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Champagne, like all wines, is an experience for all of the senses – colour, aroma, texture, flavour and in this case sound too. Learning to recognise and define the distinctions in Champagne – making associations, finding the right word – is what makes tasting Champagne especially fascinating. Our brain has to distinguish between nuances of white, yellow and pink; between fruity, spicy and floral aromas; between subtle, delicate and powerful aromas – between all those different qualities that make Champagne wine so irresistible, up to and including its magical bubbles.
The sound made by a Champagne as it leaves a correctly opened bottle is one of your first clues to the wine’s identity. The cork should be eased out firmly but gently, releasing with a soft sigh or hiss. This is the prelude to a chorus of sounds that will soon become familiar to the attentive ear.
Listen carefully and you will learn to track the effervescence from first gush to its more sedate arrival in the glass. You can even judge the finesse of the bubbles – a key defining feature – from the sound they make once poured.
There is a discreet popping noise as the bottle is opened, then a crackling, fizzing sound as the wine is poured and the effervescence whooshes into the glass – a sound like the stirring of leaves in the breeze or the rustling of silk, taffeta, lace …
The bubbles burst, hiss, chatter, babble, whisper then fade …
Sight is the first sense that comes into play. The eye observes the limpidity, lightness, fluidity and colour of the wine in the glass. It judges the density of yellow on a scale that ranges from golden blonde to straw yellow or grey gold. The human eye is capable of fine discrimination. What it looks for most in Champagne is brilliance, radiance and crystalline clarity – all qualities that appeal to the eye. An absence of limpidity, on the other hand, tends to be rather disconcerting.
Then there is the spectacle of the bubbles themselves – endlessly fascinating as they rise irrepressibly to the surface and collect in a jostling ring to form the ‘cordon’.
There are certain degrees of effervescence, each one an indication of a wine’s age and personality.
Bubbles are synonymous with Champagne and always a welcome sight – but they should not overpower the nose.
Champagne sparkles with life as it is poured. The bubbles may be described as fine or medium-sized; steady, streaming or moving in groups; light and tiny; fast and furious, or slow and shy. Some whizz through the liquid like shooting stars, whirling and spiralling upwards. Others are more enduring and generous, settling in a delicate cordon round the edge of the glass. Others still are more discreet and dispersed or on the contrary very evenly distributed.
Wine critics often talk about tiny, silvery bubbles or bubbles that shatter into fragments of gold.
Adjectives used to describe the mousse might be creamy, white, fine, enduring, lively, elegant, graceful, pale or frothy. The cordon formed by the mousse may be compared to a delicate string of pearls.
Champagne wines are so subtly aromatic that the effervescence may mask their delicate bouquet. Scientists say that our sense of smell has evolved over the years, making us better able to discern the different nuances of aroma in Champagne. Every bottle develops its own particular range of fruit, floral, wooded and spicy notes.
That first whiff of Champagne is like the overture to an opera: there is a recurring theme, followed by notes that reappear throughout the tasting. In a young Brut Champagne, for example, scents of white flowers are often the prelude to hints of orange peel and wild berries. The aromas in Champagne are inherently volatile, constantly evolving in the glass. How you describe them depends on how you perceive them, whether fruity, floral, mature, subtle, thoroughbred or any other term that you might choose.
To appreciate the full aromatic potential of Champagne, you must allow the wine time to open – meanwhile studying its appearance in the glass. Once open, the Champagne releases its ‘first nose’ or immediate olfactory impressions, followed some time later by the deeper, more complex, more precise ‘second nose’. The aromas in Champagne are also an indication of grape variety and grape ripeness.
Champagne makes particular demands on the sense of taste, particularly the tongue and the palate. The moment when the wine enters the mouth is the high point of the tasting, especially for an experienced and attentive taster who will be looking for such qualities as intensity, completeness, sharpness, richness, perfection – sometimes even impertinence. How you define the wine very much depends on your ability to detect its subtle harmonies and tastes. Can your tastebuds distinguish between a touch of citrus and a hint of ripe pear? Would you say that the palate was round or long, lively or agile? What about the mouthfeel? Is it ripe with red berries, musky, toasty or brioche-like? It is delicate or ultra-refined? Look to your palate for the answers to these questions.
“The palate should be surprisingly but pleasantly sparkling, instantly seductive and velvety. The taste should have an underlying fruitiness, with a lingering fragrance that causes you to meditate silently and at length on the wine’s aromatic qualities – long after you put down your glass”. Louis Bohre, an early 20th century Champagne ‘explorer’.
The bubbles feel like crystalline pearls on the palate, exploding with acidulous flavours that stand out against a rich, smooth background of ripe fruit and exotic wood interlaced with the fragrance of white flowers. Think of the bubbles as the musicians in a symphony orchestra. They rise to a crescendo then diminish by degrees to close on a note of peace and harmony. Excitement, completeness, tranquillity – a symphony in three movements that intensifies our tasting pleasure.
Our sense of touch is the most reliable indicator of the temperature of the Champagne. The glass, ideally an ultra-fine, tulip-shaped glass, should feel cool to the touch, just as it looks cool to the eye by virtue of the mist that forms inside the glass. Champagne is at its finest and most expressive when you have stood the bottle in an ice bucket for half an hour, and served it at a temperature of 8-10°C (46.4-50°F). Our sense of touch is also the source of what we call ‘mouthfeel’, or the texture of the wine on the palate.