Vive la champagne

At the moment he discovered champagne, Dom Perignon is said to have exclaimed :

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” Several hundred years on and the magic and mystique of French champagne has not waned. Jo Bailey was lucky enough to sample several top champagnes at a recent Master-class. But would she know when to swirl, sniff, slurp and spit?

champagneOne of the perks of this writing lark is that from time to time you get invited to a very special event. I’ve never been one to turn down the opportunity to socialise, in fact it has been joked that I would attend the opening of an envelope. So you can imagine my delight when I received an email from Keryl Direen, the owner of Christchurch’s newest wine store, Eadie Fye’s, asking if I would like to attend a Champagne Masterclass with Moet-Hennessy’s “entertaining and sublimely informative” brand ambassador, Greg Williams. It was a tough assignment, but someone had to do it!

The salivating began as soon I perused the list of champagnes we would be sampling. They were premium wines from some of the world’s finest champagne houses – Ruinart, Veuve Cliquot and Krug – a very long way from the Cold Duck and Pink Chardon that had provided my first introduction to “bubbly” wine as a teenager.

And with that thought, the nerves started to kick in. I would be attending the event with a select group of wine aficionados, but I was a bit of a champagne virgin myself (apart from a flying visit to the Champagne region on my big OE in the early 90s). And when it came to wine tasting etiquette, I really didn’t have a clue. How would I possibly remember in what order to swirl, sniff, slurp and spit? Would I really be able to suck air through the wine in my mouth without choking, or spit it out elegantly without dribbling down my chin? And surely it would be a total travesty to spit out some of the world’s most incredible wines?

I was the first guest to be welcomed by the lovely Keryl and her husband Gerard at Eadie Fye’s on the evening of the Masterclass. A glass of bubbles was immediately popped into my hand and I was introduced to Greg Williams, who had travelled to New Zealand from Sydney for series of ‘Sensory Journeys’ designed to bring the consumer and Moet-Hennessy’s brands together. After meeting and greeting my fellow samplers, we took a seat around a large, beautifully laid table at the front of the store, where during the week, customers enjoy tastings from Eadie Fye’s Italian designed Enomatic Wine Serving System. But tonight it was all about champagne, and the Masterclass was in for a treat thanks to the master storyteller Greg Williams who provided us with a fascinating glimpse into the world’s most prestigious wine region.

One thing I did know was that only wine made in Champagne from grapes grown in the region can be called champagne. What I didn’t know was that the earliest sparkling wines were made by accident after warm weather set off secondary fermentation. In fact Dom Perignon spent half his working life trying to keep the bubbles out of his wine, as he didn’t think the style would catch on! It wasn’t until the late 1700s that cork was used instead of hemp-wrapped wooden stoppers to seal the wine and the producers of the Champagne region really began to understand how to blend the different grape varieties, and harness the bubbles. (Although they still had to contend with their share of exploding bottles!)

The Champagne region has survived political struggle, riots, and revolts, and in the twentieth century, two World Wars, when its vineyards became battlefields. Greg told us that several of the winemakers continued to grow  their grapes throughout WWI –  risking the lives of their hapless pickers, who they sent crawling under the barbed wire to harvest the crop. Today the region covers 37,000 ha, producing between 300-320 million bottles a year, which still isn’t enough to meet demand from the world market.

After the history lesson it was time to taste our first wine – Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, from Ruinart founded in 1729 and reportedly the world’s oldest champagne house. Greg told us to give the wine a swirl in the glass, then get our “schnoz” into it. “What are you getting?” he asked. “A wet nose,” quipped Gerard. Made solely from Chardonnay grapes, the pale gold wine was smooth to taste and would be perfect for an afternoon beside the pool, I decided. It was a relief that we weren’t expected to spit, and could savour the full experience of the wine.

After trying Ruinart’s elegant Rose, it was onto the wines from Veuve Cliquot, founded in 1772 and made famous by Madame Cliquot, “la Grande Dame de la Champagne”. Widowed at just 27 in 1805, she took over the rein’s of her husband’s family business and successfully built the champagne house to be among the region’s most prestigious – proving that she truly was a businesswoman ahead of her time. She was also responsible for inventing the riddling table which removed the cloudiness of the wine. After the citrus notes of the Brut Yellow Label, we tried the Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame 1998 – a tribute to the grand dame herself, that retails in excess of $250 a bottle. The crystal clear champagne was sublime to swirl, sniff and taste. I was really starting to get the hang of this tasting business and was most pleased that I hadn’t been asked to suck any air through the wine, or to spit a drop!

Then it was on to the Krug champagne, an experience that Greg promised would be “life changing”. Since 1843, six generations of the Krug family have painstakingly crafted and cultivated their unique champagne, often regarded as a favourite by the world’s wine experts. We sampled the Krug Grande Cuvee first. “Pop it in your mouth,” said Greg. “It’s an astonishing wine.” The gleaming golden wine with its creamy texture can be the result of the blending of up to 50 wines from three varieties, 20-25 growths and six to ten different years. “It’s the ultimate expression of the Krug style,” he said. Then it was on to the Krug Vintage 1995, which at $399.95 a bottle is not a wine you treat yourself to every weekend! I savoured the richness and fullness of every single drop of the pale gold nectar.

The rather well-heeled businessman I was seated next to said he had purchased a bottle of the Krug Vintage 1995 from Eadie Fye‘s, and was so concerned about getting his investment safely home that he had strapped the bottle into the passenger’s seat for the drive! This man truly loved his champagne. “My perfect day would be Moet in the morning, Cliquot in the afternoon and Krug in the evening,” he mused.

So after a relaxed evening spent in great company in a wonderful setting, I left the warmth of Eadie Fye’s and stepped into the cold Christchurch night – with my face a little flushed, and my knowledge of champagne considerably improved. I’m not sure champagne can be “life changing” as Greg suggests, but it definitely makes life look a whole lot better.

By Jo Bailey