Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

As our loyal readers know, the BasketCases like drinking champagne almost as much as we like watching basketball. Like any wine, champagne is something that can (and should) be enjoyed year round, no special occasion necessary. But New Year's Eve is inextricably linked to popping a bottle of the sparkling stuff, and so we bring you once again a BasketCases tribute to our favorite wine.

These lovely bottles are in a shop window in Reims, France, the heart of the Champagne region. We wish we had stores like this in our neighborhood!

This is where it all begins . . . the vineyards of Champagne.

Epernay, France, is home to one of the best-named streets in the entire world. The sign says it all!

The champagne houses in Reims age their wine in ancient Roman chalk cellars 100 feet below ground. The cellars are humid and stay at a constant (chilly) temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round, perfect conditions for storing wine. The cellars are also quite dark, another benefit, as light is no friend of wine! These are the famous steps down into the cellars of Champagne Pommery.

The cellars in Reims and Epernay contain miles and miles of narrow galleries literally filled with millions and millions of bottles of aging champagne. If you are a fan of champagne, walking around in these cellars is like being a little kid in a candy store. (Except that you can't buy those bottles, or even take a sip!)

As champagne undergoes its second fermentation in the bottle, carbon dioxide is formed, resulting in those all-important bubbles. But there's another by-product of the second fermentation -- dead yeast and other sediment, called lees. That's the dark gunky stuff along the inside of the bottle above. Champagne ages "on the lees" (that is, with the lees in the bottle) for at least a year and, in the case of the finest champagnes, for many years. Naturally, the lees are removed (disgorged) before the wine is ready for sale.

In the "old days," after the champagne had aged on the lees, the bottles were placed at an angle in riddling racks, and were turned by hand a few degrees each day and tipped further upside down by skilled workers called riddlers, allowing the lees over the course of about a month to settle slowly in the necks where they could easily be disgorged. Good riddlers would turn thousands of bottles a day (a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome). In most houses, the process has now been mechanized, with the bottles packed into metal cages and turned by machine. No doubt more efficient, but certainly not as romantic or picturesque.

The Eiffel Tower it isn't, but the barrel above -- the world's largest champagne barrel -- took second prize to that now-iconic structure at the 1889 World Exposition in Paris. (We have no idea what came in third.) The barrel was the brainchild of Eugene Mercier, founder of Mercier Champagne in Epernay, who wanted to (and apparently did) make a big splash at the Exposition. Getting the barrel the 90 or so miles from Epernay to Paris (and then back again) in the days before superhighways and 18-wheelers was no easy feat. It took about 20 horses and two dozen oxen . . . and five homes along the way had to be destroyed to make room for the giant cask. The barrel holds approximately 200,000 bottles of champagne, and is now on display at the House of Mercier in Epernay. Mercier champagne is not sold in the United States. But don't despair. It's not very good. Still, it's a fun place to visit, as you can tour the cellars on a little Disney-esque train, and of course see The Barrel up close!

We won't be drinking anything tonight as old as these vintages locked away in Veuve Clicquot's cellars in Reims (which might just have turned into vinegar by now anyway), but we promise you it will be good. If you'd like some personal recommendations from the BasketCases, just follow this link to our blog from last year. One warning, however -- with the dollar doing so poorly against the euro, expect prices on champagne to be higher. But still worth it!

And just remember: if it didn't come from Champagne, it isn't champagne. (But that's okay. As we've said before, there are wonderful other -- and often less expensive -- sparkling wines out there, especially from California. So enjoy!)

And whatever you may be drinking or not drinking, Happy New Year, everyone!!

Photo Credits: DC BasketCases


At 5:11 AM, Anonymous martin said...

Epernay France is a very pretty town. It is having perfectly maintained vineyards into the valleys. There are about 15,000 growers out of which 4,100 produce their own champagne to taste different champagne we occasionally stopped off in the vicinity.


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