne described as sec is usually quite sweet (off-dry), even though sec is French for ‘dry’. It’s so illogical that you’re sure to score bluffing points, first by confusing people (bad cop), then by adopting the role of the kindly expert (good cop) and guiding them through this minefield.
MAXIMUM BLUFFING VALUE
The Champagne region’s famous chalky soils and its northerly position ensure that its base wines have the high levels of acidity necessary for quality sparkling-wine production. Explain that it is because Champagne is a blend that it seldom tastes like the still version of, say, Chardonnay plus gas. You might venture that the tooth-stripping acidity of the still wines made in the Coteaux Champenois is the most persuasive argument for making Champagne fizzy.
DO SAY ‘Did you know that a bottle of bubbly contains the equivalent pressure of a tyre on a London double-decker bus?’
DON’T SAY ‘My daughter Champagne has such a sparkling personality.’