We learned a lot on our trip to the Champagne region. We got a complete tour of the Devaux facilities and saw Champagne being bottled right before our very eyes. Devaux is the fifth-largest Champagne maker in the world and produces bubbly for lots of big-name brands like Veuve Cliquot, Mumm and Jacquart. In fact, most of the bottles under these major labels are made at Devaux and the grapes that go into them are selected by Johann’s cousin, Momo.
First point of interest: There’s big money to be made in Champagne. A bottle of Champagne only costs its producer about three euros. But after you slap the brand name onto it and factor in the costs of marketing and distribution, a low-cost bottle will run you about €22. Devaux bottles Champagne under its own label, made from the six hectares of grapevines the company owns, and their prices range from €21.50 to €126. We fell in love with Devaux’s “Ultra D,” an extra brut that has no added sugar and is about as dry as something that’s a liquid could possibly be.
Real Champagne, by definition, has to be produced in France’s Champagne region, and only those produced here have the right to use the name “Champagne” on their bottles. That’s not to say that fine bubblies aren’t made in Italy and California, it just means they’re not allowed to use the brand name of the region. Speaking of the region, as you can imagine, land here sells for a pretty penny. A piece of property 100 meters square is worth about a million euros. Unless, of course, you haven’t purchased or inherited the right to grow grapes on it. Without that, you have yourself a field of wheat that’s worth about €4,000. Beautiful as they were, looking at the wheat fields made me a little sad for their owners as we drove by. So close, and yet, so far.
So, let’s say you’re off to the store for a bottle of Champagne. What to buy? First, you can narrow your choices down by demi-sec, brut and extra brut. Demi-sec is, in my opinion, undrinkable. It’s sickly sweet, and reminiscent of those cheap bottles of Asti Spumante we all drank in high school before we knew any better. The major labels don’t dedicate much of their production to demi-sec, and when I asked Momo who drinks it, he said “old people.” So unless you are a member of The Greatest Generation or a high schooler with prom right around the corner, skip the demi-sec. You want brut, unless you prefer your drinks very dry and have a little extra money to spend. Then splurge on the extra brut.
But now, how to tell whether it’s a good bottle or not? We usually let the price guide us, don’t we? Don’t fall for that. Champagnes are made from a blend of different grapes, and generally speaking, the more chardonnay grapes in your bottle, the better quality it is. Of course, that’s a matter of taste, and you can test where your affinities lie by buying a bottle that’s made with 100% pinot gapes and one made with 100% chardonnay and comparing the two. As long as you have the bottle open, here’s another way to gague its quality: bubbles. The smaller the bubbles are, the better the Champagne is. To get the best results, drink out of a proper Champagne glass, which comes to a point at the bottom of the glass and provides the best effect for the bubbles, not allowing your glass to go flat before you’ve f
Finally, no Champagne tutorial would be complete without instructions on how to open the bottle. This is trickier than you might think. The number-one cause of eye injury in France is Champagne corks. (No kidding! I love this country.) After peeling back the foil and twisting off the wire holding the cork in, DO NOT TAKE YOUR HAND OFF THE CORK. The incredible pressure inside each bottle can (and frequently does) cause the cork to fly out without warning and cause considerable damage to anything in its path. (I’m not sure what the number-one cause of dining room chandelier breakage is in France, but I’d be willing to place a wager.) Then, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, tilt the bottle to one side and slowly twist the cork, pulling it out at as leisurely a pace as possible. Pulling the cork out quickly, or with the bottle straight up, will result in the characteristic Champagne geyser you see so often in the movies. And that’s a waste of precious bubbly.