A few days ago a little lady came up to me to recommend a half bottle of champagne for her New Year's Eve celebration. Poor dear, I thought. She's spending New Year's alone.
"I come here every year for my champagne," she said, prompting me to invite her to visit more than just once a year.
"I love champagne, but it doesn't love me," she answered. I asked her why.
"It goes right to my head and makes me dizzy--really loopy," she answered. That might be another explanation for the half bottle, I suppose.
I've heard that the bubbles in a bottle of champagne are an alcohol-delivery-system, sort of an accellerant to loopsville. How or if that works, scientifically, is beyond me. It could be one of those old wive's tales that helps explain waking up in a strange bed the next morning with someone you don't quite recognize.
Then again, like all alcoholic beverages, champagne works differently on different people.
No one knows the individualized ways people respond to champange better than Samantha Dugan, observer extraordinaire. Sam is The Wine Country's champagne buyer (more details at her blog firstname.lastname@example.org), a person who has been conducting seminars and tastings at least five times a year for more than a decade. She is devoted to small-grower champagnes most people have never heard of (75% of all champagne bought in America are from three houses--kind of like the diversity of catsup brands), and she evaluates bubblies from a different lens than most once-a-year champagne drinkers.
Samantha believes, and I agree, that a good champagne is a good wine before the bubbles are even created. And truly good wine is made in the vineyard, not in a lab. For some, the fizz is the magic--you'll see them enjoying California plonk-with-carbonation at Sunday all-you-can-drink brunches. But with Sam, it's all about the wine first.
Occasionally we'll encounter an occasional champagne drinker swearing about the quality of a brand that makes a million cases each year.
"I looooove Veuve Clicquot! It's the best!"
Well, maybe, if the best is a choice between that and Korbel. But put a glass of Yellow Label next to a glass of Billiot, Camille Saves, Jose Dhondt, Agrapart or R. H. Coutier and see which bubbly tastes better. Our grower-champagnes are more complex, deeper, more flavorful, more individual than the mass-produced one, and they have a longer, more satisfying aftertaste than the main brands. After drinking them for a year or so, even the so-called tete-de-cuvees of the big houses--Dom Perignon, Krug, La Grande Dame, Roederer Cristal--seem lacking, although their prices certainly aren't.
To be fair, some champagne connoisseurs swear by the quality of wines like Dom when held in perfect cellars for 20 years. I hope someone shares some with me one day. But in all practicality, most of us buy champagne off the shelves to drink now. That's where a little experience, discernment and some advice from Samantha will serve you very well. Most important, it'll increase your appreciation for the stuff so that it isn't just a once-a-year ritual.
Indeed, over the past twelve or thirteen years, Samantha has introduced so many people to her selection of favorite producers, I am amazed at how many people go straight to their Agrapart or Pierre Peters, and how relatively few people ask us these days for Moet or Clicquot. It can be daunting at first to spend $40-$50-$60 or $70 on a bubbly you've never heard of. (Maybe New Year's Eve is an exception because so many people haven't heard of anything, but want a quality bubbly for midnight and will spend the money for the experience.) But once you've cleared that hurdle, good things are about to happen. Find out for yourself.
In a perfect world, Samantha would like to have more people integrate champagne into their lives throughout the year. We've always touted it as the perfect ice-breaker to kick off dinner parties, and Samantha's bubblies are wines so full-flavored she even likes to serve them with certain dinner courses. Or with fries and potato chips. And there is nothing like an unexpected pop of a cork to brighten the end of an otherwise dull day. This kind of $40 indulgence will do more for matrimonial harmony than a $40 Chardonnay, I'm willing to bet.
The past two days have been an exhausting, but gratifying lead-up to New Year's Eve, which at the time of this writing is tonight. On Thursday, Samantha hosted a tasting of champagnes priced $40 and under from 4:30 to 6:45. Then she and her crew cleaned up quickly and set up for the first of two nightly seminars showcasing her "Best Champagnes of 2011," each commencing at 7:30. All three events exceeded our expectations--people were eager to throw off this lousy year with a bang, and they came ready to enjoy themselves.
And they did. Emmensely. At the conclusion of the second night's seminar, those in attendance rose to their feet and applauded Samantha and her courage to fight the tyranny of the mediocre.
And they bought a lot of great-tasting champagnes that night. You might not recognize the names of those tiny houses, but you'll love sipping on their wines. If not tonight, soon.
And if Samantha has her way, often.