Last week Bryan Maletis, who runs Fat Cork in Queen Anne, invited me to come taste some “really geeked out” Champagne in some seriously esteemed company. And the glory of it all—this was a totally justifiable work outing. Thanks, journalism school! Fat Cork imports grower Champagne, essentially the farm-to-table, artisan version of France’s storied Big Bubbles. He wanted to gather up some powerhouse local sommeliers for a roundtable discussion of this fine beverage.
You know those people who dress up in capes and go to ComiCon conventions? Sommeliers Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of RN74, Phillip Dunn from Canlis, Tim Hanlon of Salish Lodge and Dawn Smith (most recently of Café Juanita, taking her advanced sommelier exam this week) are the Champagne equivalent. Minus the costumes. I tried frantically to keep up with discussions of saignee, disgorgement, malolactic fermentation, and other technicalities, but instead came away with this cheat sheet for ordering, drinking, or pretending to know more than you actually do about Champagne. Many thanks to somm/Fat Cork copy chief Emily Resling for the notes.
Some bottles are showstoppers on their own. Smith declared a Mathieu-Gandon rosé saingee akin to a giant bottle of Christmas, with a candied finish that makes it more of an aperitif than an accompaniment for an entire meal.
Others are team players. The two laypeople at the table (namely myself and wine writer Jameson Fink) preferred more understated bottles, while our somm tablemates went nuts for those showstoppers. As Lindsay-Thorsen noted, some of these need the saline of an oyster or some sweetly spiced Asian food to give them better context. Not sure how mere mortals can tell which Champagne is which? That’s what these supergeeked somms (and bottle shop owners) are for.
Someone should write a TV series about artisan Champagne producers. One of Fat Cork’s producers, Perrot-Bateau et Filles, is now run by the daughters of its founder (filles is French for daughters). Dad apparently left the Champagne biz to be the town mayor. This begs for a television screenplay, preferably with Rachel Bilson involved.
Don’t wait to open that bottle... Most of the producers Maletis works with use minimal sulfites, and don’t add much sugar, if any, after the second fermentation. They age for a minimum of three years, which means they arrive in Seattle ready to drink.
...Unless it's really fancy. If a Champagne has a specific vintage year, that means its contents are especially good, and should age with aplomb. We sampled a 1996 blanc de blancs from Gimonnet-Oger that was far more worldly and complex than its 2002 sibling. According to Maletis, only about 10 to 15 percent of Champagne gets bottled by vintage; the rest is blended.
Disgorgement matters. A movement is afoot among Champagne geeks to require producers to list when a bottle was disgorged. This rather suggestive term refers to a brief interlude where the bottle is uncapped during its aging so yeast remnants can be quickly discharged in a manner that New York Times writer Eric Asimov likens to “an owl coughing up a pellet.” So two bottles of Champagne can have the same grapes and same method, but taste wildly different. Maletis recalled almost dropping a Champagne producer after the first shipment arrived. But a second shipment, disgorged more recently, "I wanted to keep him forever.”
Some people (aka sommeliers) like to drink Champagne flat. And even a little warm. I guess when Champagne is this good, you don’t need to bubbles to make it enjoyable. Don’t try this with Cook’s.
Potato chips are the best companion to bubbles, ever. The bubbles counteract the grease while the salt brightens up more subtle versions. We’re talking plain old unridged, unflavored, unfancy chips, here. This miracle of snacking is apparently old news to the pros.