Champagne remains the ultimate luxury libation: favoured by the rich and famous and deemed an essential toast at important celebrations. But what makes it so special and what's behind the big bucks that people are prepared to pay for the real deal?
To be true Champagne, it has to come from the eponymous French region. In the past, fashioners of fizz from across the world have cashed in on its famed name - from calling their foreign examples champagne, to name-checking its process of production, the Methode Champenoise, on their labels. However now, the region's name is safeguarded under law as a protected designation of origin as well as a lucrative trademark.
It's the bubbles that are behind much of Champagne's allure, but all effervescence is not equal. It may have been Englishman Christopher Merret who was the first to document the deliberate addition of sugar to a still wine to engender its sparkle, but the Methode Champenoise - also know as the Methode Traditionelle - was a process honed in the cellars of Champagne.
This most meticulous of methods, which results in the most complex wines with a finer more persistent mousse (bubbles), is when the second fermentation that provides the fizz occurs in-bottle. This is followed by a period when the wine is left on its "lees" (dead yeast cells) to deepen its flavour. The longer the better, which in non-vintage Champagne is a minimum of 15 months and in vintage Champagnes several years or more.
It's an elaborate and lengthy process, which is one of the reasons that all sparkling wines made in this way tend to cost more than their still counterparts. So, if this process has been adopted by winemakers from Catalonia to Cromwell, surely everyone has a chance to make first-rate fizz?
As the best sparkling wines need the high natural acidity that's possible only in the coolest of wine regions, Champagne's northerly position makes for some of France's chilliest growing conditions. Soil also plays its part, which in Champagne is chalky, something you can actually taste in some examples.
Interestingly another area that's both chilly and chalky is the south of England, which is starting to make fizz that has beaten the Champagne region in some recent blind tastings. And with the Champagne region's temperatures on the rise in this era of climate change, even Champagne houses have been investing in England's green and pleasant land, so watch this space.
Really good sparkling wine can certainly be made outside Champagne - with New Zealand another spot suited to high-quality bubbles and increasingly up there in quality with some Champagne. However, at its greatest, the finesse, freshness and delicacy juxtaposed with richness means that for me, Champagne remains the "ne plus ultra" of sparkling wine - for the moment that is.
Sadly for Champagne lovers of moderate means like myself, for this you must pay. There is still decent value to be found in sharp Christmas deals and lesser known labels - grower Champagnes can be great buys although hard to find in New Zealand - but as it is a luxury product, you're paying for far more than the bottle's contents and quaffing its cachet.
In Champagne's starriest heights you find the elite "Prestige Cuvees", the likes of Cristal and Dom Perignon released by Champagne houses as finest examples of their style. Then there are vintage Champagnes, released only in the best years. There has also been a growth in "single village" or "single vineyard" Champagnes, which hail from one special location.
It's easy to baulk at the prices but if you want to sip superlative sparkling wine, there's still nothing quite like great Champagne.
PUTTING ON THE FIZZ
Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee Brut NV $343.90
If you like 'em rich, then this most sumptuous of non-vintages should hit the spot. Barrel fermentation provides its toasty and hazelnutty richness and savoury undertones, which combine with notes of sweet pastry and honey cut with its characteristic rapier-like grapefruit acidity. (From Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company.)
Champagne Bollinger Grande Annee 2002 $221
Power, purity and finesse are fused in this Champagne, made only in exceptional vintages. Complex layers unfurl to reveal notes of apple, praline, clove and brioche, supported by a taut, mineral acidity. (From Hobson Liquor, Moore Wilson Wholesale, Glengarry Victoria Park.)
Vintage Champagne Lenoble Brut Rose 2006 $89.90
A fine but affordable creamy, textured vintage rose, with apple and berry fruits underpinned by fresh mineral and citrus with a rich yeasty undercurrent. (From Scenic Cellars.)