For a lot of folks this is bubbly season, and I’m reminded of Christopher Walken and his over-the-top, worldly, smoking-jacket-wearing debonair character on Saturday Night Live, in which he affectedly entices women with “Champagna” (Cham-pane-ya) and dramatic hand flourish. Cracks me up.
Even if tortured I would never admit to ever having watched Lawrence Welk.
And… when I heard the fantastic news that the London Chop House — that clubby bastion of old Detroit civility — was reopening downtown, I thought of Cold Duck, the sparkling wine invented, a lot of people don’t know this, in 1937 by Harold Borgman, the owner of Pontchartrain wine cellars. The exact recipe now varies, but the original married one part Californian red wine with two parts New York sparkling wine. Oh, the good ol’ days of seeing who reposed at table number 1 on any given night.
Of course, Cold Duck is nowhere near capital “C” Champagne, which is produced exclusively within the Champagne region of France, primary grapes being Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Some countries including the United States allow sparkling wine producers to use “champagne” under limited circumstances, particularly those employing methode champenoise, the traditional process by which Champagne is produced. But it ain’t Champagne, folks.
Neither are Italy’s spumante or prosecco, although both are quite tasty (and yes, less expensive). Who doesn’t enjoy a Bellini cocktail made with prosecco and peach puree, sometimes peach schnapps, too. Then there are Spain’s cava and Germany’s sekt, and cap classique is a category of South African sparkling wines. Within France, Burgundy and Alsace produce cremant, which are made like Champagne.
Kindly indulge some history. Champagne first achieved world renown because of its association with the anointment of French kings at coronation festivities, establishing its association with luxury and power. The Romans were the first to plant vineyards in northeast France by around the 5th century. The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, said to have been invented by Benedictine Monks in 1531. In France, the first sparkling Champagne was reportedly created accidentally; its pressure led it to be called “the devil’s wine” as bottles exploded or the cork ejected.
Speaking of explosions, an initial burst of effervescence, for reasons more chemical than I’ll go into here, occurs when the Champagne contacts the dry glass upon pouring. Speaking of glasses, ever watch those Bogart, Bette Davis flicks from way back and notice folks using squatty stemware for their bubbly? . A far cry from more appropriate flutes used today, eh?
But I digress. Today, Champagne is used widely at sports celebrations, and to launch ships. But woe if the bottle doesn’t break upon hitting the hull; that’s said to be bad luck (or more likely, a wimpy strike).
So, you’ve got more than 100 Champagne houses and 19,000 smaller wine-growing producers in Champagne, wine types ranging from prestige cuvee and blanc de noir to blanc de blanc and rose’, depending upon blending and grapes used. Champagne is mostly fermented in two sizes of bottles: standard and the larger magnum, the latter thought to be of higher quality since there’s less oxygen in the bottle. In terms of sweetness, there’s Brut Natural or Zero, Extra Brut or Brut, the driest and most common.
And you know darned well that if there are any purported health benefits to imbibing I simply must point them out. Three years ago the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that moderate consumption of Champagne might help the brain cope with the trauma of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. All the more reason to supplement your diet with Champagne cocktails.
In closing, let me say that while I love Champagne, and carry a gargantuan supply of it and all sparkling wines in our stores, this is the season for love. Let’s have a little Blue Eyes, by way of Cole Porter:
“My story is much too sad to be told,
But practically everything leaves me totally cold.
The exception I know is the case
When I’m out on a quiet spree,
Fighting vainly the old ennui,
And I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face.
I get no kick from Champagne.
Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all.
So tell my why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you?”