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Champagne December: Finding Delicious Things for Special Occasions

Pictured: Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial bottle.

Week 3 of Champagne December was a sliding scale, on all fronts: of different price points of champagne, of different sweetness in my bubbly, and in first impressions.

I chased into the higher end of the market, and mostly remained underwhelmed as I lingered over bottles, trying to puzzle out the secret of their prestige. I drank champagne so dry that it seemed to desiccate my soul as it passed my tongue, and bubbly so sweet that I feared for both my teeth and the integrity of any resulting champagne cocktails. How much can the sweetness of a champagne skew the taste of a Death in the Afternoon, or a French 75?

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Brut geared at the American market is especially guilty of this over-sweetening. The so-called California Champagnes, in my opinion, should be fined for lack of truth in advertising, as the sweetness of their Brut bubblies creep toward moscato.

Even with these pitfalls, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a winner to my palate. The first glass brightened my day immediately as its complex flavors chased each other across my tongue. The second glass made me laugh, and by the third, I knew I’d need to keep a few bottles stocked in my liquor cabinet for special occasions, though it would be an investment.

A good champagne, like any other liquor and like good art, should make you pause and think on it. It’s not enough to find a booze that’s merely passable, unless you’re only looking for a go-to bar choice to survive social outings. A good drink makes you contemplate its flavor profile, what exactly you’re tasting, and why it’s having a good effect. Preferably, the thinking starts the moment it hits your mouth, and lingers well past the swallow. I’m partial toward those that provide layered taste profiles that evolve as they move across your palate.

While this is simple for me to find with gin, rum and beer, finding this in champagne can be a unicorn indeed. Champagne is at its core a white wine, its flavors light and fickle, and the heavy carbonation increases and confuses its volatile taste. Others may disagree, but for me, finding my true north in champagne is an uphill battle. Thus, finding one that immediately delights me is worth holding on to, indeed.

#ChampagneDecember on Bad Days: If You Don’t Pour Something In This F*cking Glass

It’s Champagne December, but it’s also been a long, unforgiving day. You pinched a seriously painful nerve in your right arm fixing things too far above your head. The traffic was awful, the stores crowded, your patience left frozen outside in the winter night as you navigate crowded aisles. Only to return home to a full sink of dishes, and an unrepentant Siamese cat rolling in a pile of stolen Christmas tree ornaments.

Oh, was that not your day? Am I projecting?

Regardless, there will be some days. Let me pause and stress that: there will be some days, where your need for a simple, stiff drink will supersede your need for the finer things.

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Roll with it. Don’t waste good champagne on days where you’re steps from sticking your head in the freezer and screaming.

It seemed like a good day to pick through some of my sparkling odds and ends, such as this sparkling rose from Monetto, and experiment with a few cocktail combinations.

Rosé Champagne is a thing, though not common, as it was originally marketed as a cheap alternative to American markets with sweeter tastes. Higher end varieties do exist, such as Moët & Chandon’s Rosé Imperial.

If you’d like to add a bit of color to your sparkling, or as a base for delightful champagne cocktails such as a Raspberry Fizz, this is a great way to go.

That’s it for today, folks. The Week 2 check-in on Champagne December is here, for those who missed it.

 

Brut, Demi-Sec and Other Meaningless Distinctions After 15 Days Straight of Champagne

Pictured: Veuve Clicquot, Louis Roederer, and Nicolas Feuillatte champagne bottles

It’s Champagne December, guys! I’m pursuing my dubious goal of filling my glass with champagne this month as easily as one would Coors Light.

This post is part Week 2 check-in, and part irreverent guide to making the most of your local champagne choices. After this much champagne, a bit of extra laissez-faire is necessary in my tips.

The second week has gone smoother than the first. At two weeks, I can claim the increasingly outrageous achievement of enjoying champagne each night for a solid 15 days straight. What was learned in the second week? Mostly that my original estimates were right – even after stocking my liquor cabinet quite well, my original inventory lasted me exactly halfway through the month.

This is not terrible news. I certainly exhausted some of the original choices I’d made, and had a few labels I was ready to perhaps never see again. I also had some that I could re-purchase with new appreciation, and some exorbitantly-priced labels that, after several glasses, I could lean back and think, Wait, that was it?

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As usual, there will be no label or brand dragging, here. My palate is entirely different than yours. Run out and find, and stick to the labels that delight you. The purpose of Champagne December is to be delighted.

Still, if you’re finding yourself overly dismayed with the taste of champagne or other bubbly, the quickest fix may concern its dryness. Too sweet? You may want to instead try Extra Brut or Brut. A word of warning: if you’re mainly consuming American champagne or other sparkling wine produced in the low to mid-end U.S. market, even varieties labeled Brut can come off a little sweeter than their international counterparts. The higher end of the American market or French champagne may suit you better.

If in general, you find most champagne to be too dry, or mouth-puckering with not enough sweetness, yet another word of warning – the majority of modern French champagne is produced on the dry side as Brut, a journey in shifting trends that has taken more than a century. Still, you may be able to find labels in the Sec, Demi-Sec, or even Doux varieties, with a little bit of hunting.

If extensive hunting is not available or out of your pocket book range, you may want to try out popular Italian sparkling instead. Some varieties such as Moscato d’Asti or Asti Spumante can run quite sweet, indeed. If you want to stick with champagne, another quick hack may be to add a dash of simple syrup or powdered sugar to your glass – but not to your bottle! If you like to live dangerously, go ahead and try it – with the bottle in the sink, preferably, or with a few towels handy. Science is fun.

Now run off, and enjoy your weekend! As always in Champagne December, this post has been brought to you by, and under the influence of a healthy quantity of champagne. Life your best life.

 

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Champagne December 101: Tips, Tricks & Hacks

 

Pictured: Glass of champagne, in front of a Christmas tree.

Committing to Champagne December took some planning. It’s Day 8, and I can boast the dubious achievement of having enjoyed champagne each night so far. While having champagne every night is not necessary, arranging any kind of champagne campaign, occasional or frequent, still requires logistics. What’s your budget? Will you enjoy a bottle with friends, or savor a glass or two per evening? How do you save champagne from going flat?

What defines the term champagne, anyway?

Let’s start there. Essentially, as noted on VinePair, the definition of champagne boils down to this:

For a bottle of sparkling wine to be labeled Champagne, it has to be made in Champagne, France and produced using the méthode champenoise.

Champagne is subject to a protected designation of origin, similar to the protection for Italian olive oil and wines. Still, if you’ve been of drinking age for a decade or so, you’ve probably seen champagne bandied about in quite a few ways on bottles that were distinctly not French.

Pictured: Moet & Chandon Imperial Champagne label, with glass of champagne in background

Champagne from the French region of Champagne will be clearly labelled.

Champagne is rather strictly regulated internationally, and over the last century, there’s been a lot of legal back-and-forth. I recommend the full VinePair article for a detailed account of this label war, but to summarize: a few non-French labels have been reluctantly granted permission to use terms such as California Champagne on their labels. The most recognizable of these brands are Korbel, André, and Cook’s. These brands have become some of the most popular, affordable go-to grabs for Americans on special occasions, namely New Year’s Eve.

Pictured: a Cook's bottle and a Barefoot bottle, both of which bear California Champagne on their title.

Common examples of California Champagne.

Especially in North America, the term champagne has become ubiquitous with sparkling white wine, and this is not as great a travesty as some would have you believe. In a blind taste test, many would fail to discern champagne from a similarly produced sparkling white from another country, or even another French region. The shelves abound with great contenders as well, some of which will be sure to point out that they follow either the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionelle of fermentation and production as true champagne would. Close sparkling relatives such as asti spumante and prosecco spumante hold Italian protected designations of their own, and occupy the same shelf as champagne in many stores.

How closely you define it depends on your familiarity with champagne, your passion or indifference as a purist, and most importantly, your wallet. Cruising through several liquor stores, I was unable to find a bottle of French champagne under $35, while most hovered near $60 or higher. Depending on your budget and your value perception, this might be an acceptable price range for a special occasion, but a terrible idea for Champagne December or other off-the-cuff indulgences.

So what’s your budget?

If your budget is wide open, the sky is the limit. Follow the path your curiosity takes you on all levels of champagne and related sparkling wine. Remember, other French sparkling wines, top-shelf Italian sparkling, California champagne and many Napa Valley bubblies are produced by many respected vineyards and brands.

Pictured: Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Limited Edition bottle.

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Limited Edition

If you don’t have the budget now, or prefer to build up a quality collection incrementally, there are some great ways to do so, and even champagne-of-the-month clubs, if you’d prefer a more seasoned professional to introduce you to different varieties.

For low to mid-range adventures, it may be best to stick to the more loosely defined sparkling wine category, which prominently features California champagnes, asti, prosecco, and other sparkling delights. Investments in high-end French champagne can be occasional splurges, which can help sensitize your sparkling palate. The advantage to this is flexibility, and most importantly, an abundance of size options. The single-serve market has really picked up for bubbly, especially in the low to mid-range.

Pictured: a 4-pack of Cook's 187 ml bottles, and Bollicini 187 ml cans.

187 ml bottles and even cans are available for many low to mid-range sparkling varieties. 375 ml options also abound.

While you can find 375 ml bottles of Moët, I wouldn’t put much faith in this option for the high end of the market. So how do you enjoy your champagne if you’re a solo drinker, or quite sensibly not willing to polish off a full bottle at a time?

Champagne stoppers. Some champagne stoppers even claim to keep carbonation intact for up to a week. Do your research, and this is a time to really pay attention to reviews to ensure that your stopper does what it claims on the tin.  It’s also recommended to try it out on a bottle of inexpensive bubbly first. There are no tears like those shed when you realize your $75 bottle of champagne has went flat overnight. Here are three stoppers to shop:

Book Essentials: The Martini Companion.

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Book Review: The Martini Companion.

 

Here begins a review of books that will appeal to both martini aficionados and vintage cocktail lovers alike. It’s best to begin with a book most practical:The Martini Companion (Regan/Regan, 1997, Running Press). Small enough to tuck under your arm or slip into a handbag, The Martini Companion  answers the question: I want to make my own martinis. Now what?

Despite its own declaration of “A connoisseur’s guide,” The Martini Companion will walk you through martini self-sufficiency from the first step, from glassware to garnishes, and the ever-present debate of shaken vs stirred. Lovely photographs by Steve Belkowitz grace each section, displaying a gorgeous selection of vintage glassware to fire even the most spartan imagination. Since vodka martinis are just as popular as gin martinis, this book divides evenly between the two liquors and then vermouth, covering history, basics on their creation, and a selection of brands to try.

It is here, in the brand reviews, where The Martini Companion proves its worth. The history and production of each mentioned brand is thoroughly covered, before tasting notes and recommendations are given. If you are floundering on where to start with gin or vodka and vermouth, which brands are respected standards, or which taste personality might appeal to you, then this book can be a godsend without overwhelming you. The reviews are by no means comprehensive, but it’ll certainly get you on your feet and on your way to defining what kind of martini drinker you will be.

It is after this point that this book will either outlive its usefulness, or carry on, depending on your personal tastes: the general martini recipe section. Since this book was penned in the late ’90s at the height of the x-tini cocktail boom, the authors give a (perhaps reluctant) nod to the many variations cropping up in bars worldwide. It is here that a classic martini enthusiast will flip through many eyebrow-raising variations (or corruptions) of the martini, from the La Serre Tequila Martini to a Skyy Diver Martini (made with peppermint schnapps). As vodka is a more neutral spirit for such wild experimentation, you’ll also note that the majority of these recipes are made with vodka, not the classic gin of the original martini recipe.

Still, there are some variations that even I, vintage gin martini curmudgeon, would love to try, such as the the Gotham Martini from the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, whose beautiful accompanying photo displays the slightly darkened mix of vodka, blackberry brandy, black sambuca, and a blackberry garnish. I’d be most inclined to substitute gin for vodka… but still.

The Martini Companion is available in hardcover for about $25 on Amazon, but I picked up a very good used copy from the Marketplace for less than $5. After two years with this book, I can say it’s well worth any price you find it for.

Choosing Your Liquor Store.

Choosing the Right Liquor Store.

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Which liquor store is right for you? We’ll get to the more practical considerations, but here is the takeaway: a good liquor store will stock not only your favorite brands, but also a wide variety of your favorite kind of liquor. Of the two, I’d dare say the latter is more important. Only sticking to your trusted brand may eventually settle you into a stale rut, or leave you flailing with indecision when it’s not available in a particular store, at the bar, or in a restaurant. Becoming comfortable with a range of brands allows you to not only select an alternative with confidence, but develop a working list of brands suitable as gifts or recommendations for friends and family.

In the picture above, nearly twenty different bottles of gin are shown. This excludes the bottom and very top shelf varieties cut off by the camera. Try to find a liquor store with at least a dozen different bottles of your favorite liquor available. Unless you really lucked out, this often means the best store will not be your closest store. Don’t panic; even in my relatively small town, I can count at least three that meet this requirement, or are close. The best selection doesn’t always equate to the largest store. Depending on the store owners and their priorities, a small mom-and-pop shop might house an extraordinary collection of select liquors. The best method is to keep an eye out for unexplored stores, with the goal of roaming their aisles in free moments.

How do you know when you’ve found a good store? When you regularly find yourself making wishlists, reading the labels on intriguing bottles, or snapping pictures of shelves, you know you’ve found a winner. A good store preoccupies you with possibilities and future plans. Like a good bookstore, you can easily lose twenty or thirty minutes of time just wandering its aisles.

Once you’ve found some ideal candidates, here are some other considerations:

Rewards Programs. Most moderately-sized liquor stores have some type of reward accrual system that offer regular discounts or coupons after a certain number of points are reached. For example, my nearest liquor store offers $5 off any non-sale item after the goal points are reached. This can help when shopping on a budget or purchasing top shelf items.

Drive-Thru Options. If you have young children or a tight schedule, the freedom to pull up to a window and order your regular bottle is a wonderful luxury. It’s also good for your wallet, as it prevents spendy impulse purchases that weren’t in your liquor budget.

Price. If selection is no issue, be sure to price-shop around for your best buy. $3-$5 price differences shouldn’t break your budget, but if your go-to store is regularly charging $10 more than its competitors for the same bottle, it may be time to move on.

Events, Stocking, & Special Orders. Some stores have regular events, such as tastings, food pairings, and even classes. However, the best events and selection in town won’t matter if they’re always out of stock, or are slow to refill the shelves. A good store also has the option of special orders, but be warned – special order waiting lists can be lengthy, or at the store’s discretion. Of the three special orders I’ve attempted to place at my closest store, only one went through after three months. 

And Finally, a Good Selection of Pints. Want to try that new brand, but not willing to commit to an entire 750 ml? Keep in eye out for stores with dense pint selections behind the counter. Most stores also offer pints of select liqueurs as well that might otherwise break the bank, such as Grand Marnier or Chambord.