Tis the season for bubbly!
Popping a cork on a bottle of sparkling wine almost always guarantees celebration, but there's one bottle of bubbly that stands out from the rest: Champagne.
We sat down with Michelle DeFeo of Laurent-Perrier at their cozy Long Island City headquarters (recently relocated from California) to chat about what Champagne really is, what makes it so special and the French brand's new home in Queens.
What is Champagne?
Like any other wine, Champagne is made from the pulp of grapes, sugar and yeast. But for it to be truly regarded as Champagne, by French law it needs to be made from grapes grown in Champagne, France. Three grape varieties are used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot meunier.
To create the famous bubbles, the wine must be fermented a second time.
Laurent-Perrier ferments in the bottle, abiding by Champagne winemaker law that secondary fermentation must take place in the same bottle it will be sold in. For the secondary fermentation, added sugar is eaten by the yeast to create carbon dioxide. The bottles must age in the cellar for a minimum of 15 months, at which point the extra yeast and sugar is removed and bottles are corked for aging or to sell.
Is Prosecco Champagne?
Nope. Prosecco and cavas are usually made by the Charmat method, meaning that its second fermentation takes place in a tank and is then bottled. Other sparkling wines can also be made to sparkle via injection with carbon dioxide similar to the method used to mass-produce sodas. The pompe à bicyclette method is associated with cheaper wines and does not result in the fine bubbles Champagne is known for. The closest scientific count estimates 49 million bubbles per bottle of Champagne -- that's a lot of sparkles on your palate.
Why is Champagne so expensive?
Champagne is associated with celebrations worldwide, thanks to its glitziness and general splurge-worthy quality. Grapes used in Champagne are grown in Champagne, a region notoriously difficult to grow grapes in. Go figure. Champagne is a dried open ocean bed, with very white soil, which gives the grapes a unique minerality (making Champagne and oysters always a perfect combination), but can also make growing conditions difficult.
Laurent-Perrier sources grapes from local farmers they've worked with for generations, while other Champagne houses in the region may only use grapes grown on their property. Sometimes the valley in Champagne has better grapes, sometimes the hilltops. Each year is different.
"Ask any winemaker: Champagne is an extraordinarily difficult wine to make," DeFeo says, so remember the work that went into each bottle before scoffing at the pricetag.
What should I look for when buying Champagne?
When shopping for champagne, the most important thing is to know which house style you prefer -- there's a lot of variation that can only be understood by tasting. Currently, there are 358 brands of Champgane on the market in the U.S., over 500+ brands available worldwide and 1,500 growers selling grapes in Champagne.
On the label of every bottle of Champagne, there will be an RM, CM or NM, denoting where the grapes are from. Laurent-Perrier uses an NM (Négociant-Manipulant), meaning their grapes come from multiple growers. RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) is a grower champagne, meaning that all the grapes are picked from one estate, which can make the champagnes erratic each year but also unique. CM (Coopérative-Manipulant)) is a cooperative wine: growers take what they didn't sell to anyone else to one central location and will press the grapes to make Champagne.
How do you open a bottle of Champagne?
Shaking a magnum and ripping the cork off may look festive, but it's a great way to ruin your Champagne, not to mention injure yourself.
To open the bottle, first remove the foil -- carefully, it can be sharp! (This reporter shed blood for her bubbly). Then, twist the cage clockwise exactly six times. Loosen and remove. Put your thumb on the cork and grab the bottom of the bottle and twist clockwise, loosening the cork until it pops out with a quiet hiss.
What's the best way to enjoy champagne?
Forget the flute. Or even a coupe. "Coupes are the worst for drinking champagne" explains DeFeo. "The surface to air ratio lets the bubles pop and the aromas escape." A flute also gives a small surface to air ratio, not ideal for enjoying the bubbles.
DeFeo recommends tulip-shaped wine glass to concentrate the aromas while also allowing the bubbles to oxidize. "Coups are fun," she agrees. "The first bottle should be served in a wine glass but maybe pull out the coups for the next one."
Of course, champagne is perfect all on its own. It's rich, brioche-like flavor allows it to pair with a huge variety of foods. DeFeo reccommends it with popcorn (try a gourmet variety from Pop Karma as a fun host gift), for a light crunch with the bubbles. Champagne also goes well with savory dishes, spicy foods and Asian cuisine.
Does open Champagne have to be thrown away?
"The jury is out on how effective a champagne stopper is," DeFeo says. While some believe that storing a bottle with a long handled spoon upside down will help keep the Champagne fizzy, DeFeo confirm's that's just a legend. Unopened bottles of wine can be sealed with a stopper or even just left open overnight in the refrigerator. The more wine in the bottle, the less oxygen will get in and ruin the bubbles. So that bottle you opened just as the party wound down will still be perfect for mimosas in the morning!
"Everyone always wants champagne," DeFeo says, "It's inextricably linked to celebration." And if anyone deserves a glass of bubbly, it's New Yorkers. "New Yorkers see and do a lot and we're always go, go, go! We deserve to toast ourselves and celebrate everything we do. And Champagne is still moving, so it feels okay for fast New Yorkers." How cathartic. "I couldn't wait to move [Laurent-Perrier] from Sausalito to Queens."
Laurent-Perrier is available at bars and wine shops around the city.