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Raising a Toast to Champagne

 Thursday, 1st June, 2017

Robert Etheridge contemplates life's milestones and the romantic legacy of Champagne.

Turning 18 was a milestone for many reasons. ‘Things really take off now’ I was told. Indeed, it struck me that suddenly everything in the rear view mirror was getting increasingly further away (mostly because I was learning to drive), but in the metaphorical and physical sense the road ahead was signposted with milestones.

Fast forward eight years and I find myself at the second wedding of five this year; it should be surreal seeing your old school friend at the altar. And it was. ‘This is real life’ I thought to myself. There’s another three to go, this year. An entire side of my fridge is covered with wedding invites. There will be birthdays and parties and gatherings, and other happy occasions where presence is the most important thing.

I should of course redress the emphasis of the aforementioned wedding. It was all about the bride and groom - it was their celebration, one time to host something that was totally personal to them. And it was beautifully crafted; a true expression of their individual personalities and tastes. It was a culmination of years of stories, adventures and the writing of a new chapter, yet it’s a little too easy as a participant to experience these events through screens, filters and apps. Technology has its place and the ability to archive a moment so easily is something to celebrate, but there’s a fine balance between being present and not.

Just how do you savour a moment and create a legacy? In the early nineteenth century, one couple in the Champagne region set about doing just that. Shortly after getting married, they laid down the foundations of one of the most famous names in Champagne. I refer to the cork supplier, Pierre Nicolas Perrier, who married Adèle Jouët in 1810 and subsequently began producing Champagne under the name Perrier-Jouët – pronounced ‘jou-ette’ – and to the day, these are some of the most desirable sparkling wines available.

There are of course many thousands of producers in Champagne, but the Perrier-Jouët story is worth mentioning because it is so fitting that one of the leading names in Champagne was ultimately borne of a celebratory event. But what is it that connects Champagne with the marking of a celebratory occasion? And, why should these elegant cuvées retain their place at the top of the sparkling wine hierarchy? In the wake of rising popularity of Prosecco and Cava, could Champagne have a battle on its hands?

Rather like the aforementioned weddings, the magic of Champagne lies in the intricate making process; without this alchemy, the end product wouldn’t be what it is. The optimal climate lends itself perfectly to the production of the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as white chardonnay grapes used to make Champagne.  Perfectly balanced acidity in the grapes creates the subtle flavour, and there is of course an abundance of wine cellars. Unlike other popular sparkling wines, the making process is not an industrial one. Champagne is produced in comparatively small batches, in individual bottles, which is why we enjoy a palette of refined flavours and luxurious textures and why it is a drink to be sipped and savoured – to appreciate the moment.

Of course, the quality of Champagne varies dramatically and appreciating its subtleties is key to savouring the moment. A recent tasting event at the Hospital Club, which hosts regular Champagne Supper Clubs inspired a number of tips to help guests enjoy the moment.

This begins with serving. Champagne should be served in flutes, not wine glasses, to preserve the all-important bubbles and prevent them dissipating. Pour at an angle to avoid foaming. Champagne should be stored in a cool, dry place; placing it near a heat source will not make it ‘go bad’ but will accelerate the aging process.

The aesthetic of Champagne is something to appreciate. A vivid memory I have of a friend’s former home is a bottle of vintage from their wedding day, elegantly displayed in their dining room in a glass ice bucket, complete with an inscription from a guest. The original enamelled anemone design of Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque was lost in a wine cellar for many decades, before its rediscovery and artisanal recreation. Every bottle tells a story.

We taste a great deal through our sense of smell. The aromas of Champagne are rich and savoury and a precursor to the indulgent experience of tasting. The flavours of Champagne are crisp, fresh and fruity and work best with subtler tasting foods. At my recent tasting, I experienced flavours paired with different cuvees, including a watermelon Carpaccio, Saffron Confit Pollock, stuffed quail crown and a tarragon sorbet. The subtlety of fruit and salty seafood freshness complements the crisp, fresh and fruity flavours in the glass. Strong flavours like citrus and heavily spiced food overpower the flavour of Champagne and work less well.

The final tip is of course to see and hear, to be present and seize the moment. At my recent tasting event, the presence of Champagne added to the sense of occasion. For me, it’s the stories of Champagne that set it apart, and the attention to detail of its artisanal creation. On that basis, it deserves to be part of our most memorable moments and is very much worth toasting. 

The next Supper Club will take place on Friday 23rd June. Find out more here.

Written by Robert Etheridge, writer at The Dapper Chapper
Photography by A.C. Cooper.