Everyone remembers their very first sip of champagne. This cannot be said of most other drinks – for instance, I cannot recall the first time I had coffee, soda, or even beer for that matter – but that first glass of champagne is still fresh in my memory.
It was my fourteenth birthday. A debonair friend of my father’s, freshly flown in from Bombay (as it was called in those days) was at our home. He had a flute of champagne in one hand and a smouldering cigarette in the other. The talk was scintillating, as it often was at these gatherings, so I was listening intently and not saying much, lest I say the wrong thing. In the course of the conversation, I must have managed to interject somewhere that it was my birthday, because suddenly the debonair gentleman from Bombay jumped out of his chair and declared: “The girl should celebrate with a glass of champagne!”
My father was neither amused nor very enthused by the idea, to be frank, but ever the impeccable host, he agreed. A flute was brought, the champagne bottle pulled from the ice bucket and quickly poured – alas, only an inch or so. Everyone gathered around and, following a chorus of “Happy Birthdays”, I finally had my first sip of champagne. What did I think of it? I am not too sure, but I felt a frisson of excitement. For even then I knew the occasion was a momentous one, something I would remember forever.
Champagne is undoubtedly a drink of celebration. It is high-toned and effervescent, with glints of silver or gold, releasing little bubbles that rise up in the glass, winking at you from its brim before exploding on your palate. It is fireworks. It is twinkling stars. It is a wine that inspires poetry – Charles Baudelaire said that champagne has a soul that “dances like no other”. It is the wine that was served when Paris unveiled the Eiffel Tower to the world. It is the wine that is used to launch ships and to close business deals. It is rare to find a drink that personifies all that is good in this world in the same way as champagne.
Yet despite its elegant veneer, champagne comes from humble origins. The inventor of the sparkle is said to have been a 17th century Benedictine monk called Dom Pérignon, cellarer of the Abbey of Hautvillers in the Champagne region. He managed to create a palatable sparkling wine which didn’t cause the bottle containing it to explode, a major problem at the time. Thus, champagne was born.
All champagne is made of the grapes from about 34,000 hectares of vineyards located in a triangle of land a hundred miles east of Paris, in the French province of Champagne. (You cannot call it “champagne” otherwise.) The points of the triangle are marked by the cities of Reims, Epernay, and Châlons-sur-Marne. The Pope has always had his own blend, and so have most of the royal houses of Europe.
Like all wines, champagne owes much of its distinctive flavour to the chalky soil in which the grapes are grown. I have heard the soil described as “loose marl over calk, with an occasional admixture of flint”. Whatever that means, it is absolutely essential to achieving the distinct richness and complexity that is in a bottle of champagne. Another distinctive feature of champagne is that it can only be made from six approved grape varietals, most common of which are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Finally, the wine must undergo a second, bubble-forming fermentation once it's in the bottle (achieved by adding sugar and yeast before bottling), and then aged for a minimum of fifteen months before “disgorgement”, the removal of the yeasty sediment. This second fermentation is one of the unique features that makes this sparkling wine a “champagne”. It is also a major factor of what is now called the méthode traditionnelle, the process by which all champagne is made. After disgorging the yeast, the winemaker adds a sweet solution, or dosage (say doh-SAHJ if you want to feel posh), before corking and shipping the bottle.
It is this dosage that accounts for the final level of sweetness in the bottle, which is how champagne is classified. Like any wine, the taste of champagne ranges from dry to sweet. “Brut” is the classification for the vast majority of champagne we drink; it is dry and does not have too much sugar. “Extra-Brut” is less sweet, while “Extra-Dry”, paradoxically, is sweeter than Brut.
Despite often being relegated to a pre-dinner drink, champagne comes alive with food, real food—the main meal. But don’t let me dissuade you; by all means, begin your evening with a sparkling glass as an apéro, that pre-dinner drink with which the French love to unwind.
You may wish to transform your apéro into an apéro dînatoire, which is more elaborate, but still a casual evening during which guests lounge on the sofa or wander around the living room. Some (if not all) of the food is store-prepared, and everything is eaten with your hands. In this case, you will need several bottles of champagne, and may want to vary styles and vintages to make it more interesting. It is a wonderful way to gather friends in an informal yet chic environment – perfect for serving champagne. One of the most successful apéro dînatoires I hosted had only three things: a charcuterie and cheese platter from a fine foods purveyor, New York style take-away pizza, and champagne. The guests happily stayed for hours.
While champagne is synonymous with celebration, why save it for just that? Relax after work with an apéro and your favourite friend. Host an apéro dînatoire. Open a bag of gourmet potato chips and watch a much-awaited program on Netflix. Surprise your partner with a take-away fish and chips dinner. With a bottle of champagne, all these occasions can be transformed into something extraordinary. Champagne’s superpower is the ability to turn something mundane into something magical – or an event already momentous, like a birthday, into something even more so. Take heed of what the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes noted in a speech he gave at Kings College, Cambridge: “My only regret is that I have not drunk more champagne in my life”. Take the reins and leave no such misgivings. Elevate your days (nay, your life!) and drink more champagne.
Written by Aparna Dubey