The Roman god of beginnings, Janus, is represented with two faces on one head: one set of eyes gazes into the past, the other looks to the future. Appropriately, January is named after him. The month represents new beginnings, and no drink represents the new year more ideally than Champagne. With Janus in mind, let’s look forward to tasting some new Champagnes, and look back to the figures of the past who brought them to us.
Champagne became a celebratory drink in large part due to the marketing skills of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (AKA the Widow, AKA La Grande Dame, AKA the uncrowned queen of Reims). Through her marketing endeavors, Champagne became a global signifier for festivities, accomplishments, and new beginnings. The Widow (or ‘Veuve’) Clicquot is also responsible for clarified Champagne through the painstaking process of “remuage.” This advancement was a game changer in the Champagne world, elevating Champagne to the luxury drink it still is today.
As Champagne’s taste is so meticulously cultivated, using it in a mixed drink is considered a travesty. But with mixology growing ever popular, the Widow steps up to the trend. This year, the house presented Clicquot Rich, an elite Champagne created for mixing. This Champagne has a honey smell, and a soft sweetness. Its heaviness allows it to mix well, and the flavor discreetly hides until it is mixed. It balances divinely with fresh ingredients, infusing perfectly with whatever is thrown in it. Like the Widow, it turns lemons into spiked lemonade.
Champagne became popular stateside in the mid-1800s, when charming Charles-Camille Heidsieck came over from France and brought his bubbly bottles to the elite circles of the States, garnering the nickname “Champagne Charlie.” (History buffs will love to learn more about the “Heidsieck Incident,” when he was imprisoned for months in a dingy prison during the Civil War for suspicion of being a spy.) Since its inception over a century and a half ago, Charles Heidsieck Champagne remains a boutique house, and until the 1980s, under the original family’s ownership. Heidsieck had the foresight to acquire the famous crayères, naturally chilly chalk cellars 60 feet under ground, a pristine environment for the Champagnes to mature. This summer, these 2000-year-old Roman crayères were appointed UNESCO World Heritage status.
The bottle of the Rosé Réserve bears a unique shape, designed to mirror the curves of Chalk Cellar Number 9, where it was aged. The brand is known for aging even its non-vintages for three years (law requires non-vintages to be aged at least 15 months). The Rosé Réserve blends the best grapes over various years, with 40% of the wine having an average age of 10 years. The Rosé has an orange tint, and a floral smell. The texture is particularly smooth, leaving beautiful stems along the glass. The subtle, ephemeral flavors come and go, similar to a macaron. The bubbles floating up to the brim of the glass look like a string of pearls, embodying luxury in not only taste, but also sight.
Photo credit Stanislas Liban
In 1887, Mathilde Laurent-Perrier suddenly became a widow left at the helm of her husband’s house. In a bold move, she joined her surname with her husband’s, Laurent, and named the house Veuve Laurent-Perrier – now simply called Champagne Laurent-Perrie. She managed the company just as boldly, bringing the house to glory, and while the house has changed families, its legacy of strong female leaders remains, as does its exceptional wine.
In French, vintage Champagne is referred to as a millésimé, where the Champagne is aged for a minimum of three years and then released to the public to be enjoyed. When there is a particularly good year, those grapes are kept to make a vintage, where only one year’s harvest is used. Laurent-Perrier’s Cellar Master, Michel Fauconnet, sparingly selects vintage years, naming the latest one in 2006, and after eight years of aging in chalk cellars the bottles were released this year. With a bright yellow, clean finish, this vintage champagne tastes as crisp as a New York autumn. This light, smooth and subtle wine seeps of refinement and pomp. It’s bubbly without bloating the belly, and ultimately refreshing and lighthearted. It’s like a sigh, clarifying both palate and mind.
In 1947 Avize, France, seven growers came together to establish Champagne Palmer. Only this year did this exceptional wine arrive to this side of the Atlantic, making big waves as it sailed. Champagne Palmer is a perfect example of terroir wine, exemplifying the strong character of the Montagne de Reims. The vineyards are located on Grand Cru-designated land in famed sub-regions Villers-Marmery and Trépail, known for their sunshine, clay-rich soil, and cool climate. What started as a small group of growers has grown into coalition 300 strong, and a fan base that is growing even faster.
The Brut Réserve has a strong grape, juicy fragrance and flavor. The texture is very dry. It seems to get bubblier as you drink it, with the line of bubbles creating mesmerizing columns as it gilds the glass. It tingles more than tickles, and its strong flavor makes it a perfect libation to pair with a celebratory feast.
Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author, and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.