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How to enjoy Champagne as a pro

Richard Juhlin

Richard Juhlin

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Regardless of whether the champagne should be drunk during a wine tasting, at a delicious dinner, or on a rock by the sea, it is the attention to detail that can transform the experience from good to magical. Leave nothing to chance, put in a little extra effort when it comes to where you buy your bottle, how it is stored, which glasses you are using, and then, last but not least, whom you choose to share your experience with. 


OUR AMAZING SENCE OF SMELL

DESPITE THE FACT THAT OUR sense of smell is one of the most basic, it is our most mysterious and unexplored sense. Man has about a thousand different odor receptors controlled by the same number of genes. Given that a human being as a whole has approximately eighty thousand genes, the figure is high, which shows how important the sense of smell is. 

The receptors are located in the roof of a small cavity above each nostril, in line with the eyes’ lower edge, and it forms the area called an olfactory epithelium. It is divided into four parts. Each receiver stays within its quarter, but in each one, the receptors are evenly and randomly spread. This is to protect us from losing the ability to sense smells if the epithelium is damaged by a severe cold. 

The receptors are located on small tassels on the outer edge of a particular type of nerve cell. These neurons run from the olfactory epithelium and a few inches up to the olfactory bulb. There it is linked to other neurons, and through them continues the odor to the brain. The olfactory bulb is a “map” that looks exactly the same for all people. For each receiver, there are two specific points where the nerve fibers join. That the olfactory bulb is organized as a map where each type of receptor nerve has a predetermined position is important for our olfactory memory. Nerve cells are replaced every couple of months, but the map’s design is intact, which is why we can remember fragrances. 

That we can distinguish thousands of fragrances depends partly on each smell molecule being received by several kinds
of receptors. This makes it so that each fragrance has its unique combination of receivers. The larger the scent molecule, the more activated the receptors. This makes the fragrances with larger molecules easier to distinguish. This system works much like words in a language. There are a limited number of characters, but each letter can be used repeatedly, and by combining them in different ways, we can have an almost unlimited number of words. 

The smell impulses then go to the smell center in the cerebral cortex, where our conscious impressions are processed. Meanwhile, impulses are sent into the deep-lying structures such asthe hypothalamus and amygdala, which have an impact on our emotions and innate behaviors. There are also airborne substances that we do not perceive but that influence our behavior and are recorded by the vomeronasal organ. These are called pheromones, and they have a great significance, for example, on how we choose our partners. The left cerebral hemisphere is more important for processing of fragrance information than the right one. Since the signals cross diagonally, the right nostril is more important than the left at a wine tasting! 


THE BEST TIME TO ENJOY YOUR CHAMPAGNE

An important question to consider is at what age the champagne should be drunk. It is again a matter of personal preference. Do you prefer your champagne youthful and sour, or do you appreciate the advantages of an aged champagne’s golden color and honey bouquet? The many entry-level tastings I have led in recent years have taught me that all styles have their proponents. 

Disgorgement makes it difficult to predict the champagne’s development in comparison to other wines. As long as the wine is in contact with its sediment, the aging goes very slowly. The carbon dioxide acts as a preservative and an extremely low amount of oxygen comes in contact with the wine in the original bottling. 

At disgorging, the wine is exposed to a lot of oxygen, which starts a normal oxidation process. The tricky part is that the more developed the wine is at disgorging, the faster the oxidation process. Late-disgorged champagnes from the beginning of the century can thus be very fit and young in nature, but a few days after disgorging, they become flat and oxidized. A “normal disgorged” bottle, however, is much more developed than the late-disgorged one during the first day and is able to then withstand the test of time much better. This is the reason why the late-disgorged Bollinger RD wines are best enjoyed within a few years after disgorging. 

The ideal age for disgorging, if you want to store the champagne, can be generally five to eight years. 

To complicate it further, certain older wines get shocked by disgorging, but much later come into a beautiful second phase, probably only when you already drank the remaining bottles in the belief that they were on a downhill slope. A bottle of 1914 Pol Roger disgorged in 1944 was fabulous fifty years later. The reason for this was probably that the wine, despite its advanced age at disgorging, was still hard and immature. 

So it is not really the time that is the decisive factor, but how developed the champagne was at disgorgement. It is not just the wine’s potential peak one must be certain of when one 

decides to ease the cork. How are you doing yourself, and who will be involved and share the experience? 

One experience etched in my memory is when the par- ents of one of my daughter’s classmates came to pick up their daughter who was over to play. Because we only vaguely knew each other, we were seated a little cautiously on the living room couch with a cup of tea before the conversation turned to wine. 

It turned out that the man was in a gentlemen’s club that met once a year to do things that James Bond does in the movies. At the last meeting, they had a Bond dinner that was crowned with a bottle of 1992 Dom Pérignon. On this particular night, the man was sick and was extremely unhappy because he missed the huge experience that his friends had told him about. He had barely drunk any champagne, and he always felt a great curiosity about the subject. 

Because I have learned that it is much more fun to serve wine to someone untaught who has the desire to experience rather than to invite spoiled wine professionals to serve the best wines to, I got a sudden whim. I went down in my cellar and picked up the last bottle of 1964 Dom Pérignon, a real leg- end. Just as the family was about to leave, I poured two glasses without showing the bottle. The couple beamed along with the sparkling brilliant wine. Are you crazy? Are you opening a bottle of original champagne?!

I did not answer, but instead gave them a quick lesson in how to taste wine in order to maximize the experience. When the woman took her first sip, I saw a lucky tear in her eyes. Not without pride, I brought out the unmistakable bottle whereupon the man threw himself around my neck and hugged me in the most un-Swedish and spontaneous way. Since that moment, we have made a couple of really close friends who, of course, have become mad about cham- pagne. The only negative in it is that it is difficult to find a bottle that tops the amazing experience “Dom” gave. In my opinion, it is therefore significantly more important whom you drink with rather than what occasion you choose. Shared joy is double joy! 


YOUR OWN CHAMPAGNE TASTING 

Would you like to learn a little more about champagne and quickly get the hang of what this wine has to offer? Is a serious wine tasting with specific tasting conditions the only way? To begin with, you as the taster have to be in good condition. A cold can stop the test. The palate and the tongue must be unaffected by smoke, spicy foods, toothpaste, sweets, alcohol, or other substances that may affect the taste. No disturbing scents should be nearby. Perfume, odors, and smoke are the most common distractions. The room should be kept at a temperature that is as close to standard as possible, usually 68 to 71°F. In order to assess the wine’s color, good lighting is required. A white tablecloth can be appropriate for the table setting. 

Because every serious assessment of a wine requires intense concentration, the first part of the test should be done in silence. Even experienced tasters are easily affected by other tasters’ spontaneous comments about the wine. It is absolutely right to enrich your own opinion about the wine by picking up things that others noticed, but never before you have done your own assessment. 

It is very rewarding to make note of your tests and to catalog wines to personal taste. This concentration partly increases during the test when you are forced to formulate impressions for yourself, and the notes are a very good sup- port for your memory. If I try more than ten wines at the same time, I take notes during the tasting; with fewer than ten wines I will remember them anyway. The following day, when the impressions have matured overnight, I often write some summary rows of each kind. How you choose to write down your thoughts on the wines is a personal thing, but it may be useful to note the wine’s color, aroma, and flavor. 

When setting up Your own tasting You will need a good Tasting Sheet. Add some fun & structure to your wine tasting experience by enjoying the wines ’blind.’ The best way to taste Champagnes!

TASTING SHEET [download here]


DISPOSITION

There are many ways to set up a tasting. I think it is important to have some type of theme. It provides better knowledge and understanding of wines and can give surprising results. There are a number of accepted models for tastings that you can follow: for example, there are the concepts of vertical and horizontal tasting. In a vertical tasting, the same producer is tasted in different vintages, whereas at a horizontal tasting, various producers! 


APPEARANCE

A wine’s appearance stems from its ability to absorb and reflect visible radiation. The appearance may already give clues of what type of champagne has been poured into the glass. All major champagnes have a luminous clarity and intensity in the color, regardless of the nuance and depth. Tints are determined primarily from grape composition, vinification process, and maturity level. 

A large amount of pinot grapes and old age generate the darkest colors. Thus, a young blanc de blancs is the brightest wine one can find in Champagne. 

Because there are two parameters to consider, it may be very difficult to decide which kind of champagne it is by only judging its appearance. An old blanc de blancs is about as dark as a middle-aged cuvée or a young blanc de noirs. Luckily, one can distinguish by grape hues to a certain degree. Chardonnay grapes are often a weak greenish to lemon yellow hue, whereas pinot grapes can provide reddish tones like copper or bronze. Mature champagnes almost always have a golden glow of amber before the oxidation eventually makes the wines dark brown. 

The importance of the mousse appearance in the glass is significantly excessive. Admittedly, the Chardonnay grapes usually have slightly smaller bubbles – as well as older champagnes that obviously have a weaker mousse than young sparkling champagnes – but the individual differences between glasses are equally clear. 

Most champagnes made today have a nice mousse, and it is only in the mouth that you can judge its quality. A fine mousse should always consist of small, rapid, and persistent bubbles. The highest-quality mousse should melt like caviar in your mouth and gently crack on the palate, like a firework of sparkling, enjoyable stimuli on the tongue. The worst mousse looks like toothpaste foam, and it removes parts from the taste experience instead of enhancing it. The reason why small bubbles are preferred is not because they are more beautiful, but rather because they give a softer and creamier feeling on the tongue. Bubbles that burst in the mouth are also fantastic flavor carriers and are a very important reason for the supe- rior elegance of champagne. 


SCENT

You get most clues about the wine characteristics through scent. A lot suggests that our sense of smell is, unfortunately, not as strong as it once was, and many people today leave this sense untrained throughout life. Fortunately, you can train your sense of smell. 

Perfumers and wine tasters like me cannot only discern several fragrance nuances, we also feel scents at very low con- centrations. At the cellular level, this is because training gives a selective reproduction of basal cells that produce unique G proteins. Women in their teens usually have the best sense of smell. The number of taste buds are generally more numerous in women than in men. There are also gender differences for different types of aromas. 

Age is another factor that affects our sense of smell. A slight deterioration can begin at the age of twenty, but the dramatic deterioration occurs only in the seventies. Although, if the wine taster’s physical abilities deteriorate over the years, it can be compensated with increased experience and mental focus. There are two neglected factors influencing olfaction: hunger and thirst. Both enhance the sense of smell until the blood sugar becomes so low that the concentration level drops. Although our sense of smell is important and complex, we have a relatively weak sense of smell in comparison to most mammals. It is believed that this is primarily due to the fact that our olfactory epithelium and our olfactory bulb are relatively small. One example is that the total area of a dog’s olfactory epithelium can be up to twenty-three square inches in comparison with our mere one square inch. Dogs’ scent sensitivity is also about a hundred times as large as man’s. But in our defense, one must remember that we are superior at remembering and cataloging scents, something that is so important. 

When you try champagne, leave the freshly poured glass to stand for a moment on the table, so that the first prickly carbonation removes itself. 

Then, it is time for the first scent. Without spinning the glass, stick your nose into it a little bit and gently smell the pristine wine’s aromas. 

The second scent is much stronger because it comes after the glass has been circled a number of turns. This is done so that the wine gets oxygenated and to remove unwanted gases, but above all, to release the wine’s aromas. When you inhale the vapors, it is important that you do not inhale too sharply or for too long.

It is good to switch between the different wines in the tast- ing because the brain has the ability to get used to smells. This also explains why people can manage to live near such smelly industries, for example. After a while, the olfactory nerves are stunned, and they do not know the smell. 

The millions of nerve cells we have in the nose can per- ceive thousands of scents. When you smell champagne, you should be met by an extremely multifaceted scent. The aromas should contain plenty of flowers or fruits. The auto- lytic nature should also remind you of the scents of bread or pastries. The characteristic aroma of the soil should also provide a touch of chalk and minerals. If, along with these, there is a richness of roasted aromas and cream and honey, I am in heaven. It is important to give the wine time in the glass so as not to miss the important glass development. If one discovers a surfeit of sherry-like oxidized tones, which depends on too much aldehyde, it indicates that the cham- pagne has already seen its best days. If, however, the wine has a faint odor, the reason is probably that the champagne is too young. 


FLAVOR

Because the tongue’s taste buds can only perceive sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, and metallic tones, the sense of smell is also the most important tool for what we call taste. It is easy to understand how much we “taste” with our noses when the sense of taste almost completely disappears during a cold. 

Objective and subjective taste are often distinguished: objective is based on facts and can be proven, whereas the subjective is based on preference. What we like and dislike depends on our ability to slowly get used to the new flavors. 

This process is called habituation and is exactly what hap- pens when we’re slowly taught more adult tastes. In some countries, groups of growing children are never exposed to new tastes, so their taste remains “childish.” A lesson for us parents should be to help our children get as rich a flavor experience as adults do, and teach them to appreciate nutri- tious fish, for example, by exposing them to as many diverse flavors as possible. 

Habituation, in the context of wine tastings, often makes the wine taster build up a tolerance for acidity and astrin- gency, which inexperienced wine drinkers do not have. It happens often to me with beginner groups when I am talking about a creamy and soft champagne that the beginner finds far too acidic. 

Adaptation is another phenomenon that is important in the context of tasting. This means that our flavor memory, which is very strong, affects how we perceive the next flavor we are exposed to. Usually, the taste of an ingredient lingers for a few minutes, but it is much longer in the taste memory, which affects the assessment of the next flavor. When we eat and drink wine, the tongue will be affected and even the memory, which leads to new ideas about how the wine actually tastes, depends on what one eats. It is because of adaptations that a wine suddenly tastes sour or bitter even though we just perceived it as sweet. 

When you taste a wine, you should do the same thing in your mouth as when you spin the glass to release the dominant aromas. Allow the wine to circle while trying to inhale through your mouth. This way, parts of the wine’s ingredients are volatilized and reach the smell cells by the posterior nasal passages. It is also important that you let the wine go around properly in the mouth before swallowing or spitting out. 

Recent research findings have shown that we do not only taste the sweet at the tip of the tongue, bitter at the back, and salty and sour on the tongue’s sides – instead, there are lots of taste sensors spread out across the tongue, even though they are essentially concentrated at the aforemen- tioned zones. There are even small taste buds on the palate, pharynx, and epiglottis. Each taste bud has fifty epithe- lial cells intended for receiving the flavor impression. The tongue is also sensitive to touch, temperature, movement, and texture, so the mousse’s best quality is tested by it. 

Quality is, of course, a well-discussed topic in the wine world. Subjectively, one might think, there are certain criteria that together improve the quality of a wine. These aspects are balance, symmetry, complexity, length, harmony, subtlety, development, personality, and the wine’s ability to arouse interest. To accurately define these aspects is impossible because human perception is highly individual. When consid- ering a wine’s taste, you should not only take into account the aromas, but also how the wine is built—the wine’s structure. Fortunately, the wine’s good aromatic properties usually go hand in hand with a good structure. 

An enjoyable wine should be built on the same principles applicable to all forms of art. A painting by Monet is filled with contrasts and harmonious components. Color, shape, light, and content express feelings of harmony and excite- ment. A Beethoven symphony is a whole. If we can distin- guish the different instruments and at the same time can track changes in dynamics, tempo, and rhythm, it deepens our enjoyment. 

Similarly, great champagne should be structured and enjoyed. In order to fully understand the big picture, one must first analyze the separate parts. The play between den- sity, concentration, extensions, and enlargements are equally important for the wine as for musical work. 

The wine must have a backbone to be built around, which can balance opposites like weight/lightness, hardness/laxity, sweetness/acidity, and so on. When the flavor is assessed, one needs to analyze these opposite individual relationships. The aftertaste is always a hallmark of a great wine—its aromatic force can sometimes linger for several minutes if the wine is of the highest class. 



WANT TO BE A CONNOISSEUR ?

It should be clear that it takes a long time to become a good taster. I’m convinced, as I mentioned, that good general health is very helpful, especially for concentration’s sake. 

If you smoke, both your taste and sense of smell deteriorate, so stop immediately. Furthermore, remember to train your olfactory skills in all possible contexts. We are constantly surrounded by odors that are rarely consciously registered, so, for example, systematically smelling flowers and learning their names can extend your fragrance vocabulary and expand your frame of reference. But there are no shortcuts to mastering the difficult art of tasting. Good preparation, good concentration, developed sense of smell, good memory, ground verbalization skills, good imagination, and a passion are required to be a good wine taster. 

In addition to the previously mentioned conditions required to become a good wine taster, a huge portion of knowledge and experience is needed. Becauses all forms of art require education, your taste as a wine taster changes as you learn about wine. Aromas that you initially considered repulsive may later in your career become your favorites as a taster. 

Whether it is regarding wine, food, music, film, literature, or painting, the individual consumer gets the most out of the product if it contains a base of recognizable components. 

If you recognize the entire product, you’ll tire of it quickly; if you do not recognize anything, the confrontation can be a shock. Therefore, it is important that when new and exciting features arouse one’s interest, there is a familiar foundation to build on. If it is a blind tasting, as soon as the appearance, aroma, and flavor have been investigated, you should try to piece together the various impressions to present a guess. You should ask yourself how old the wine is, when the champagne was disgorged, and if it is dominated by pinot or Chardonnay grapes. Is the champagne made by a big or small producer? Did it undergo malolactic fermentation or was it matured in oak? And perhaps most importantly, how high is the quality of the champagne? 

After a few years of training and a number of tasted champagnes, you will often be quite close to the correct answer with your guess, which gives you an extra kick and an increased willingness to learn more about the noble wine’s secrets. 

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