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Planning Retirement Online

Let's Party!

February 2012  

Let's party in later life article series...

This series looks at some of the more unusual ideas to help you celebrate with style and panache – at affordable price levels, of course!

To see the full list of articles see the main Celebrating in Later Life page

by LaterLife features editor Sally Smith

Let's Party!  Special celebrations, this month: The very best champagne!

ChampagneIt’s time to celebrate! Whether it is a special anniversary, birthday, or other occasion, there is nothing like a sip of the bubbly to create that real party spirit. In our monthly feature on entertaining and celebration, we look at CHAMPAGNE!


Champagne is a sparkling white wine. Most people know that real champagne comes from a specific area of France, although the actual word comes from the Latin campagna which means general countryside. Generally the stories say that a 17th century Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon was the first to make champagne, but in fact champagne was made before his involvement in different parts of France.

However, monk Perignon did play a major role in developing the drink that we enjoy today. For a start, he was an expert at growing excellent grapes; he also developed many advances in the production methods, including holding the cork in place with a wire collar that is so essential in champagne bottling.

For a sparkling wine to be officially labelled Champagne, it must be produced using the method champenoise, and made with chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes grown in the special Champagne region in northeast France. The earth in this region includes several deep layers of chalk as well as soil similar to that found in the southeast of England, and this together with the climate here are believed to help produce the unique flavour of Champagne. There are around 300 official “champagne” villages across the region which are all officially graded for the potential of their grape quality, and there are a handful that are designated as the very best, or Grand Cru, vineyards.

Most Champagne is blended from a mix of all three of these grapes. More unusually you can find a Champagne from only one type of grape, perhaps blanc de blancs which means the drink has been made only from chardonnay grapes.

Making champagne is a complex, tightly regulated and also a lengthy process. It includes the vital aspects of a second fermentation, when the bottles are capped and placed in cool chalk cellars for at least 18 months. This is when that firmly fixed cap is important, as CO2 is created during the secondary fermentation but because it can’t escape, it dissolves into the liquid. The next process is “remuage”, when the bottle is gradually tilted over from horizontal to upside down. This takes a few weeks and when complete, the neck of the bottle is dipped into freezing brine solution which turns the dead yeast cells into a solid mass which are released before final corking and wiring.

There are of course many additional aspects involved in making good champagne, and many different types of champagne are also made, including vintage or non vintage (NV) champagne.

Vintage champagnes are the most expensive, as all the grapes are harvested during a single year and usually only when the grapes have had a very strong growing season. These wines are also usually aged longer than non-vintage wines. Premium vintage champagne (also known as prestige cuvée) is made from select grapes from the best vineyards of the year. Even more expensive and exclusive are the de-luxe cuvées, usually made with grapes from the Grand Cru vineyards. They can cost perhaps three times more than fine vintage Champagne.

However, even for the best celebrations, most of us are very happy indeed with non-vintage champagne because although they are made from grape blends from several different years, nevertheless the finished drink is usually very good indeed.

Champagne also comes in different sweetnesses:

Brut indicates a dry champagne, usually containing no more than 1.5% sugar. You can also buy ultra or extra Brut where no sugar has been added. The taste here is very dry indeed.

For softer pallets, extra dry or extra sec champagne gives a slightly sweeter taste with up to 2% sugar.
Dry or sec champagne contains up to 4% sugar while, if you go on up the sweetness scale, demi-sec can contain up to 8% sugar and doux, or sweet champagne, can contain up to 10% sugar. It is just a matter of taste.

Like fashion, champagne is created by “champagne houses” and the laws that govern the setting up and running of these houses are very strict. Most people stick with well known names such as Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, Pol Roger and Charles Heidsieck but once you know a little bit what you are looking for, you may be able to find some lovely Champagnes from a range of Champagne houses.

Most people buy champagne for a special event and therefore it is drunk quite quickly. However, most champagne can be stored for up to two years, ideally in a cool dark place with a temperature of around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

To open the bottle, it’s great to release the cork with a big pop to add to the celebrations, but this usually means the champagne will bubble out as well and some will be lost before you can get it to the glasses to begin pouring. One good way is to remove the wire but keep your thumb pressing down on the cork to prevent an early release. Then tilt the bottle away from you and holding the cork firmly, gently twist the bottle until you feel the cork beginning to loosen. Then ease the cork out slowly by releasing pressure on it. This usually results in a very gentle “pop” and a lot less wastage!

There are of course today numerous sparkling white wines available, but for that true celebration, there is still an aura about genuine French Champagne.

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