The Sip: Beyond the bubbles

Enjoying champagne without celebration.

Photo by Michael Cummo

Sam Decker is the general manager and wine director at Atria in Edgartown, where he teaches weekly wine courses. Register at Twice a month, he will be sharing his knowledge of wines with The Times.

A New Year’s challenge: Drink Champagne. (You probably had that covered at the ball drop. The tricky part comes next.) Continue drinking it throughout the year, and not only on special occasions. Drink it on weekday nights with leftovers, at lunch with friends, at casual dinner parties. Drink it sitting down. Pair it with food. Drink it often.

The point of this challenge is to get you thinking about Champagne as actual wine. Which it is.

A child is born, a race is won — we reach for a bottle of sparkling wine from a small agricultural province in northeast France. Does anyone else not find this a little bit spooky? This impulse is the result of one of the most brilliant and long-sustained marketing campaigns of all time, leading us to forever associate Champagne with celebration and aristocratic good cheer. But Champagne’s marketing success has ultimately led to our shallow bond with the beverage; it’s the friend we call only when we’re feeling our best.

This pains me, because Champagne truly is a remarkable wine — and as with all good wines, its magic lies in its ability to brighten modest, intimate occasions, to enhance a meal.

The Champagne wine region in France is a cold and dreary place — low-lying chalky hills, overcast skies. Pinning Champagne and, say, the Chianti region in Italy into the same whimsical thought is like planning a trip to Miami  and Woodstock, N.Y., and expecting to pack only one set of clothes. Yet while its cool climate and chalky soils force the vines to struggle for ripeness, the best years produce wines of great finesse and purity.

Historically, bubbles were seen as nothing more than a confounding reminder of the region’s shortcomings. The cellared wines would halt fermentation during the coldest winter months, only to be encouraged by the warmth of spring to resume after the wines had been bottled. Champagne producers looked to the still wines of their southerly neighbors in Burgundy with jealous hearts. That was, until innovations in winemaking and bottle technology (no more explosions in the cellar) allowed producers to embrace the bubbles.

Champagne’s bracing acidity makes it particularly versatile for food pairing. I hesitate to say too much on the subject for risk of dampening the thrill of discovery. With the exception maybe of unadorned meatloaf, I can’t think of any dish that wouldn’t be enhanced by its mineral rush. Soups, salads, chicken, anything from the sea, anything fried, anything with butter.

Here are a few tips to help you overcome the obstacle of viewing Champagne as a wine and not a luxury brand.

Ditch the flute, and drink it out of a wineglass. The bubbles will disperse, allowing you to focus on the wine itself. Stick your nose in the glass and you will be glad.

Save money by buying American sparkling wines made in the méthode champenoise, or traditional method. Champagne is distinctive for two reasons: it comes from Champagne, and it is made in the méthode champenoise, meaning that the secondary fermentation that produces the bubbles occurs in the bottle, as opposed to a large tank. There are a number of producers in the U.S. who implement this technique, resulting in wines that approach Champagne in quality and not in price. Producers include Scharffenberger and Roederer, both located in California’s cool Mendocino County. These wines lack Champagne’s chalk-born focus, but they are excellent for the money.

Buy grower Champagne. Part of our difficulty perceiving Champagne as true wine is that the vast majority of what’s available is produced by the handful of large houses that dominate the region by buying grapes from all over to produce consistent, homogeneous blends. Grower Champagne is the antithesis: small quantities of distinctive wine made by the same person who grew the grapes. It’s Champagne seen through the same lens of terroir through which we view all other fine wine regions. Producers to look for are Chartogne Taillet, Pierre Peters, and Gaston Chiquet.

Let’s make 2015 the year we go beyond the bubbles and drink Champagne with food. To this end I will leave you with one small gem: fish tacos.