5.19.2014

Wine column no. 49: Napoleon knew how to live when it came to Champagne

May 18, 2014: Once upon a time (circa 1804-1814), in a land far, far away (Google says there are 4,305 miles between Evansville and Paris, France), there lived an emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte (his name was really Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, by the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine and the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, Mediator of the Helvetic Confederation — but there’s no need to get technical.)
Anyway, everyone knew Napoleon.
He was a complex fellow. At first, he joined a committee that, among other things, said that all French citizens should be equal before the law. The resulting Napoleonic Code established an important, wide-ranging precedent in civil law. Then, when he became more influential, Napoleon reestablished a French aristocracy and handed out titles to family and friends. Mercurial and ambitious, Napoleon kept his country in a constant state of war to amass power; yet those same wars were expensive, tedious, and demonstrated his tendency to overreach.
Arguing that war should feed war, he financed his battles with an unending range of seizures in kind and in money, according to the Napoleon Foundation. Legal or not, it was war. And regardless of whether he won or lost, Napoleon usually drank Champagne.
I’m not like Napoleon. I’d also rather obey the law. But, like many people, I do appreciate what I call the finer things in life — love, respect (for oneself and others), privacy, the chance to speak and move about freely, the opportunity to raise and feed a family and, when times are really good, the joyful sound a popped cork makes when it’s finally liberated from the bottle.
Champagne may announce itself with gusto. But what really makes this “wine of kings” unique is the region’s iffy, northerly climate and chalky soil about 90 miles northeast of Paris. (That’s according to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible.” Published in 2001, this book contains an index, a dictionary, charts and more and is a useful reference for those looking for credible, verifiable information.)
According to complicated appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) law and World Trade Organization agreements, only sparkling wines made in the region of Champagne may bear that term on the label; everything else is just sparkling wine.
However, it is possible for Champagne to become a protected name elsewhere. After a lengthy and well-documented application process that requires the permission of the AOC, the Champagne name is now officially recognized in China. This means there’s a much higher probability that real Champagne will be sold and imbibed there. That’s good for the Champenois and it’s good for the Chinese. It’s also good for those who see the benefits of fair, legal trade.
Not everyone abides by what is protected under the WTO. Some sparkling wines are labeled Champagne when they clearly are not. That has led to legal action, and some arrests and fines, in other countries.
Untruths pervade commonly told stories, too. Legend has it that Dom Pierre Perignon invented Champagne, yet this tale does not intersect with reality. British wine writer Nicholas Faith called it “an agreeable paradox” that the world’s most notorious “seduction wine” should have been the brainchild of a Benedictine monk whose Catholic model for monastic life was the family. I agree; it’s an entertaining, salacious story that the less circumspect would be tempted to embellish even further. It’s too bad it lacks facts.
Here is something tangible, real and true that can be purchased for $52 at The Winetree on Washington Avenue. The Taittinger “La Francaise” Brut Champagne contains 12 percent alcohol and does not smell sweaty or unpleasant as some Champagnes do when the barrels are not cleaned properly. The bubbles are fine and don’t overwhelm the glass. It has a nice golden color. As with many wines, the conduit matters; I had this Champagne in flutes with a narrowed rim. This type of vessel helps concentrate the aromas at the top of the glass, allowing for a more authentic experience.
I’m not a big fan of cold wines. But keep in mind that Champagnes should be served at temperatures between 46 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s also a health element. Champagnes made with Pinot Noir grapes (the Taittinger is made with 50 percent Pinot Noir grapes, 40 percent chardonnay grapes and 10 percent Pinot Meunier grapes) can improve memory and vascular function.
Ah, the finer things in life. I think I need some Champagne. Then I want to read about the Battle of Waterloo.

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