A little while a go we had the pleasure of attending a champagne masterclass at the Canberra Centre hosted by the rather incredible former banker and financier turned ultimate champagne dame Kyla Kirkpatrick. Not being much of a drinker myself, champagne or otherwise, my excitement level, while ample, were not at the level they might have been at, say, the opening of a new shoe store. Nevertheless, once I took my seat, feasted my eyes on the beautiful glasswear, sweet treats and the dame herself, I felt a familiar thrill of anticipation bubbling up inside me.
After being introduced to the world of luxury during her banking career in London, Kyla’s interest was particularly piqued by champagne. The word Champagne gets bandied about so let’s get things straight before we continue with our story: champagne is a delicious sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France, anything produced anywhere else is simply sparkling wine. After reading everything there was to read about champagne, Kyla wrote a letter filled with questions to a man at the one of the great champagne houses in Champagne. He replied saying that her passion for champagne was so obvious that he would not respond to her questions by letter and that Kyla must come to Champagne in person.
Kyla left her job, her home, her man (‘it turns out he was easily replaced, we Australian women are very exotic in France,’ she cheekily revealed) and spent eight months kicking around the vineyards of Champagne before being recruited by luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (now Kerring) as a champagne expert. Kyla now works for herself representing the entire Champagne region, giving champagne tours, teaching masterclasses and even leading a champagne club.
After working in the champagne industry for over a decade, Kyla certainly had a lot of expertise to impart about her favourite beverage. It turns out that there is a lot more to champagne than first meets the eye. Lucky for you we took plenty of notes!
Wine is fermented once, champagne is fermented twice, first in a barrel, second in the bottle. Yeast eats the sugars in the wine starting the fermentation process. The by-product produced is CO2 which escapes the barrel leaving a still wine. Once this still wine has been bottled a second dose of yeast is added. The gas created by the second fermentation process has nowhere to go, (don’t worry champagne bottles are strong so that they don’t explode) creating bubbles and pressure. The yeast gives champagne complexity, body and power. Smaller champagne houses will cultivate yeast from bacteria within the vineyard. There is often secrecy around the yeast.
In the 1700s Madame Cliquot invented a process to remove yeast from the bottle called riddling. She cut a hole in her bench, sat it upright and stuck the bottle in. She then gently turned the bottle a small amount each day to catch the yeast, which she then removed. Before sealing the bottle, a small dosage of sugar is added. The riddling process is still done by hand in many of the houses. A professional riddler can do 30k bottles a day.
The Art of Blending — Non Vintage champagne
Buying a bottle of champagne from your local bottle shop can be a little tricky. Champagne bottles will only have the name of the house on the label; there is no year on the bottle. This is a non-vintage champagne. The job of a non-vintage champagnes is to be the flagship, the calling card of the house.
When creating a signature champagne for a champagne house, the wine maker has a challenging job. He must maintain consistency across yields and years. To do this he must keep wines from previous years in the cellar from which to blend; champagne is all about the art of blending. He has a library of still wines from previous years which he will blend with newer wines, store them and hope against hope that they will taste the same once they have aged. There are multiple years blended in the bottle of the non-vintage champagne so they can’t put a year on the bottle. On average a champagne will have 70 base wines blended in.
Taste mindfully, first with the eyes, then nose and finally with the mouth. Two things affect the visuals of champagne; the first is the colour, the second is the bubble.
The age of a bottle can affect the colour. As it gets older, champagne becomes more viscous. The other factor that effects the colour is the type of grape used. Dom Perignon, the grandfather of champagne, decided to grow three types of grapes in the Champagne region: one white grape, the Chardonnay grape, and two red grapes, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two nobles grapes. They are often described as perfect partners. Chardonnay is the woman, who offers elegance and suppleness. She is fruity, floral and beautiful and grows rounder with age. Pinot Noir adds strength, power and length. They work together. Pinot Meunier is like a cool neighbor. He is the guy that adds a bit of spice fruit and zest. He adds character to a young wine. This grape doesn’t last, it’s not made for aging so you will only find it in non vintage wines.
Using three types of grape that bloom at different times of the year and then blending across them is what gives champagne from Champagne a complexity that isn’t found anywhere else in the world. The reason champagne looks and tastes slightly different between the houses across the Champagne region is the way they blend across these three grapes. A lighter colour indicates more care and finesse.
The second visual aspect is the bubble, also known as the bead or perlage (if you want to be ‘wanky’ according to Kyla). The smaller the bubble the better the champagne. As it ages the protein of the wine changes; aged bottles such as vintage champagnes feel slicker and smoother in the mouth, while young sparkling will feel fizzy. The legal minimum for aging in Champagne is 8 months but the average for non-vintage champagnes is 3 years and about 8 years for vintage champagnes. Bubbles nucleate on faults on the glass. When a glass is perfect, we need to score the glass to make bubbles appear.
We drink champagne at the wrong times such as significant birthdays or Christmas, where we are already on sensory overload. Instead champagne should be drunk during a quiet moment with one other person. Champagne is magical and mysterious and you will remember it forever if you lower your senses, allowing the champagne to be the highlight.
Light, fluctuations in temperature and vibrations are all enemies of champagne storage; keep it cool, dark and still.
Champagne should be served warmer than most sparkling wines. In Australia we tend to serve it too cold and this suppresses the aroma. Champagne should be served between 8 and 9 degrees, but if it’s a vintage champagne, it should be served at about 11-13 degrees.
The Right Champagne Glass
The perfect champagne glass should be crystal; it must have a bowl; it shouldn’t be straight up and down. Do not fill to the top, it needs room, where the glass bows is where you stop, there are a lot of guilty faces. The shape is more important than what it’s made out of. The younger your champagne, the smaller the glass you should use, the older your champagne, the bigger the glass. It will change your experience dramatically.
The coup glass (a glass with a large bowl) was the first glass to be created especially for Champagne and is said to be shaped on the breast of Marie Antoinette.
When caring for your glasswear, be mindful that detergent can kill your bubble. Be careful not to wash your glasses with it regularly.
All you need is six twists to open the cage. Leave the cage on and then two twists to release the cork. The true etiquette of the champagne pop is to that it should ‘Sigh like a lady, not scream like a whore.’
Take a firm grip at the bottom of the bottle. The label should be pointing up as a sign of respect to they wine marker. Leave the glass on the table, you don’t need to tip the glass, just pour a little, and then continue to top up. Use a long, low steady pour and never fill your glass past half way.
It’s good etiquette to toast your first glass champagne. In France, they say it’s seven years of bad sex of you don’t look each other in the eye!
According to Kyla, Champagne has never been more interesting than it is now. Small growers don’t march to the beat of the public like the larger houses and so create more variety in their offering. With the festive season well and truly here, there is perhaps no better time to indulge. However, rather than sharing a bottle at your work Christmas party, take the time to snuggle up with one of your closest companions to quietly share a bottle of the magical drink that is champagne.
To find out more about Kyla and the services she offers visit The Champagne Dame website.