Champagne: The Story Behind the Bubbly

If you want to know more about that bottle of bubbly that welcomes the New Year, check out our Champagne Q&A with San Francisco Master Sommelier David O’Connor.

David O’Connor directed the wine program atThe Westin St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco for 23 years, and is the fourth American to achieve lofty Master Sommelier status — placing him in an elite group that numbers only 118 in the United States and 186 worldwide. He is expert in all phases of wine production and service.

Patch spent a little time with O'Connor asking questions about a timely subject: Champagne.

Q:  First things first: what is Champagne and what makes it special?

A:  It’s an elegant sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. I’m a purist when it comes to terms. Other good sparkling wines are made around the world, but true Champagne is made in only one place. It’s a geographical thing and has to do with terroir, or where the grapes are grown. The Champagne region is special in terms of soil and climate — you can’t duplicate that somewhere else. Pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay are the primary grapes, and carbonation is from méthode champenoise — a secondary fermentation directly in the bottle. Tradition is a big part of it, and Champagne is protected and regulated by the EU.

Q:  What are the key qualities of good Champagne?

A:  Elegance. The beads rise gently to the surface and give you a nice tactile sensation on the palate. With méthode champenoise, or méthode traditionnelle, the term used outside of Champagne, you get these tiny little beads. With charmat, a large vat process used to carbonate other sparkling wines, you wind up with bubbles that are more explosive on the palate. Champagne is delicate. It’s also fairly high in acidity and has a clean, bright flavor. One important thing to know about Champagne is that it shows a determination of a house style. It has more brand loyalty, in my opinion, than any other wine.

Q:  How is Champagne made, in very basic terms?

A:  It’s hands-on, and you need highly qualified people at each stage and oversight in the winery to ensure house style. Grapes are picked at the right time and sorted and still wine is made. When the right cuvée [a blend of still wines from different vineyards or vintages] is assembled, yeast and sugar are added and it’s bottled and capped. The yeast and sugar cause a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The CO2 [carbon dioxide gas that’s a by-product of fermentation] has no place to escape and becomes integrated into the wine — it becomes one of its components. After fermentation and aging, the dead yeast is removed and dosage is added. Dosage is a mix of wine, sugar and sometimes another spirit, and is what determines dryness or sweetness. Then it’s corked.

Q: You mentioned “house style”  a couple of times. What’s that?

A:  It’s about grapes. It’s about blending vintages — about legacy. Champagne houses release vintage and non-vintage Champagne. Non-vintage Champagne is a blend of different vintages that are assembled to ensure continuation of style. That’s why I stressed brand loyalty. At that level you know what a product is going to be like from year to year to year. Reputation means everything to a Champagne house.

Q:  Do Champagne houses grow their own grapes? 

A:  No. Very few own their own vineyards — they work with growers. Grape-growing and wine making are two different businesses and two different specialties. Champagne houses and growers have worked together for generations. It’s not just a business to them — it’s in their blood.

Q:  I’ve seen “méthode champenoise,” “méthode traditionnelle,” “California Champagne,” and even just “Champagne” on bottles of sparkling wine produced outside of the Champagne region of France. What would you call those products?

A:  Sparkling wine, but not Champagne.

Q:  Do French Champagne houses produce sparkling wine in the US?

A:  Yes. Louis Roederer and Moët & Chandon are two big ones. Here, they’re called Roederer Estate and Domaine Chandon, respectively.

Q:  Terms like “blanc de noirs” and “brut” adorn Champagne and sparkling wine labels. What do they mean?

A:  They speak to body, dryness, sweetness — to firmness. Blanc de noirs is made from pinot noir grapes. It’s a white sparkling wine made from red grapes, so it has a little more body to it. Blanc de blancs is made from chardonnay — white grapes — and is lighter and more elegant in style. Champagne and sparkling wine can be sec, which is sweet, or dry, which is brut, and there are degrees of each.

Q:  What’s your favorite Champagne?

A:  The one that’s right in front of me, generally. All kidding aside, I have a broad appreciation, but if I had to choose the last glass of Champagne I’d ever drink, it would be a Krug. I think Krug is pretty extraordinary.

Q:  Do you have any tips for serving Champagne at home?

A:  Take care with each step — and don’t “pop” the cork! Cover the cork with a cloth napkin and twist the bottle, not the cork, gently in one direction. Allow the pressure in the bottle to do the work. You should hear nothing but a sigh. Pour gently into chilled flute glasses and don’t swirl. Let the Champagne run across your palate. The bottle is at about 90 psi, so treat it with respect — and avoid losing effervescence and product.

Q:  How should a novice select a bottle of Champagne?

A:  Find a good wine merchant and build rapport with them — they’ll lead you in the right direction. Tell them what you’re interested in. If you go to a beverage outlet or a supermarket and you don’t know very much, there’s really no one to help you. If you have no idea what you want, start with a house cuvée, which will give you an idea about house style.

Q:  Would you suggest a few nice Champagnes?

A:  I’d be happy to. Krug Grande Cuvée classically defines the house style. It’s rich, toasty, dry and elegant. A Louis Roederer Brut has a certain toastyness to it, and its effervescence is lively but not overly bubbly. A Bollinger would be a little bolder — fuller in style. Jacquart Brut Mosaique is refreshing and lively — and a great value.

Q:  How about suggesting a few California sparkling wines?

A:  Sure. Domaine ChandonIron Horse and Mumm Napa sparkling wines are sophisticated, flavorful and elegant. No one would be disappointed with them.

Anne Mobley December 29, 2011 at 10:30 PM
Interesting article. My favorite, and one I grew up with (Dad always gave us a shot-glass full when he poured for our guests), is Martini and Rossi Asti Spumante. It is sweet and wonderful and is my choice always for champagne. Although not made in Champagne, France, it is from Asti in Italy. But of course, my Italian family was partial to their own. Happy New Year!! Bring on the bubbly. Pass the Asti please!!
Renate Valencia January 05, 2012 at 11:52 PM
I agree about the Asti. We drank that brand of Asti when I was growing up, too, and I remember the TV commercials for it. We also bought Gallo Hearty Burgundy in large bottles!


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