1. When the bottle comes to the table, it’s like the arrival of a very beautiful woman who is a little late, but not too late. Her flushed state, flustered mildly at being the center of attention, only heightens your expectation of her company.
As she is readied, all talk ceases, a little mental space established for anticipation. You glance at the bottle, the lustrous sheen of its foil, the slender cursive of its name on the label, gleaming slightly from an interval in ice. You ready your glass. Celebration is in the air.
It is the holidays, and your glass is a flute, and in a moment your flute will contain something that for more than 300 years has signified an inimitable pleasure. If you’re ready, your first sip of Champagne awaits you.
2. You loosen the foil, twist the metal cage restraining the cork, lay the cage carefully on the table like a tiny footstool destined for a curio cabinet. You hold the cork in the crook of your thumb, turn the bottle as you grasp the punt, easing the cork from its sheath, leaving it to swell in your hand as you hear the tiny gasp the bottle produces as it releases its first breath. You catch that sharp, almost acrid wisp of yeast as it escapes, having been trapped for many long months and not yet possessing the expansive aromas that oxygen will soon bestow upon the wine’s perfume.
For God’s sake, do not let the wine bubble over. Do not spill a drop. You may wish to practice on a few lesser bottles — Cremant, Mousseaux, Lambic — before you open a bottle of great Champagne.
EIGHT GREAT CHAMPAGNES
Recommendations from wine critic Patrick Comiskey:
2002 Dom Perignon Brut: citrusy, concentrated, thrillingly mineral.
2004 Louis Roederer Brut Cristal: stony, driven, sensuously rounded.
MV Krug Brut Grand Cuvee: opulent, deep, profoundly structured.
1995 Charles Hiedsieck Brut Blanc des Millenaires: toasty, nutty, voluptuously expansive.
NV Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru Reserve: pristine, precise, finely herbal.
NV Vilmart & Cie., Grand Cellier Brut: floral, appley, luxuriously honeyed.
NV Agrapart & Fils Blanc de Blancs Brut "Les 7 Crus": lemony, nutty, beautifully composed.
NV Larmandier-Bernier Brut "Terre de Vertus": bracing, stony, intensely long.
3. If you can, put your ear to the flute and listen. In fine crystal, the wine can be faintly musical, percussive. Other sparkling wines effervesce, but compared with great Champagne the sound they make is a thick, crudely eruptive spume.
Champagne does not possess that sort of aggression. Its mousse is finer, quieter, more delicate. It is telling you to lean in, and so you must.
4. After the wine settles, it is transformed into something more composed, the mousse as measured and elegant as a candle flame. The word for this is perlage, a beautiful word that describes roughly how the bubbles look and feel. But there is something about the sound of the word itself that suggests it was invented for this very experience. In fact, it serves as an analog for the sensuality of the bubbles as they strike your mouth. That’s perlage as in “pearl,” perlage as in “ah,” as in that beautiful “zh” sound of the French “g.”
As for the sound itself: The perlage of Champagne is like the sea on a summer’s day from some distance, the sound of the waves retreating softly into low tide. It is not a crashing but a distant, rippling hum. If you try to hear it, you cannot.
5. It is not quite gold, the color, but it is a word you want to use. Of course, the color is brighter than this: cereal chaff, the back of an autumn gingko leaf, glints of straw and lemon pip, bits of shortbread. It is paler than gold, in every way lighter.
6. Breathe it. You cannot exactly smell Champagne; something about how the gas escaping the surface gets in the way. So you breathe it, with your mouth slightly open so your mouth can smell it too.
As the wine comes up in temperature, the aromas become easier to detect, they lift up to you the way warm air rises in an orchard on an autumn morning. Like most great wine, if you try to isolate the scent you’ll be frustrated; if you try and describe it, you will lose the sensation of smelling it.
But words will gather anyway, and you may say them to yourself: lemon, pomelo, sea foam, limestone, almonds, hazelnuts, warm bread, pastry dough, brioche, tarte tatin, a crisp apple, a perfectly ripe pear. Let the words come and go. Do not attach to them. As the wine takes on air they will obsolesce anyway. Be Zen about your glass of Champagne.
7. You taste it. There is a flood of autonomic pleasure, hurried along by the wine’s tart edge. There are flavors, immediate flavors, but mostly the sensation is casually shocking, as if your tongue has just been slapped, your taste buds jolted by an electric current borne of fizz and acidity. The wine, meanwhile, is just waking up. After a moment it seems to snap to a kind of attention, gather itself in your mouth until finally the flavors — toast and toffee, pear and apple, lime and yuzu, laced with minerals — form and harmonize, lengthen and fade. That astonishing movement from chaos to clarity is one of great Champagne’s great acts.
8. Despite the extraordinary global reputation Champagne enjoys, despite its synonymity with celebration, despite the prestige that goes along with just saying the word, these are not demonstrative wines. In the glass Champagne isn’t about power or posturing. The best possess a richness shot through with such penetrating acidity that that opulence never feels heavy or indulgent. Like a thundercloud, there’s an incredible sensation of weight and mass, and yet it floats above you without effort. Tension and grace are the lead attributes. It is the anti-sumo: with the elasticity of an acrobat, the tensile strength of a yogini who veers into an impossible position, teetering into the only place where everything can fall into place.
And then it’s all over, until the next sip.
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.
Photo: Champagne in flutes. Credit: Mark Gordon