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Champagne Country: Elderhostel adventure uncorks lore of celebrated wine

Thursday, September 26, 2002

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

REIMS, France -- We're on the road to Epernay, and yet another day of Champagne tasting. One of our group of 28 Elderhostelers counted and figures we tasted 14 Champagnes yesterday. Or was it 24? Whatever. No one's complaining.

We've learned to sip and spit to survive.

We've been sipping and spitting Moet & Chandon, Gobillard, Lancelot and other fine Champagnes, many of them not available in the United States. Today we're on our way to Mercier, known as France's favorite house of Champagne. Our morning lecture will be somewhere down in the 10.8 miles of Champagne storage caves dug into limestone, leaving the Champagne to age quietly in constant temperature, darkness and humidity.

It's hard work, but ....

Here are the rules for tasting Champagne:

Choose glasses that are tall and slim enough to allow bubbles and aromas to develop and rise to the surface. Coupe shapes, popularized in old movies and said to be shaped like Marie Antoinette's breasts, are no-nos.

Glasses should be spotlessly clean and free of any traces of detergent or rinsing agent that might flatten the Champagne. Avoid perfume, which will interfere with aromas. Lipstick, too, can interfere with bubbles. The pros prefer clean glasses for each tasting.

Temperature of the Champagne should be 45 to 55 degrees. Chill the bottle for 20 minutes in a bucket filled first with ice cubes, then with ice water added to about half the height of the bucket. Or chill in the refrigerator for three hours.

Cut the foil and undo the wire cage. Grasp the cork in one hand and turn the bottle with the other, holding it at the bottom. The cork will then easily come off by itself.

Fill glasses no more than two-thirds full, allowing space for aromas to circulate.

Champagne glasses are best cleaned by rinsing in warm water without soap, then turned upside down to dry.

-- Woodene Merriman

Bruce May's Tastings

a splendid table wine


Then at lunch we'll taste three Champagne varieties matched with foods by Mercier's oenologist in its tasting room. I, for one, intend to swallow the Champagne served with lunch. This spitting business can be tolerated only so long.

The road from Reims, the cathedral city 80 percent destroyed in World War I, then rebuilt with the help of Americans, rolls through the vineyards. Chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier -- the three grapes of Champagne -- are planted in low, carefully tended rows, as far as we can see.

It was on these roads that triumphant American soldiers arrived in tanks in World War II, cheerfully yelling "barnyard manure" as they rumbled on. They thought they were yelling, "Bon jour, monsieur."

Napoleon came this way, too, many years earlier. At the Moet & Chandon cellars, they tell the story that Napoleon always traveled through Champagne country. If he won a battle, he thought he deserved Champagne. If he lost, he needed it.

Before our first tasting, a spokesman for the Centre Interprofessionel des Vins de Champagne set us straight. Champagne is made only in Champagne. Sparkling wine made anywhere else in the world, even if the traditional methode champenoise is used, is just sparkling wine.

Therefore, Champagne is always spelled with a capital C.

This is the first Food and Wine of Champagne and Alsace study program by Elderhostel, the nonprofit travel organization for people 55 and older. For four days we'll be sipping and comparing Champagnes at large and small Champagne houses. Then it's on to Colmar, where we'll try Alsatian wines in another five days of sipping and spitting. We'll end up in Strasbourg for a half-day visit before flying back to Paris.

It's a two-week tour in all, with some days allotted for traveling, walking tours and visiting cathedrals and museums. Cooking demonstrations, plus meals featuring the local cuisine, are part of the schedule, too.

We were strangers when we met in Paris to start the tour: Lucy the librarian, Henry the ladies' man, Wendy the dancer, Hans the Norwegian, Janet the French teacher. We came from across the United States, California to Puerto Rico. My husband and I are the only Pennsylvanians, and we are the only members of the group on our first international Elderhostel program.

But when you sip and spit Champagne together, carefully holding a white napkin behind the glass to check the color, commenting on the aroma and spitting into a communal "bucket" in the middle of the table, you aren't strangers for long.

The Elderhostelers ask lots of questions, too, and many take notes. We came to learn, and we are. For example:

Dom Perignon didn't invent Champagne. The famed cellar master and steward of the Hautvillers Abbey was just the first to understand and master it, back at the end of the 17th century. Now there are 60 different Champagne houses in his town alone.

White chardonnay grapes give Champagne lightness and freshness, black pinot noir grapes give it a pleasant body and long life, and the black meunier grapes add fruitiness and youth. These three grapes, which thrive on the chalky hillsides of the area, are the only three grapes that, by law, can be used in Champagne.

If Champagne is composed solely of white chardonnay grapes, it's called a blanc de blanc, or white wine from white grapes.

After a first fermentation and the wine has become clear, the Champagne is blended. This blend is called the cuvee. Wines from different years and different vine stocks may be blended to give the Champagne a particular taste. Cellar-masters carefully keep their specific blends a secret.

If the wine of one year is outstanding, the cuvee can be made solely of that wine that year. This champagne is a vintage.

After bottling, the wine is aged a second time. Bottles are placed on racks and turned, or "riddled," each day for several weeks to make a deposit forming inside slide gradually down the side of the bottle onto the cork. The "degorgement" process then ejects this deposit, and more Champagne along with a little cane sugar is added to again fill up the bottle. The amount of cane sugar added determines whether the Champagne is very dry (brut), extra dry, or demi sec, the sweetest.

Champagnes have reached maturity when they are shipped, but at home they can be stored for several years if kept in a cool, dark place.

Champagne goes with anything. It can be an aperitif, or it can be served with dessert, or throughout the meal. Winston Churchill wrote that Champagne should be a daily delight for those who know the true meaning of life. The late Queen of Mum of England apparently took his advice seriously; in her last years, she was said to have started each day with a glass of Champagne. Now that's class.

On this study tour, we had Champagne with cassis (the combination known as Kir royale) for our opening night reception. We've had Champagne sauces on chicken and fish, and sabayon -- -made with champagne -- for dessert.

One lunch featured three kinds of Champagne, each served with bites of six or more foods designed to go with that Champagne. With a brut, for example, we tried fresh goat's cheese with artichoke, lobster in a vegetable sauce and cream cheese with herbs. With a sweeter rose demi-sec, we sampled foie gras risotto, sliced foie gras with dried fruit and baby pear cooked in five spices.

We eat most meals together. One night when we were on our own, His Honor and I went for broke and had dinner at Les Crayeres, the Michelin three-star restaurant of Gerard Boyer. The meal was spectacular, from the foie gras amuse bouchee served in the chateau garden, to the dessert of caramelized mangoes with passion fruit and ice cream flavored with pepper and anise. The price was spectacular, too, according to H.H. He wouldn't let me see the bill.

The restaurant boasts 200 Champagnes on its list. A friendly young family from Hong Kong -- mother, father and preschool daughter -- -were seated at the next table and chatted with us. The father said they would be eating at Les Crayeres for three nights, and with the help of the sommelier, he was trying to pick the three best Champagnes on the list so he could try one each night.

Now that would be a spectacular bill.

Champagne Sauce

Champagne bubbles can't survive the cooking process, so any dry white wine could be used in this recipe. It makes ordinary poached chicken breasts special.

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup Champagne

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add flour and stir into a paste. Add chicken stock, cream and Champagne. Whisk ingredients together. Simmer for 10 minutes over medium heat, and serve immediately over chicken or cooked vegetables, such as asparagus. Serves 4 to 6.

Champagne Sabayon

Try this rich dessert sauce when you have a partial bottle of Champagne left in the refrigerator. It's nice over strawberries or other berries in tall, elegant glasses.

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup Champagne
  • 2 tablespoons Kirsch

Whisk the egg yolks and the sugar together in the top part of a double boiler over boiling water until foamy.

Add the Champagne and whisk constantly until thick and creamy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add the Kirsch and serve immediately. Makes 2 1/2 cups sauce to serve over 4 cups berries. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

"Silver Palate Cookbook" by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukens

Information on Elderhostel can be found at www.Elderhostel.org or by writing to Elderhostel Inc., 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111-1746.

The price of the Food and Wine of Alsace and Champagne trip, including meals, hotels, sightseeing and transportation within France, was $2,715 a person, without airfare .We chose to arrange our own airfare so we could fly directly between Pittsburgh and Paris.

Next in the series:

Sunday: Wining and dining in Alsace
Next Thursday: Munster cheese

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