“Gentlemen, in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.”
That’s Paul Claudel’s quote – you’ll know him because his sister Camille Claudel was the gifted sculptor (to know more, watch the film Camille Claudel (1988) starring Isabelle Adjani). For these times, we need champagne. We may not all be able to afford it with so many industries on hold but, like fresh food, it reminds us that there are things you can put in your mouth that make life worth living. Now’s the time to learn to appreciate things: walks outdoors (one a day!), your loved ones and great champagne. If you are suffering from anosmia, you may wish to save a fine bottle for later. Buy one bottle that’s really good. Or two splits. Or buy more and save it for Liberation Day.
Don’t stay trapped in a Groundhog Day champagne bunker
Sparkling wines are delicious and delightful yet it is rare to find anything that isn’t real champagne that tastes like real champagne, i.e from the Champagne region. There is a serious, adult quality to drinking the real thing – a familiar zing to the palate and heady messages to the nose. You may, like me, have bought bottles from your local Waitrose or independent wine shop (preferably), Nicolas possibly or Whisky Exchange, or even Aldi or Lidl. You may buy the same champagne over and over. You may go Veuve Clicquot, Moët, Bollinger, Taittinger, etc.
Don’t stay trapped in a Groundhog Day champagne bunker. I urge you, while your tastebuds are eager for something to do, to try Billecart-Salmon. I had the eye-opening pleasure when I attended a virtual tasting from France via Instagram with my champagne mentor Nicky Goodyer from Australia, where we all opened a bottle of Billecart-Salmon brut rosé. This comes in a split (half bottle), a bottle, magnum and jeroboam as well. According to Tyson Stelzer’s 2020-2021 Champagne Guide: “Billecart has long held a coveted position among the top ten houses of Champagne, and confidently again this year upholds its mantle as the most elegant of them all.”
As Goodyer (@thechampagnecrusade) mentions, for Billecart-Salmon the grapes speak for themselves – or, as Stelzer’s Champagne Guide quotes Antoine Roland-Billecart, “‘We are not very focused on marketing. Vinification is the key for us, and all the rest is bullshit…’”
When I walked into the first Taste Champagne event in London back in 2019, ready to learn what to taste from those already there, everyone said this champagne. Everyone. This is where you go first when you really want to taste what’s in the bottle rather than get blotto. Happily, the brand has been featuring live Instagram tastings each Friday, a different bottle each week. You’ll learn a lot: for example, you do not have to take the wire off the cork to open the bottle. Sacré bleu.
First, use a small white wine glass (or proper tasting glass) that is free of washing up or dishwasher soap film. Rinse and polish. Don’t chill it over under 4C° (Billecart said in a recent tasting that 10C° was about right). Fill it 1/3 of the way. Hold the wine up to the light and look at the colour and the bead (bubbles). According to The Champagne Crusade, the champagne’s colour should be “onion skin”, a pale rose amber with a fine steady bead.” Stick your nose in and smell for small red fruit of wild strawberries, raspberries and black cherry along with a waft of lime and lemon zest. The taste? “Cold vinification pigeonholes the red fruits, clear clarity to each of the red fruits with a citrus punch on the elegant length,” she says, “This champagne is lovely to drink as an aperitif with rare red meats but especially with fresh water fish, an earthy wild salmon.” I agree but I think it goes with everything. It gains flavour as it breathes and so can do quite well in a coupe. Even with a split, Billecart-Salmon reminds you how much there is to taste.
Consider this a recalibration of your champagne-buds. Next week: English sparkling part deux. C