Champagne: For Frivolous Gigs, Fizz Under Wigs
Turn on the bubble-a machine-a! A little-a champagne-a music, Maestro! Champagne's the wine for all special occasions -- birthdays, weddings, funerals, christenings, bar-mitzvahs, holiday feasts, New Year's Eve, my wife just came in the room, it's 5 o'clock (somewhere), somebody laughed ... I've said it before: The reason the obscenely rich drink champagne for all seasons/reasons is that there just is no better drink. Goes beautifully with everything -- or nothing. And ineffable magic seems to lurk in each glass, a genie of mirth, an incubus of passion, a quality that brings out the Puck in anyone. Never felt this from a bottle of bubbly? Maybe because an awful lot of plain plonk masquerades as real champagne while being little better than T-bird with a splash of soda.Start with basics: Champagne is a region in France, and only their sparklers can legitimately be called champagnes -- all else is just sparkling wine, although some of these can be very, very good. This fact has not prevented some wine factories, particularly in California, from marketing carbonated guck as champagne -- think of stacked boxes of $5 fizzybilge in supermarkets. The result is that many Americans drink gunge and think champagne tastes like gassy sinkwater and gives a nasty headache. Borders on criminal.Fine champagne -- and sparkling wine -- is probably the most challenging winemaking art. Ducking technical details, let's just say it takes a raftload of fussing, some VLMs (Very Large Machines) and tons of patience to take fine wine and make it sparkle just so in a bottle at six atmospheres of pressure. Every part of the process is expensive -- just one of those fat, deformed corks can cost up to $2 -- so, as always, we have to pony up for quality.Note: The cheap way to make still wines bubble is called the charmat or bulk process. Most of the supermarket gunk is made this way. The best way is called methode champenoise, the champagne method. Check the label.Champagnes and all good sparklers come in various styles, called body, depending on the grapes used. Two red grapes -- pinot noir and pinot meunier -- impart full flavors and sometimes a tinge of color, although the winemakers usually extract the flavors without allowing much skin contact that would redden the juice. The white grape -- chardonnay -- is more delicate in flavor but brings a citrus note. Full-bodied sparklers use more of the red grape wine; medium-bodied wines use less; light-bodied wines, often labeled blanc de blancs, are usually all chardonnay and likely to be light and fluffy as goose down. All can be delicious.Another style point has to do with sweetness. The driest are brut, less dry are called extra-dry, less than dry are called dry, then there's doux, French for sweet, meaning sweet. See how sensible and sane is winethink? Good. Ready for winework? Time to go to the store.Oops, one more point. Sparklers are famous for bottle size, meaning you can get BIG bottles for BIG events: standard bottle is 750 ml, OK? Double that to magnum (1.5 ml, 2 btls). Then: Jeroboam (3 L, 4 btls), Rehoboam (4.5/6), Methuselah (6/8), Salmanazar (9/12), Balthazar (12/16). Imagine friends' expressions at the party when you stagger in the door totin' a Nebuchadnezzar, 15 liters, 20 bottles in one. Do not shake. Note: Any size larger than Jeroboam will have to be special ordered, so plan for such effects.Shopping for bubbly takes more planning: Think of what's at stake, buy accordingly:Mother of All Nights: Go top shelf, true wonderfizz, Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame or Dom Perignon 1990 vintage ($110). Great wines, full-bodied, full-flavored, bubbles like icy needles.Grand Gestures: Bollinger Grande Annee 1989 Brut ($60), full body and flavor, delicious blend, fine bubbles, impressive.California Creamin': Never met anyone unmoved at sight of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($26), but the Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee 1994 ($24) carries a nice message. The best of Cal, though, comes from a French-owned house, Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley ($18) -- lovely flavors that hint of filberts, pears, toast.Oregon Natural: Someday Oregon will be known as a great sparkler producer, according to Mark Vlossak, who makes the very good St. Innocent '92 Brut ($14). Argyle '93 Brut ($19) is also very good, drawing attention from winepress. Budget tight, spirit right: Try Spain, Segura Viudas Brut Reserve ($8) for toasty flavors, satisfying. South of France (Limoux) turns out lovely Michel Olivier Blanc de Blancs ($10.50).Safety notes: When opening sparklers, keep bottle tilted at 45-degree angle, pointing cork away from self and others. Keep a tight grip on cork, rotate the bottle. When you feel cork pushing out, hold firmly and rotate cork, letting gasses escape. Keep bottle tilted to pour. Do not shake or slamdance while pouring.And, most important: DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE!