Did you know that a champagne bottle should not make a popping sound when uncorked properly? Or, that a flute is actually not the best type of glass for enjoying champagne? Turns out, there’s a lot to learn about how to select a bottle that will give you a good bang for your buck, open it properly and maximize your enjoyment when drinking it. There’s also a surprisingly long history shared by women and champagne – well, maybe not that surprising, but definitely fascinating! Champagne expert Cynthia Coutu, who specializes in women in champagne, joins Liz in this episode to offer an abbreviated master class in all things Champagne. She offers pro tips for buying and drinking bubbly, explains the early history of women in champagne and talks about how women are still shaking up this male-dominated industry today. Cheers!
Fat Cork: https://fatcork.com/
Club Bubbly: https://clubbubbly.com/
Champagne Camp: https://www.champagnecamp.com/
I may be overstepping here, but I’m tempted to say that that having a working knowledge of champagne is kind of an essential life skill… especially these days. When I reached out to Champagne expert Cynthia Coutu I knew that I had a lot to learn. Still, I was shocked to discover that I’ve been getting even what I consider to be the “basics” totally wrong. Opening the bottle wrong, wrong glassware… I needed more help than I realized!
What follows are some highlights from our conversation. You can catch the full podcast episode here.
Liz Serotte (LS): So first things first, I find it really hard to choose a bottle of champagne at the store. I stand there looking at the shelves and, not going to lie, I’ve definitely picked one just because I like the look of the label. It can be really intimidating trying to make sense of all of the choices.
Cynthia Coutu (CC): It is, but it isn’t. You can sip a glass of wine and appreciate it without knowing anything about wine. It’s like a good book. For example, James Joyce, he was an erudite. Anyone can pick up one of his books and appreciate the story and the storytelling. But the more you know about the Catholic religion or about philosophy or literature, the more references you pick up in the book and the more you appreciate it more depth.
LS: But, how do I know if I’m picking a GOOD bottle of champagne?
CC: The first question is, what’s the definition of a good champagne? And to me that is a champagne that you like. So the first thing to understand is, what type of champagne you prefer? Do you prefer a champagne that has more Chardonnay in the blend? That will have more citrusy notes and it’ll be zingy, and tart, and straight, because Chardonnay adds that freshness and acidity to the blend. Or do you like a blend that has more Pinot Noir? And that adds more sort of red berry notes. And there’s Pinot Meunier, which is very fruity, more yellow, peach apricot type notes. So there’s the grape blend, then there’s the aging. Is it a vintage or a non-vintage? How long has it spent aging? The less time it’s spent aging, the more fruity it’ll be. The more time it spends aging, the more toasty, yeasty it’ll be. And you’re probably wondering when I look at a bottle, how am I supposed to know. There are apps out there, like Vivino is probably the most famous. So you take a picture of the label and it usually brings you to more details about the bottle. The best way to is to not buy your champagne at a grocery store, but go to a wine shop and ask. A good salesperson in a wine shop would be more than happy to help you find a champagne that suits your tastes. The other thing are medals and points. I’m not a big fan of the point system because it just reflects the taste of one person, whoever marked it. Medals on the other hand are usually a jury that blind taste. And so usually if any type of wine gets a gold medal anywhere, it’s usually a good sign. So you want to look for gold metal stickers on the bottle.
LS: Once you’ve purchased a bottle, I guess the next order of business is opening it properly.
CC: If I had a Euro for every time a woman told me, this is the first time I’ve opened a champagne bottle by myself, I could be retired on a deserted island somewhere enjoying the sea and sun. The process for making champagne produces six bars of pressure inside the bottle. And that’s three times the pressure of a car tire, so you want to be really careful when you open it. But it’s actually really easy once you know how to do it safely. You start by removing the foil, the metal wrapping around the cork. Then, if you’re right-handed like me, you put your left thumb on top of the cork. And then you turn the cage, (which is the metal cage that is holding the cork) about five times towards yourself. Some people leave the cage on once it’s loose. I prefer taking it off, so I wriggle and jiggle it, but I keep my thumb on the cork. And then the trick is holding your bottle at 45 degrees. I’m right-handed so I put my right thumb on top of the cork, my left hand holding the base of the bottle, and I hold it at 45 degrees. And then you gently turn the cork towards you and the bottle away from you. You’ll feel the pressure of the cork pushing against your thumb and you just remove it gently. When you feel it just about to come out, you twist the cork 45 degrees. If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t make a pop sound. It makes softer hissing sound that some people call the champagne sigh or the champagne kiss.
LS: I’ve definitely been doing that wrong! The bottle always pops when I open it. What is the right glassware for enjoying champagne?
CC: Flutes allow you to appreciate the visual aspect of the bubbles, the little mini tornado taking place in your glass. But the opening is very narrow, so you can’t get your nose in the glass to appreciate the aromas. Appreciating the flavors and aromas kind of go together. The opposite is true for the coupe, the round glasses. They are the worst because you lose your bubbles and you lose the aromas. Some women tell me, well, it doesn’t matter because I drink it so fast. But champagne is a wine, and people tend to forget that it’s a wine and you need to take the time to appreciate it, and smell it, and taste it and look at it. And so the best for that is a white wine glass. When you go to a fancy Michelin restaurant, or to visit a champagne house, or a small producer, they will usually serve the champagne in a white wine glass. You lose a little bit on the bubbles, but you get to appreciate the aromas and flavors so much more. If you want to do homework, I recommend pouring the same champagne in different shaped glasses and experiencing it yourself to see what happens to your bubbles and the aromas. The best type of flute are called a tulip flute. They’re not straight up and down, they’re like a bulb. They look like a tulip bulb, and that gives the wine more room to breathe and release the aromas.
LS: What makes sparkling wines produced in other parts of the world different from Champagne made in the Champagne region in France? Are they not as good?
CC: There’s the place where the wine comes from and then there’s the method used to make the sparkling wine. There are about six different methods. For Champagne, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. And that’s also the case for Cava, Cremant, Franciacorta, and some others. Then there’s another method where the second fermentation takes place in a tank, and that’s the case for Prosecco. When you have the second fermentation in the bottle, usually it needs to spend a certain amount of time aging in the bottle, in contact with the yeast. That’s what gives it a lot of toasty notes. For a non-vintage Champagne, the minimum amount of time in the bottle is 15 months. For a vintage Champagne it’s three years. So the longer it spends in contact with the yeast, the more complex aromas and flavors you get. When the tank method is used, it only spends about 10 days in contact with the yeast, and so it’s going to be a lot fruitier and less yeasty, toasty, bready. And then you have the grape varieties. In Champagne, there are seven grape varieties permitted. The three most well-known are Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Meunier. In other wine regions in France, it’s different grape varieties. If you’re in Alsace, there might be more Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris. If you’re in the Loire Valley it’ll be Chenin Blanc. The grape varieties determine the type of fruitiness you’ll get from them, and sort of the aroma and taste profile. For Prosecco, made in Italy, it’s the tank method, and the great variety is Glera. It’s a very aromatic grape. These methods and where they’re made also affects the price. The Champagne method, the grapes have to be handpicked. So that involves manual labor and more time, so more money. For Prosecco it’s machines that go in and pick the grapes.
LS: I guess that explains why you can get a tasty glass of Prosecco without breaking the bank. So there’s the type of sparkling wine, the glassware… what else affects the overall experience of drinking a nice glass of bubbly?
CC: I get paid to taste wines at trade fairs and I can tell you that when you are in a crowded trade fair that’s really noisy, and people bumping into you, and it’s hot, you don’t experience the wine the same way as when you’re sitting beside a beach with a view of the ocean, with your bestie or your loved one. Wine, it appeals to your senses. So where you’re drinking and how your senses are being affected will impact how you appreciate the wine. There’s actually scientific studies that have shown that when you’re in an environment where there’s the colors blue and green, your senses are more receptive.
LS: Interesting. So drinking by the ocean actually does make wine taste better. I knew it! Why do people tend to save Champagne for a special celebrations? Like a toast at a wedding or something.
CC: Champagne is not only for special occasions. There’s a famous quote from a character in a movie called Old Acquaintance. The character is played by Bette Davis and she says, “There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that can help is a glass of champagne.”
LS: Truer words have never been spoken.
CC: I hate vacuuming so I’m known to pop a bottle open when I finally get around to vacuuming. And I drink it as a wine with food.
LS: So what foods pair well with champagne?
CC: It really depends on what type of champagne you’re drinking. So a Blanc de Blanc, for example, has more Chardonnay and citrusy notes in it. So just imagine foods that you would add a squeeze of lemon on. So seafood goes really well with a Blanc de Blanc. If you have a Blanc de Noir or a blend with more Pinot in it, it has more red berry flavors, so it’s going to pair better with meats. You could have a whole Thanksgiving or Christmas meal with different styles of champagne. The key is for your appetizers, your main and cheese, you want to stick with dry Champagne. It’s only with your dessert that you would want to have a sweet Champagne.
LS: So just how far back does the connection between women and champagne go?
CC: In the 18th century, they were still trying to figure out how to make it bubble, just the right amount. They didn’t know how much sugar to use, the bottles weren’t thick enough. So it was only the rich and famous who could afford to drink champagne. And it was the women who were like, “Ooooh, I like this.” They were champagne ambassadors. Anyone who came to visit Versailles was introduced to Champagne by the courtesans, then they ordered it and brought it back to their countries. In the 19th century, you had industrialization, and that’s where there was a big boom in the production of Champagne. There were some very famous widows. You had Veuve Clicquot who invented the riddling table to speed up the process of getting rid of the yeast in the bottle. You had Madam Pommery, who was the first to start making and selling dry champagne. Up until the 19th century, Champagne was more of a dessert wine. It was sweet. In Brut champagne today, which is considered dry, you have between six and 12 grams of sugar. Back in the 19th century, it was more like a hundred to 200 grams of sugar. We can thank Madam Pommery for Brut Champagne. During World War I and World War II, men in France had to enlist and fight. So it was the women who were left behind to run the show and keep the Champagne ships afloat. And then in the 21st century, there are more and more women paving the way and leading champagne houses or small grower champagne where they’re actually in the vineyards growing grapes and making Champagne.
LS: You have access to so many wonderful and inexpensive Champagnes practically in your back yard. It doesn’t seem that we have as many options here in the States.
CC: In the States, you mostly only have access to big Champagne houses. It’s always the same Champagnes that you’ll see in the wine shops. The big Champagne houses rarely grow the grapes themselves, so they buy most of their grapes from small growers and they turn it into Champagne. There’s another category of producers called grower Champagne, and they grow the grapes and make the Champagne from their grapes. It’s so affordable in France. One of my favorite Champagnes, it’s almost as cheap as water. It’s made by a woman, of course. But the problem is, 95% of the champagne exported to the States is from the big houses, because they can afford the distribution network and all the marketing, and so on. The good news is that there are more and more clubs popping up in the States that specialize in grower Champagne. There’s one is called Fat Cork, another one called Club Bubbly – and that’s owned and managed by a woman – and another called Champagne Camp.