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Sparkling Wine - Tasting the Stars

Written by  Harry Haddon | February 19, 2014

What is it about that distinctive little pop that gets the blood flowing, the hair down, and an itch to turn the music up?

These are very good questions, especially at this time of the year after we have all probably popped one too many bottles over the festive season, and are looking to pop a good few come Valentine’s day. The questions become even more interesting when you think that Champagne, the home of sparkling wine, the Mecca of Fizz, the birthplace of bubbly, has the bloodiest history of any wine-producing region.
Attila the Hun marched across this Northern French region in 450 AD, leaving behind a trail of dead and dying.  The 100 Year War and the 30 Year War both ravaged the area, and it was only in the 1660s that there was enough peace to begin making sparkling wine.  The front lines of both the First and Second World Wars cut right across Champagne.  It is truly remarkable that a land that has given us this most celebratory drink, has seen so much bloodshed.  It is due only to the sheer brilliance of sparkling wine - and the marketing smarts of the French - that we celebrate with sparkling wine, and not toast with it at funerals.

"Come quickly I am tasting the stars."

The French have marketed the wine so well they have got us to believe the lie about its creation.  Forget the lies about Dom Perignon, the alleged inventor, a blind monk who is said to have shouted “Come quickly I am tasting the stars” when he first tasted a glass of fizz.  This was all a story started by a group of Champagne producers after the Great Depression, to try and boost sales.  It worked.
The funny thing is that Old Dom tried his hardest to keep bubbles out of his wine. During the warm harvest time in spring, he couldn’t understand why the wine started to fizz.  Dom Perignon hated bubbles.
Dom Perignon didn’t quite understand fermentation, and it was only when we understood the science behind this reaction of yeast and sugar that Sparkling wine could be made in anything like controlled circumstances.  This didn’t stop the French from making loads of it before they had any idea what they were doing.  After they found out that the British liked wine with bubbles, they tried to flog as much as they could across the channel.
But due to a lack of knowledge - and weak glass - sparkling wine production was an incredibly risky business.  During the 1700s, anyone fetching a bottle of sparkling wine from the cellar had to wear an iron mask.  If a bottle exploded in the cellar - which was quite normal - it would set off a chain reaction and Champagne houses could lose up to 90% of their stock in these explosions.  This makes me wonder if the Man in the Iron Mask was not simply a misunderstood sommelier.

Danger, war, stories of blind monks, it is no wonder that sparkling wine is a romantic beverage.  The James Bond of drinks, the tall, dark and handsome stranger of wines.  Would you rather run away with a bottle of fizz, or a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc?  We thought so.

"Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government."

Champagne has always been cool.  Film stars, models, gangsters, Old French monarchs, and Prime ministers have all have had something to say about Champagne.  Winston Churchill was a huge fan, and was rumoured to have drunk two bottles of Pol Roger a day.  Which was probably why he said “Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government.”  Pol Roger was happy enough to jump on the bandwagon, and named their most expensive cuvee the Winston Churchill.
Sparkling wine must be the most quoted beverage with every writer, celebrity, and wit having something to say.  Mark Twain may have had the best saying “One holds a bottle of red wine by the neck, a woman by the waist, and a bottle of Champagne by the derriere.”  

Although Napoleon has given us all reason to drink sparkling wine more often, “I drink Champagne in victory, to celebrate,” he is said to have announced,  “and I drink Champagne in defeat, to console myself.”
In South Africa we are lucky enough to have many very good Methode Cap Classiques.  Which are made in the same way as Champagnes.  That is, bottled still wine is allowed to go through a secondary fermentation in bottle.  This fermentation produces the carbon dioxide bubbles which refresh, rejuvenate, and titillate us everytime we pop the cork.

Everybody should remember Lilly Bollinger’s words thinking about what wine to order. She said, “I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad.  Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.  When I have company, I consider it obligatory.  I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am.  Otherwise I never touch it - unless I’m thirsty.”
Good Sparkling wine is a match to almost any food, and a perfect accompaniment to any occasion.  The bubbles refresh the palate beautifully, and acidity stimulates the saliva glands, preparing us for our meal.
While you can pay a fortune for the finest bubbles, you never need to let a light wallet stop you celebrating life with a bottle of fizz.  Two well-priced MCC’s we have tasted recently are the Van Loveren MCC, a delicate mix of citrus zip, bubbles fine enough for pool-side-sipping, and a hint of red fruit.
Everybody knows Pongracz, an old guard in the South African sparkling wine scene.  It won’t let you down with it’s fine mousse (the cream of the bubbles is called a mousse, the finer the better), and toasty aromas.  A perfect match for the most classic of sparkling wine pairings, Oysters.
If there is one bit of advice we can leave you with, it is to drink more bubbly.  Don’t save it for New Year and Valentines, drink it throughout the year.  Let those bubbles refresh you, and remember the words of Madame Pompadour the mistress of King Louis the 15th, “Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.”