I arrived not knowing much, to the point that one of the first things I said was completely incorrect (for some reason I thought that Champagne went through an initial fermentation in oak before moving to the bottles?! I don’t know why). Thankfully Andrew (who I’ve drunk wine with before) was there to help me out (he’s also a Beer Swapper!).
I learnt a few things about Champagne that I thought were interesting (hopefully I will recount them accurately). It uses three grape varieties: Chardonnay (white grape which adds finesse), Pinot Noir (red grape which adds body and structure) and Pinot Meunier (red grape which adds fruitiness). It’s fermented in stainless steel like wine but then undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle when sugar and yeast is added (like real ale) – this is what gives the fizz (like real ale!). It’s initially bottled with a crown cap and racked with the cap facing down, it‘s then moved and twisted regularly so that the yeast collects by the cap. After a while (years) the cap is popped, the yeast is removed and a cork is fitted (sometimes an extra dosage of sugar/sweetness is added). Unlike wine or strong beer which will evolve, Champagne aims to keep a constant taste from when it’s bottled to when it’s opened (although some change is inevitable if kept for a long time - in terms of drinking time, the rule of thumb is that however long is spends on yeast in the bottle, it should be opened within that time again, so if it was on yeast for three years then it’s best drunk within three years). And did you know that Morrisons have slashed their Champagne prices and are now selling them for a loss? This was a sore point with the producers.
I don’t drink a lot of champagne as it’s one of those things you open for a special occasion (I’ve got too many special occasion beers as it is). As I don’t drink much, I don’t know much about the taste other than fizzy and dry, moving into yeasty and biscuity. What I found while drinking them was, like when drinking lager, it’s the little differences that really stand out.
Move past that initial hit of fizz and it reveals itself as light, elegant, crisp, fruity, sharp. It took me a while to readjust the taste buds, but I got there. Some were sweeter than others, some drier. Some had fresh apple sweetness and tang, others had a bitter lemon dryness to them. Some were bready, others less so. The size of the bubbles also became perceptible as we moved around, with the bigger ones feeling clunky and unrefined.
The Lanson rosé had a berry hint but between fizz and dryness it was a void, the Moët rosé was a taste of summer strawberries, the Veuve Clicquot rosé was sweeter and picnic-perfect. The non-vintages had a simplicity to them all with the Veuve Clicquot being my favourite with a nose that made me want to stick my head in the glass. Taste-wise it had more complexity to the others. more body because of a higher percentage of Pinot Noir, a zippy freshness to it. And the vintages, which ranged from 1998-2003. The 2002 Veuve Clicquot smelt like brie and sour apples, which I was reticent to say just in case shouting ‘mmm, it’s cheesy’ is a major faux pas, but it turns out this is normal. Interestingly, this opened out in the glass and after a minute or so it became bready and sweeter. Personally, I liked the 1998 Lanson Vintage the most. It was exactly what I wanted and expected from Champagne and had a great come-get-me nose of brioche, yeast and bread then an intriguing pithy bitterness at the end. That was the flavour I was hoping for, the extra complexity I wanted (maybe it was this ‘extra’ that made it stand out to me, preferring more to less, maybe it was a familiar bitter finish that caught my attention).
It’s great drinking wine with people who know and understand it and I learn a lot from them. Wine challenges me to begin but it’s very interesting to come from a beer perspective into a wine tasting like this and ultimately it’s just people tasting and drinking different glasses of booze. Strangely, it’s the similarities to beer which I always manage to pick out – an aroma, a taste, some sourness, that yeasty sweetness which I love in some Belgians. I guess the question is would I buy any of these? The Lanson vintage was £37 (overall the prices ranged from £25-£40+). That money would buy me a lot of great beer. I suppose it’d be nice to have a few bottles of fizz lying around though, just in case.