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A Beginner's Guide To Champagne

By Staff in Food on Dec 31, 2012 6:40PM

2012_12_31_Champagne.jpg The sound of bottles popping will ring throughout the land December 31st. It's a hallmark not only of this holiday, but of celebrations in general. For what is an anniversary, a promotion, an engagement, without overflowing flutes of bubbly? While we love drinking bubbles for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in all kinds of weather, we know that for many, December is the rare month where champagne consumption is happening. So maybe you’re rusty from NYE 2011, or maybe you’re wondering what exactly these “bubbles” refer to in terms of wine. We can answer some of these questions just in time for 2013. Salut!

Step One: What is Champagne?

First of all, it’s wine. Probably because folks drink it with a truly regrettable lack of regularity, there seems to be a misconception out there that there’s “champagne” and then there’s “wine.” On an extremely general level, champagne is a [somewhat controversial] blanket term for wine that’s carbonated, either by the "methode champenoise," which involves re-fermenting still wine inside a bottle by the addition of sugar and yeast, or the "charmat" method, which involves carbonating larger quantities of liquid under pressure. Kinda like your SodaStream. However, there are many kinds of champagne — and most of them are not in fact Champagne at all.

What’s the difference, aside from capitalization? You may have heard the slightly ominous advertisements from the Champagne Bureau, a French group that really, really wants to make sure us Yankees know that there’s a whole wide world of sparkling wine out there, but champagne only comes from Champagne, France, a small geographical region about an hour north from Paris. Everything else that sparkles, whether made a stone’s throw over the border from Champagne or in a different hemisphere, should be called “sparkling wine.” We often find ourselves, and other wine professionals too, using “champagne” [note the lowercase c!] to refer to all sparkling wines, inclusive of Champagne. It does get confusing sometimes, and we say, call it whatever you like — but be sure you can specify what you’re really looking for when it comes to selecting a bottle on a wine list or at a store, because it’s going to make a huge difference to your wallet.

Sparkling wines include Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, French cremant, and many more. Sometimes these can be better values, and even better wines, than some official Champagnes … But here’s a good tip: $30 will take you a lot further with a vintage cava or prosecco than it will with Champagne in nearly all cases. Got $100 to spend? Go for Champagne.

Step Two: Where do i get it?

This is Chicago. You have options. Buy early and buy often! If you have the wherewithal and time to plan ahead, we recommend tracking down a local wine shop - particularly if you’re a champagne newbie. Good shops have staff on hand who can help you select a bottle based on the occasion and your preferred price range; Dr. Vino has a great resource that’s updated regularly on Chicago's specialty wine shops.

Already on the way to the party? Grocery stores and even Walgreen’s (especially that flagship location downtown, which has a great wine selection) will have cold bottles on hand regularly, especially this time of the year. Your options will be the larger brands, so we suggest going for a prosecco or other sparkling wine. All too often the price tag on Champagnes in these stores is 50% wine, 50% marketing. Grab something unfamiliar and take a gamble, procrastinator.

Step Three: The care and keeping of bubbly

Okay, nearly there. These last few bits here are super important to the enjoyment of your wine. The most important thing is to make sure the bottle is the right temperature; when too warm, the flavors are flabby, the bubbles are less fine, and, last, the cork might explode into your hand, eye, or friend while you’re trying to open it. Experts recommend the wine temperature fall between 40-45F. It’s cold this time of year, so you can leave bottles outside to chill if the fridge is full. We often stick the bottle in the freezer for 20-30 minutes, which works great. Just don’t forget it, or you’ll have a freezer full of sticky frozen wine and shards of glass. And probably some angry friends. And worst of all, no wine.

Glassware is super important if you’re really interested in savoring the wine for wine’s sake. We recommend using a regular wine glass to savor all the aromas released by the bubbles bursting. But let’s be realistic: it’s NYE, you’re probably at either a friend’s house or a packed bar, and you’re likely to have either a plastic flute or a mug to down that drink, so just for tonight, let’s not worry about it. Pro tip: Drinking from the bottle saves you from doing dishes!

Step Four: How do i open this thing?

The bottle is chilled, the flutes/coupes/wine glasses/mugs are ready, and there’s just one thing left to do: Open that mother. With the advent of screwcap wine bottles, even drinking wine has gotten considerably easier, so the technique of opening a bottle of bubbly might seem a bit involved to the uninitiated.

No matter! The internet has tons of videos that can demonstrate far better than words the steps that you need to get to the precious liquid underneath the foil, cage, and cork. Just remember to use caution, and don’t point the bottle at anyone or anything you care about. Put a towel over the cork and remember: Turn the bottle, not the cork. Some day, young grasshopper, when you get a little older, we’ll teach you how to saber a bottle.

Until then, dear reader, we wish you a very happy new year. Cheers!

Bonus step: The CTA offers one-cent [read: free] fares from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. for New Year’s Eve. Drink up, and let somebody else do the driving.

By Erin Drain