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Celebrate the season with a serious Champagne
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WINE OF THE MONTH

The wine: Stemmari Dalila 2012.

The grapes: 80 percent grillo, 20 percent viognier.

The source: Sicily.

The verdict: Sicily has been known for producing brawny, not-so-sophisticated red wines. But times are changing in the island on the toe of Italy’s boot. This crisp white, with citrus undertones, is a fine example of the simple, well-made wines being produced there. Grillo is a Sicilian grape variety once widely used in the production of Marsala, the island’s famous fortified wine. Today, with limited demand for Marsala, most grillo is used in blending, as it is with the flirtatious dalila. I’ve been assured it is available in Georgia, though you might have to look around, or check online. It’s wonderful with food or to sip on a warm day. 

The price: About $15.

Mark Oct. 24 on your calendar or your Apple Watch, or whatever. That’s International Champagne Day! So says Champagne Bureau USA.

So what is Champagne?

Technically and legally speaking, Champagne is a sparkling wine (more on that anon) made in the Champagne region of France, north and east of Paris. This region is strictly defined by French and European law, as are the methods used and processes followed to earn the coveted name.

The French are deadly serious about Champagne. Only three types of grapes may be used: pinot noir and pinot meunier, both red, and chardonnay. The amount of fruit produced per hectare (about 2.5 acres) of vineyard is controlled as is time in oak barrels and aging of the young Champagne.

Here’s a bit of history.

Dom Pierre Perignon was the cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvilliers in the late 17th, early 18th centuries. He was blind, but devoted to his work. Although much of his research records were lost in the French Revolution, he is credited with creating the process of two fermentations of wine necessary to produce Champagne.

The apocryphal story recounts that when he first sipped finished Champagne, Dom Perignon proclaimed, “I am drinking the stars!”

Nice story, whether it’s true or not.       

How is Champagne made? How do all those nose-tickling bubbles find their way into the bottle? Here’s a short lesson in Champagne 101.

Most Champagnes are made from a blend of finished wines, frequently dozens of them. The tasters in a Champagne house will get together and sample dozens of pinot noirs, pinot meuniers and chardonnays from various vineyards in Champagne and different years. They mix and taste and cogitate and occasionally argue.

Remember: These wines already have gone through fermentation. If not, they would be grape juice, not wine.

Once the blend is determined, those wines are combined and put into a Champagne bottle, along with a dollop of sugar and some yeast. The bottle is sealed with a crown cap.

In this second fermentation, the yeast attacks the sugar and produces carbon dioxide, which is trapped in the bottle.

Necks angled down, the bottles go into storage for months, even years, and are turned a quarter turn several times a day. When the cellarmaster determines the wines are ready, the bottles are brought to a production line upside down. The now-dead yeasts are clumped just inside the cap. The necks of the bottles are run through semi-frozen brine, which freezes the clump solid. In just a few seconds, the bottles are turned upright, the caps knocked off and the clumps shot out by the pressure from inside the bottle. The liquid loss is replaced with some of the original blended wines, a cork is plunked into the bottle and, voila, Champagne.

Not yet.

The bottles need to rest from this trauma and will sit in dimly lit cellars again for months or years. Once you buy a bottle of Champagne, you need not age it further. It’s ready to go.

Here are some guidelines to follow when serving Champagne.

Make sure it is ice cold — at least eight hours in the fridge. To chill it more rapidly, use an ice-water bath. Put enough ice and water in a container so at least three-quarters of the bottle is covered. Add a quarter cup of kosher salt and mix. That actually will lower the water temperature to below 32 degrees. An hour in that should suffice.

Do not agitate the bottle. Notice how much heavier the bottle is than a normal wine bottle? There’s about as much pressure inside as in a large truck tire. Do not play with it.

Never use a corkscrew to open Champagne. Peel the foil away, twist the key on the wire cage and gently turn the cork until you feel pressure. Carefully remove it. You want to hear a “pssst,” not a “POW!”

Champagne is the perfect food wine. It goes well with red meat, white meat, seafood, veggie dishes (except artichokes and asparagus) and even some desserts.

Don’t keep Champagne for “special occasions.” Let the Champagne make the occasion special. Occasions such as: Hey, the sun came up this morning! Or, the dog did not do his thing on the carpet today.

I know it’s a lot of data to process, so perhaps you should consider some lab work.

And when you sip a supple Brut Champagne, tip your beret to Dom Perignon. He made the world a happier place.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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