Tag Archives: #champagne

The Spoils of the Day

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The village of Vufflens-le-Château. All photos: PK Read

The village of Vufflens-le-Château.
All photos: PK Read

Sometimes the constant presence of natural beauty can lead to a certain forgetfulness of the visual bounty all around.

We’ve lived near Lake Geneva for a long time, and while I revel in the views of mountain and lake, I don’t always appreciate just how lovely the area can be.

Fortunately, friend, writer and local expert on the area Catherine Nelson-Pollard invited me along on a day excursion, and I got a good reminder.DSC03701

Twice a year, once in spring and once in fall, hundreds of winegrowers in Switzerland open their cellars to visitors.

I’d characterize the Caves Ouvertes event as one of the few real bargains in Switzerland: For the price is CHF 15 (around $15, or €15), intrepid wine tourists get a wine glass, a little neck pouch to carry it, a wine passport, a map, and almost unlimited tasting opportunities for as many wineries as you can visit in a day.

A free bus service takes pass-carriers from vineyard to vineyard along a number of possible routes in each wine-producing canton.

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

View of the Alps from Vufflens-le-Château, Switzerland

We did a short route in the canton of Vaud, which neighbors Geneva.

Swiss wines aren’t widely known outside the region. They tend to be lighter than their French or New World relations.

Production levels are generally small, and vineyards dot the lakeside, the hills and mountain foothills in small parcels. Almost all are tended by hand. This is not a business of vast profits and expandability of scale. DSC03704

 

A glorious day in mid-May, white clouds blown across the lake by a bise wind rendered gentle by the warm temperatures and the sunshine. Here a château, there a wall curving inward with age.

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I had driven over the border from France, so my car was waiting for me back in Nyon, a short train trip from where the wine tours started.

Because I’d have to drive home later, I maintained a strict tasting regimen – small sips, lots of water, dumping the remainder of the tasting sample once I had determined whether I liked it or not. It’s the most sober wine tasting I think I’ve ever experienced. At least, for my part.DSC03713

Over the course of the afternoon, fellow travellers in other groups got ruddy faced. Someone next to me forgot the wine glass she had just put in her neck pouch and broke it against a table.

It was time to head home.

But not before buying a few bottles to share at home.

A good reminder to extend my local range from time to time, and not take its beauty for granted.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass - which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

Ingredients for an excellent day: My wine pouch and glass – which I carried safely in a backpack rather than around my neck. The green wine passport, the wines, my train ticket, and a bit of old Seamus Heaney for reading on the train. Not seen here: the companionship of friends.

The Taste of Shape

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Champagne Glasses (1937) Source: Antique Helper

Champagne Glasses (1937)
Source: Antique Helper

There’s no denying that the utensils we use, the presentation we choose and the serving methods employed affect how we experience what crosses our palate. That’s as true for lemon tart as it is for champagne.

Champagne glasses, like those for many other beverages, have undergone a transformation over the centuries. From the mugs or goblets made of silver, to tall glasses, to the flat coupe glasses of the 19th century, to the delicately stemmed flutes that gained popularity in the 20th century but which are so difficult to wash without breaking. And now, more changes are afoot.

The flute, L'Instant Taittinger (1980s)

The flute, L’Instant Taittinger (1980s). Modern flutes have a ballooned lower section rather than the old-fashioned V or U shape.

Riedl, an Austrian company with a history almost as long as Champagne itself, wants to change the way we drink the bubbly. And not just Champagne – it wants to tailor specific glasses to specific sparkling wines.

According to Decanter.com, Dom Perignon’s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, advocates a large Pinot Noir glass made by Riedl if one wants to fully appreciate his house’s Rosé.

Riedl Pinot Noir XL

Riedl Vinum Pinot Noir XL

There’s some noise about stemless glasses. More practical, yes. But is Champagne really about practicality?

Non-stemmed flutes.

Stemless flutes. These are listed on Amazon as ‘pomponne’ style, which I think is a misnomer.

And what to make of the pomponne, the stemmed flute with no base at all, which cannot be set down until drunk empty? I feel this puts the drinker under pressure to finish a glass and find then find some safe way of putting down the glass without breaking it.

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Pomponne glasses.

There has to be some balance between practicality and extremism. Surely life is stressful enough without adding more to what should be a pleasurable experience?

I guess the only way to approach this undertaking is scientifically, which I’m sure Riedl and other glass manufacturers have already done countless times. A blind tasting based not on several Champagnes, but on several glasses. Blindfolded judges who have glasses, all filled with the same Champagne, held to their lips by tasting assistants. Only then will we be able to assess which glass truly favors a specific Champagne and brings it to its full flower.

Here at ChampagneWhisky, we have our own preferences and habits when it comes to serving Champagne.

We have a set of stemless flutes, but I find that if I am deeply involved in a conversation, forget to set down my Champagne, or don’t drink quickly enough, the poor stuff goes a bit tepid.

We have perfectly serviceable, long-stemmed flutes if we have more than eight guests.Untitled4

For under eight guests, we have a few collections of more or less matching 19th-century glasses which we have collected over the years. Fluted body, stout stems, like the ones above (which are not ours but are very similar).

And for days when we just don’t care: Antique absinthe glasses. Big V-shaped gems for reckless consumption. Because sometimes, it just tastes better that way.

Source: Jules Cheret

Source: Jules Cheret

Dom Perignon‘s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, is another fervent critic of the flute and advocates Riedel’s Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass for DP Rose.
Read more at http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/team/584594/my-goal-is-to-make-champagne-flutes-obsolete-says-maximilian-riedel#JeQIJYEfAAkZMmhU.99

Dom Perignon‘s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, is another fervent critic of the flute and advocates Riedel’s Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass for DP Rose.
Read more at http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/team/584594/my-goal-is-to-make-champagne-flutes-obsolete-says-maximilian-riedel#JeQIJYEfAAkZMmhU.99
Dom Perignon‘s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, is another fervent critic of the flute and advocates Riedel’s Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass for DP Rose.
Read more at http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/team/584594/my-goal-is-to-make-champagne-flutes-obsolete-says-maximilian-riedel#JeQIJYEfAAkZMmhU.99
Dom Perignon‘s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, is another fervent critic of the flute and advocates Riedel’s Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass for DP Rose.
Read more at http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/team/584594/my-goal-is-to-make-champagne-flutes-obsolete-says-maximilian-riedel#JeQIJYEfAAkZMmhU.

Pantry Bubbly

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imagesThere are a few staples people always like to have around the house. Whether it’s rice, or eggs, or beer, or bread, if it’s not in the pantry, the pantry is lacking – even if full of other things.

It should come as no surprise that one of these items in our household is champagne (well, whisky, too, but today I’m talking about champagne). We moved to France almost twenty years ago, and I while I loved the drink long before we came here, it’s status as a pantry staple dates to our relocation here.

Our staple bubbly, the Brut Nicolas Feuillatte NV, isn’t overly fancy nor particularly expensive, it’s not necessarily the stuff of special occasions and celebrations or for a fine dinner with friends, and it’s not from a small producer, but it’s reliable and it’s tasty.

It’s dry and finely pearled, with a pale gold colour. I always associate it with a light straw aroma, with apple and pear notes. If you ask me, it goes with most things, including little more than good conversation, or a warm fire in the fireplace.

Nicolas Feuillatte Champagnes are made from the mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes supplied by the Centre Vinicole – Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte (CV-CNF) cooperative. Established in the early 1970s, the union is now the largest in Champagne, representing 82 smaller cooperatives and 5000 wine growers. The brand is among the most successful champagne producers, the third largest in the world.

The Nicolas Feuillate facility in Epernay, France.

The Nicolas Feuillate facility in Epernay, France.

I wrote recently that many great Champagne houses once carried the names of widows who had successfully carried on the family business – unfortunately, due to old French property laws, the only way a woman could act as the head of a company was if she married the proprietor, and was subsequently widowed.

Considering how much women contributed to the growth of the industry, it’s a bit odd that Champagne production is once again primarily seen as a male domain. Even the Nicolas Feuillatte web presence has a page titled Our Values – The Men. Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that the current President of the CV-CNF, Véronique Blin, is a woman born into a family of Champagne producers.

At any rate, the cupboard here at ChampagneWhisky always needs a bottle or two of Nicolas Feuillatte to feel well and truly stocked for all occasions, even it it’s just the evening news.

 

 

 

Whisky Women, Champagne Widows

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ChampagneWhisky.com wouldn’t be ChampagneWhisky if it weren’t for women in whisky and champagne. And not just the one sitting here behind the keyboard writing this post.

I’m just going to put up a couple of excerpts today, in honor of International Women’s Day 2014, which has been celebrated for a century on March 8.

“In Whiskey Women: The Untold Story Of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch And Irish Whiskey, US writer Fred Minnick says that despite the drink’s macho image, women played a key role in its history.

A woman places labels on Old Crow bourbon bottles sometime in the early 1900s. Photo: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History / NPR

A woman places labels on Old Crow bourbon bottles sometime in the early 1900s.
Photo: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History / NPR

“Not only did they invent the first stills, they were involved in bootlegging during the Prohibition era, led the repeal movement and whipped up demand for uisge beatha worldwide.

But it is those Scottish women who not only owned and managed distilleries, but modernised them, increasing their capacity and profile, that Minnick credits with transforming the industry.” (from The Scotsman)

Elizabeth Cumming, who owned the Cardow (Cardhu) distillery in Speyside in the late 19th century, took over the business when her husband died, and successfully expanded it before selling to John Walker & Sons, known these days as Johnnie Walker.

Bessie Williamson, who owned Laphroaig in Islay in the 20th century (due to the death of its original male owner, her boss) is credited with laying the groundwork for the popularity of peaty single malt whisky today.

Veuve Clicquot Source: Wine Sisterhood

Veuve Clicquot
Source: Wine Sisterhood

And, on the bubbly side:

“‘Champagne is the story of widows,’ said Francois Godard, scion of Veuve Godard et Fils Champagne house. ‘Women who lost their husbands, and then outshone the men.’

Widowhood gave these figures an independent social status in France. Unlike other women – who were the property of a father or a husband – only a widow could become a CEO.

‘In the 19th century … if you’re not married you’re dependent on your father, you can’t have a bank account and you can’t pay staff. If you are married you are reliant on your husbands,’ explained Fabienne Moreau, Veuve Clicquot’s archivist. ‘Only a widow can take this position as head of a company.’

Experts say that Champagne was one of the first industries in the modern world that women shaped and in which they enjoyed a prominent role.” (from Daily Mail)

Brut Champagne was invented by the Veuve (‘Widow’) Pommery at the behest of another widow, Queen Victoria, who liked the drink but found it too sweet. The ‘Veuve’ was dropped from the Pommery name at some point, and many other houses established by widowed Champagne women, like Bollinger, no longer carry the signifier.

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger Source: Wine Sisterhood

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger
Source: Wine Sisterhood

There was a time (1500-1660) when European governments  burned women for distilling liquor, labelling them witches. We are past the outdated marriage customs and property laws when women could only be taken seriously in business if they had been married and then widowed (well, in some countries, anyway), yet somehow the whisky and champagne businesses have still come to be seen as a man’s world again.

So on this day, a clink of the glass to the women of whisky and champagne, and all the women who hold up half the world. centredinternationalwomensdaySome of my fellow whisky women writers:

Rachel MacNeill – Whisky for Girls

Allison Patel – The Whisky Woman

Bubbly Surprise

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It’s been an icy couple weeks here in the foothills of the Jura, with a strong bise wind blowing down from the Alps, funneling down through the Lake Geneva basin and wearing itself out to points south of here. It’s dry, it’s cold, and it can be unrelenting for as long as it lasts, usually a few days.

A bise is the word used for the traditional French kiss-on-the-cheek greeting (three kisses in our region), but the bise wind feels more like a sharp slap.

In the heart of winter, a strong bise can whip the waters of Lake Geneva into a frenzy, leaving behind well-known images like the one below. We aren’t there yet, although we did get some snow and ice.

Lakeside at Evian-les-Bains, Lake Geneva, during a 2012 bise. Photo: thedarkpond

Lakeside at Evian-les-Bains, Lake Geneva, during a 2012 bise.
Photo: thedarkpond

Not only did the bise finally come to an end this weekend, but I found some other good news.

In spite of a cold winter, a wet spring, a hot summer punctuated by extreme storms and hail, and the latest grape harvest in years, the Champagne region managed to increase its harvest results over those of 2012, and had the best harvest of the past five years.

Not bad, all things considered.

Other wine-producing regions haven’t been as lucky, especially the Alsace and Bordeaux areas, which were badly affected by hailstorms.

This is unfortunate, but as a Champagne drinker, I stay focused on the positive:

Photo via DestinationsPerfected

Photo via DestinationsPerfected

According to the Confédération des coopératives vinicoles de France (CCVF), the French collective of wine-producer cooperatives, there are hopes that this vintage may turn out to be exceptional in quality, as well.

The first tastings of the vin clair, the still wine that precedes the production of champagne, will give some indication in early 2014. The first bottles of this year will be sold in 2016.

No more bise and a promising Champagne vintage after a challenging year? I feel my mood lifting already.

Now here’s some divine bubbly stuff that comes, appropriately, from a movie called Stormy Weather.

Musical Refinement

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Sometimes a tugged mental thread yields the most unexpected byways of learning.

This particular journey began the other evening, when I was listening to a French radio station, Swing FM, while sipping a glass of champagne. The music playing was a heavy Hammond organ thing, the champagne didn’t taste quite right, and fortunately, some small task diverted my attention. When I came back to my glass, the music had changed to a happier swing piece, Southern Sunset.

It could be because I’m not a big fan of the mighty Hammond, but I was sure the champagne tasted better once the organ blues song had ended.

The question mark that popped up above my head was: Did the music affect my experience of the taste of the champagne?

And because this isn’t the end of my story, the simple answer is: Probably.

Some studies have shown that the tongue is easily fooled. When wine drinkers were exposed to various kinds of music, from Carmina Burana by Orff to Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague, the subjective perception of a wine’s taste could change by up to 60% – cabernet tasted richer, chardonnay more zingy, and so on.

Chalk it up to cognitive priming theory. The brain can be primed to respond in a certain way by environmental factors.

A point to be noted in passing: If you are trying to impress with a good wine, or cover the faults of a bad one: Play the right music.wine-music1

But could music actually change the way wine tastes, objectively (i.e. quantifiably)?

Again, according to some winemakers, the answer is: Maybe.

The sound frequencies of music played to vats of maturing wine are said by some to enhance the yeast activity during the fermentation process. I haven’t been able to find any studies which back this up, but the winemakers who play monastic chants and classical music to their vats seem persuaded.

And so to the end of my exploration today, the current apex of winemaking and fermentation sound techniques, the Sonor Wines speaker/vat technology.

Sonos Wines techology Illustration: Sonos Wines

Sonor Wines technology
Illustration: Sonor Wines

Created by a Viennese winemaker / musician, the claim is made that refinement of wine through music can be achieved through “a special speaker (…) placed into the tank or barrel to expose the fermenting grape juice to classical, jazz, electronic, pop or rock music. This method positively influences the maturing process of the wine and produces a better taste.”

My initial reaction?

It’s wondrous strange, and well, why not?

I don’t know if it works, I don’t know if it’s quantifiable genius or certifiable humbug, but on this dreary and rainy autumn morning, I’m happier for having found it.

Late Harvest

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Image via Decanter.com

If you’ve ever felt the need to get to know your champagne from the ground up, now is your chance – the Champagne region started the annual grape harvest this past week, the latest start in over a decade. A late and cold spring, hailstorms and rain led to vineyards problems like coulure, unpollinated flowers and falling berries, as well as millerandage, unevenly developed grape bunches. Not to mention outright destruction when it came to a couple of severe hailstorms in late July.

Still, in light of the excellent weather for most of July, the Comité Champagne (CIVC) is predicting a harvest decline of only 4.5% compared to 2012.

A late season and smaller harvest don’t mean the final result won’t be excellent, however. According to Dominique Moncomble, technical director of the CIVC, “Since 1950, the Champagne region has seen at least twenty harvests that started after September 25, and several of them were some of the very best quality”.

The general attitude seems to be one of cautious optimism. Or maybe cautious hope.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Around 120,000 seasonal workers are employed for the harvesting of 34,000 hectares (131 sq. miles) of vineyards in the region, starting with pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, and moving to the later-ripening chardonnay blanc.

The pay, from what I can tell on the French employment website, is €9.43/hour, with some vineyards offering a bonus for quick pickers, and others paying by basket harvested. The harvest contract lasts for between one and two weeks.

So, if you have the inclination see grapes up close and really get the feel of Champagne, put on your boots, grab your tent, and get picking.

For those who like the notion of harvesting but only for a day, and who don’t mind having to paying rather than being paid for their work, I found this harvest party site – I haven’t tried it, but it offers an hour or so of vineyard picking, a tour, and a large vineyard feast.

Charonnay grapes Photo: Gayle Keck

Chardonnay grapes
Photo: Gayle Keck

More:

Check out Been There Ate That For a good post on the harvesting experience.

Party Trick

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Many years ago, a good friend pulled a little party trick and I learned it because I thought it was not only delightful, but a fun way to memorialize a good evening of excellent conversation: Wire bistro chairs out of the wire cage and metal disk.

Image: Web and Time Click on the image for the tutorial.

Image: Web and Time
Click on the image for the tutorial.

Some people use small pliers to make the chairs – my personal feeling is that a casual approach is best, something to keep the hands busy while the mind and mouth are elsewhere. I usually fashion a small bottle from the aluminum foil, perhaps a couple of even smaller glasses, and then add the cork itself with a small bit of napkin or tissue as a tablecloth to make an entire miniature.

Bottle Anatomy Image: Upstart

Bottle Anatomy. Click on the image to go to the interactive original image.
Image: Upstart

The invention of the champagne bottle, as I’ve noted in a previous post, was a prerequisite to the popularity of champagne. Prior to the 17th-century invention of the a glass strong enough to withstand the pressure of the bubbles in sparkling wine, exploding bottles were a regular hazard in champagne production.

The wire cage (‘musselet’) was invented in 1844 to keep the cork from popping out – prior to this, string was used. And prior to the introduction of of wine cork stoppers in the mid-17th century, oil-soaked rags were used to stop the bottles. The small metal disc that sits atop the cork is called a plaque de musselet, and there is a thriving collector’s market in them. (Really. Check this French site out if you are in the market for a new and obscure hobby.)

The rim of the bottle anchors the wire cage, while the foil – originally made of lead – is thought to have prevented mice from attacking the cork. This foil is now made of aluminum.

The cork of a champagne bottle, recognizable by its characteristic mushroom shape, is usually made of particle of natural cork – generally considered a sustainable crop. Studies claim that natural cork has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than either plastic or aluminum bottle stoppers. 60% of cork oak production is used for bottle stoppers. The corks look more like the image to the right when they are inserted – the mushroom shape comes only after being ‘popped’.

Raw champagne cork

Raw champagne cork

According to Champagneguide.net, the main body of the cork, called the manche, is made of agglomerated cork, while the miroir consists of between one and three discs of natural cork, affixed to the bottom portion that comes into contact with the wine.

As for the glass, the glass-making techniques that prevent the previous loss of between 20 – 80% of any given vintage also mean the bottles are heavy. Champagne producers, in the interest of reducing both costs and ecological footprint, are moving towards reducing the weight of the bottles from the usual 900 grams to 700 grams.

As as for the indentation, or ‘punt’, its purpose is to redistribute pressure so that the force of the gas doesn’t explode the bottom of the bottle.

And as any regular champagne imbiber knows, the punt is the perfect place to insert your thumb when pouring to avoid disastrous bottle slippage.

 

Sober Expectations

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Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California Photo: PK Read

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Photo: PK Read

I saw recently that Napa Valley wineries had already started their grape harvesting season as of August 1 this year, almost two weeks earlier than the average, due to a short winter combined with a long and mild spring.

So I wondered whether our long, wet, cold winter, combined with a long, wet, cold spring and a massive hailstorm, had affected harvest expectations in our wine region of western Switzerland.

The answer, in a word, is: Yes.

Expectations for the Swiss vendanges – the wine harvest – are not high this year. The June 20 hailstorm destroyed around 6% of the Swiss vineyard crop within five minutes, affecting a potential 6 millions liters (1.6 million gallons) of Swiss wine. Harvesting isn’t expected for the remaining vines until well into September.

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm Photo: Les News

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm
Photo: Les News

Over in the French Champagne region, about three hours north from where we live, violent hailstorms from July 26-27 destroyed large swathes of vineyards – some areas experiencing a 10% loss, others 100%, with an overall loss expected of around 30% of this year’s crop. The same holds true for the Burgundy region.

Hailstorms (and even a “mini-tornado”) destroyed vineyards, but to a lesser extent, in the Bordeaux region as well. The French and Swiss Ministries of Agriculture are looking into adjusting insurance strategies to allow for ‘climatic risks’ in the future, as the assumption is that extreme weather will only increase.

French language viticulture news stories make for grim reading these days. What’s left of the crop will be harvested late.

Photo: RTS Info

Photo: RTS Info

So I guess California’s Napa Valley was a winner this year in vineyard climatology.

As for my single, heroic muscadet grape vine, which usually produces around 20-30 kg (45-65 lbs) per year, I don’t expect we’ll get more than a few good bunches this season – the cold, the wet, the wind have all done their part and our vine is the barest it has been in almost twenty years.

I do have one good harvest story this year, though – the lavender I planted last year as a part of a bee and butterfly section has attracted a healthy colony of bumblebees, who come and harvest pollen every afternoon. Their loud communal buzz fills one side of the garden, an industrious song for the summer heat.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year – most colonies only number 50 or less, so I’m assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby.
Photo: PK Read