Asking Stupid Questions About Champagne

Jul 11, 2011 3:01 pm

A Dom Pérignon winemaker offers a Champagne primer

Dom Perignon Champagne on ice
Three vintages of Dom Pérignon Champagne, on ice of course
 
Vincent Chaperon Dom Perignon winemaker
Vincent Chaperon of Dom Pérignon admiring his work
 

Like a lot of guys, I used to buy champagne based on price and label: the more expensive and French-sounding was good, I’d reason, while Freixenet and anything reading “sparkling wine” was, well, less good. (The sad thing was, I’d actually been to Eparney and toured wineries in the Champagne region.)

Fortunately, I’ve since had writing gigs that have led to me being educated by some of France’s great winemakers, but I remember some of the questions that I used to avoid asking because I didn't want to sound stupid. 

Offered a chance to meet with Dom Pérignon winemaker Vincent Chaperon in NYC a few months ago — his official title is Oenologist — I figured hit him up for a serious 101 course in at least a few aspects of the bubbly to share with others who are afraid to ask. Chaperon, a down-to-earth 35-year-old with five years under his belt at the famed house, obliged. As we sipped Dom Pérignon vintages from 1996, 2000 and 2002, Chaperon politely and patiently walked me through some basics about glassware, refrigeration and yes, how to open a bottle. (Note: for those wanting more advanced advice, check back soon for Chaperon's thoughts on pairing Champagne with different foods.)

Why are we drinking out of wine glasses rather than champagne flutes?
We think that for Dom Pérignon, you need a wine glass to enjoy it. I would not advise it for all champagne because most champagne is a gentle, light wine and you have to focus on the freshness and fizziness, so it is better to have it in a narrow flute. If you put them into a large glass, they would be completely lost because they don’t have the intensity and complexity to develop in such a big glass.

Why are these Dom Pérignon Champagnes from specific years?
Dom Pérignon is only doing vintages — that means wine made from grapes coming from one single year. In Champagne, 80-90% of the wine is made with different years; they are blends called non-vintages. Doing [only vintages] is riskier for us because that means we do not have the possibility to use other years to reach consistency, but it gives the wine more personality. We are aging our wine a minimum of seven years even though the law only requires a minimum 15 months.

Another question I had is about refrigeration. If you’re in a hurry, can you put champagne in your refrigerator?
You can keep it for a while in the fridge without too many problems. Of course, we are not talking about years, but weeks or months in the fridge will not have a huge impact. The only impact you will have will be from the light, which is different from keeping it in your cellar or another place where there is no light. Champagne doesn’t like too much light.

So what temperature should Champagne be kept at?
The temperature of the fridge is ok. The perfect temperature is around 12 degrees Celsius (about 54 degrees Fahrenheit). I don’t like keeping champagne in the freezer, I think it is too aggressive, a shock to the wine and it can have consequences for the quality of the wine. I prefer to advise that you put the bottom on ice with a little bit of water and then you wait about 15 minutes to open it.

What about opening the bottle? Any tricks?
I think one thing that is really important is to open it with two hands and to have the cork in the right hand and to turn, not the right hand or the cork, but to turn the bottom of the bottle. You have more strength when you do that and you control the stoppage better. Once you have taken off the wire, it is important to keep a hand on the top.


Any questions about Champagne that you want answered? Fire away in the comments and we'll go back to Vincent Chaperon for answers.

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