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Wine Corner: Celebrate with Fizz

Wine Corner: Celebrate with Fizz


CHAMPAGNE is the most famous wine in today's world and used to celebrate any occasion, from Hollywood premieres and Formula 1 to New Year's Eve or the birth of a baby. My wife always keeps a bottle of Champagne in the fridge because she says: "You never know when there will be a reason to celebrate, even if it's just a Friday night." She takes the Boy Scout motto, "be prepared",  very seriously - so much so that her friends have started calling her Aunty Bubbles.

Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by the traditional method in the Champagne region of France. As a result of a recent EU ruling, sparkling wines produced outside this small geographical area cannot use the name. 

Legend would have us believe that sparkling champagne was invented by Dom Perignon, a monk who became a cellar master at Hautvillers in northeastern France in 1668.

However, six years earlier, Dr Christopher Merret had described how English coopers added sugar to still wines to make them sparkle. In the mid-1660s there was a strong demand in London for "brisk and sparkling wines".

At the same time, the French refugee Marquis de Saint Evremont had made the still wines of the Champagne region popular at the English court.

It was only in London that the two necessities for the sale of sparkling wine - solid glass bottles and cork stoppers - were available. These did not reach France for another 25 years or so.

Ironically, Dom Perignon actually spent much of his life trying to stop the second fermentation of wine that forms part of the champagne-making process since he thought it was a fault in the production, and he died without knowing that he was producing one of the most celebrated of today's wines.  

Labour of love

Champagne is one of the most difficult wines to make. Its also a difficult region to understand.

The workhorse champagne wine is the non-vintage (NV) that accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the total production.

The name of the NV game is consistency, derived from blending together wines from several vintages. The master blender will take care that every time the consumer picks up a bottle of, say, Yellow Label, the wine tastes exactly the same.

Every time a champagne producer makes a vintage wine, the consumer can be assured that the year and the wine are good.

Vintage wine is produced only in exceptional years. The aim of vintage wine is different - it shouldn't be uniform. It is crafted to reflect the character of the vintage year.

As a point of interest, vintage Champagne should be made 100 percent from the wines of the vintage.

Vintages are mostly made from pinot noir and chardonnay, due to their better ageing capacity. The fruit-forward pinot meunier is mostly used for the NVs for its instant accessibility.

The minimum ageing by law for vintages is three years in the bottle, but most of the houses tend to age their vintages for more than five years. That will reflect in developing toasty and yeasty aromas from vintage champagne.


Another alternative is the sparklers made in the New World.

Some of them are made using the traditional method and are of high quality and low price. Pelorus from New Zealand is a perfect example. Good sparklers are made in California and in Tasmania or Yarra Valley in Australia.

Very good value-for-money is Spain - the second major European producer of traditional-method sparkling wine, known as Cava. The trade centres on the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, where the cellars rival those of Champagne.

The majority of wines are produced in the Catalan vineyards of Penedes but can also be produced in a number of other regions. These include Rioja, Navarra and Utiel-Requena. 

A minimum of nine months ageing in bottle before disgorgement is required by law.

Most Cava is dry and low in acidity. The flavour will vary considerably with the grapes that have been used.

Penedes Maccabeo (called Viura in Rioja) offers rather neutral wines, Xarel-lo can be strongly flavoured and earthy and Parellada imparts a hint of apples.

Most producers are now using Chardonnay grapes, which can supply much-needed fruit and acidity.

For celebrations, Phnom Penh supermarkets like Lucky and Pencil are offering a good selection of sparklers, including champagne, at reasonable prices.

If you prefer more choices, Red Apron offers an extensive selection of champagnes, New World bubbles and Cavas.

If you really feel the need to go the extra mile and splash out on a top-drawer vintage, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1998, with its tropical fruits and ripe, rich, creamy tones comes in at US$208. 

For those unwilling to take out a second mortgage, my favourite is Laurent Perrier NV, one of the best-known names, always beautifully balanced with sweet, biscuity fruit, and reasonably priced at $57.

If your pocket isn't that deep, a good option is the exotic yet citrusy Trivento Extra Brut from Argentina - a steal at $11.50.    

So next time Friday comes around or your cat has kittens or there is absolutely no reason at all, make sure you get out the fizz and pop a cork in celebration.  

Petko Kisyov is an advanced sommelier, with diplomas from the Spirit Education Trust of London,  the City & Guilds of London Institute and the MB Institute in France.


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