Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 53

Samuel Johnson comes from a long line of distinguished 18th century English writers that I’ve never heard of.  Well, that’s not completely true.  Once I started reading about him, the faintest of bells rang in my head (kind of like the raise-your-hand-when-you-hear-a-beep auditory test they used to give us in school) — Johnson is the Dictionary Guy.  In 1755, he wrote what’s considered the first comprehensive and reliable English language dictionary, The Dictionary of the English Language.  But, Johnson didn’t write the first dictionary — there are probably a dozen guys ahead of him in that line.

So, was the Dictionary Guy a wine drinker?  Yes and no.

Johnson vacillated between heavy drinking and abstinence all of his life.  He once explained, “I can’t drink a little, therefore I never touch it.  Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.”

Johnson was a pretty shrewd observer, though.  To wit, here are today’s words:


True and funny!  There probably aren’t many of us who haven’t seen this happen at a party. Hell, it’s happened to me (you know, the things you say that sound a lot smarter in your head).


Carpe Vinum’s Tour de France: Champagne Wishes

If you follow my Carpe Vinum adventures, you know that a couple of us are heading to France on vacation this summer (I’m going Paris and north; my girlfriend is going Paris and south). A couple of months ago, we embarked on an in-depth study of the French wine regions where we’ll be traveling — our very own Tour de France.

For every Carpe Vinum wine tasting, I try to do a research post on our chosen topic.  It’s part of my self-guided continuing wine education.  Here’s the ongoing list of our Tour de France stages (the research post is listed first):

Stage One: Provence and our Provence Tasting
Stage Two: Alsace and our Alsace Tasting
Stage Three: Champagne and our Champagne Tasting (today’s post)

Without further ado, here are our Champagne tastings & pairings.  Bon Appétit!

Charles de Cazanove Champagne paired with Chilled Peach Soup with Feta Cheese and Glazed Beet & Burrata Cheese Toasts 
The Beet & Burrata Cheese Toasts are an encore performance here at Carpe Vinum.  They are especially good right now with fresh farmer’s market beets.  The Chilled Peach Soup with Feta Cheese is definitely going to be an encore performance at my house!  So refreshing, and surprisingly savory — I thought for sure it would be a sweet soup with peach in the title.  A tip, though.  Technically, this is supposed to be made with goat cheese, but I’m allergic, so my girlfriend left the cheese out of the soup altogether, and topped it with crumbled feta.  I made this last week for a winery picnic, and the recipe calls for the cheese to be blended with the soup.  Doing so changes the texture of the soup to something similar to cottage cheese, which was just wrong.  I scrapped it and started over.

Charles de Cazanove Champagne  ⭐⭐⭐⭐/90
10% Chardonnay, 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier.  Flavors of green apple, citrus and ginger.  Zingy acidity.  Slightly nutty, and a little yeasty on the finish.  Lovely.  I’ll definitely be back for more bottles of this one.  $32.

Beet & Burrata Pairing ↔
Really, really increases the acidity in the Champagne.  Honestly, it fights with the beets more than anything else.

Chilled Peach Soup Pairing 👍
Bravo!  This was amazing!!  A definite up-tick in acidity with the soup, but remains nicely balanced.


Diebolt-Vallois à Cramant Champagne Blanc de Blancs paired with Cheddar Gougères and Asparagus Gruyère Tart
I’m a terrible baker, and I know there are better executions of Gougères, but these were simple and really tasty.  I ate about 23 of them before I even left for Carpe Vinum.  And the Asparagus Gruyère Tart is a home run!!  There are only three ingredients — it couldn’t be easier to assemble, and it’s delicious.

Diebolt-Vallois à Cramant Champagne Blanc de Blancs ⭐⭐⭐⭐/91
À Cramant is a village in the Côte des Blancs vineyard/region of Champagne.  Champagne made there is almost exclusively Chardonnay based.  I bought this Champagne because it was featured in the documentary, A Year in Champagne, and I was curious.  Incidentally, if you haven’t seen that film, it’s definitely worth a view.  This sparkler did not disappoint.  Green apple, bread dough, and chalky-mineral goodness.  I’m going back for a case.  $40.

Cheddar Gougères Pairing  👍👍
Puffy cheese bread with Champagne?  Yes, please.

Asparagus Gruyère Tart Pairing  👍
There’s a lot of grumbling about pairing asparagus with wine, but Champagne suits it juuuust fine.  Lovely with both the asparagus, the cheese and the pastry.


Pol Roger Reserve Champagne paired with White Hot Truffle Fries
My girlfriend always says, “you could truffle shoe leather, and I’d eat it.”  Agreed.  These truffled fries are super.  Salty and truffly and just about perfect.

Pol Roger Reserve Champagne ⭐⭐⭐⭐/90
An equal blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.  Pears and apples and pears. Honey and spice on the finish.  Powerful, yet elegant.  $45.  History break:  During World War II, Odette Pol Roger bicycled to Paris (a 12-hour trip) to carry messages for the French Resistance.

White Hot Truffle Fries Pairing 👍
Salt and Champagne.  Who’s up for a Grease reference??  They go together like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong.  Soooooo good.  Sandy & Danny good.


Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne paired with Chicken & Waffles (Fried Chicken and Buttermilk Waffles with Black Pepper Maple Syrup and Vanilla Butter)
Honestly, I’d never tried chicken & waffles before.  It just seemed more like a silly craze than satisfying meal.  But you know what?  Chicken & Waffles rocks!!  The black pepper maple syrup and vanilla butter put this version over the top!!

Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ⭐⭐⭐/89
Made from “a majority” of Pinot Noir.  Apples, pears, and almonds.  A little more fruit, and less bready than the others.  But another lovely.  $30.  History break:  During World War II, Piper-Heidsieck hid weapons in their cellars for the French Resistance.

Chicken & Waffles Pairing 👍
The hits just keep on coming!  Great pairing.  The sweetness from the vanilla butter is balanced by the spiciness of the black pepper maple syrup.  And the fried chicken?  I’ve been known to buy a bucket o’ bird from The Colonel and pair it with Champagne, so this pairing more than works for me.

I hope you enjoyed our virtual field trip to Champagne.  Carpe Vinum will be on hiatus over the summer break.  See you in the fall!


Weekly Photo Challenge: Enveloped

A peony from my garden . . . the tiny pink pistil enveloped by sunny, yellow stamens.  (I took a stab at the botany — if I got it wrong, I figure someone will let me know).

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Enveloped.
Our instructions:  This week, tell us what enveloped means to you.

Hmmm.  Fighting the temptation to post a picture of an envelope inside an envelope.  😉

Peonies are my favorite flower (those, and lilacs).  I wait all year for them to hatch.  And then I spend two or three weeks loitering around them, my nose pressed into the flowers, inhaling. I’m pretty sure my neighbors think I’m crazy.

I added this beauty to my peony collection last year.  This is what’s called a single peony, and it’s named Peony Pink Princess.  Seriously?!?!  That’s the best name the peony naming committee could come up with?  It sounds more like a name for a My Little Pony.  But it is gorgeous, and gave me a chance to play with my macro lens.

My husband says the yellow stamens look like grated cheese.  And they kinda do.  All-hail the macro lens!

Nikon D800
ISO 400 | 105mm | f/3.2 | 1/4000 sec

Safe Memorial Day Weekend . . . and Salud!

Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 52

I know, it’s not Wednesday.  I’m late.

The dog ate my blog post.  No?  The truth??  I’m having one of those stop-the-ride-I-want-to-get-off kind of weeks. Three words (and if you’ve been there, you know):  girls soccer drama. Every year.  It all works itself out (some years more painfully than others), but not before it sucks the time and energy right out of me.

And so, as I looked at my calendar yesterday and realized that my usual Wednesday deadline flew by with that whooshing sound (thanks, Douglas Adams), I also remembered that Memorial Day weekend is looming.  And with it, a chance to maybe, just maybe, catch my breath.  But with all the breathing, barbecuing and mattress buying (I still don’t get the connection between Memorial Day and mattresses) that goes on this weekend, I’m also thinking about the men and women who gave all in the service of our country.

The Mr. Armchair Sommelier graduated from the United States Naval Academy (btw, graduation and commissioning ceremonies are tomorrow — congratulations, fair winds, and GO NAVY to the Class of 2015!)  Every month, the USNA alumni magazine, Shipmate, arrives in our mailbox.  It has all the usual alumni magazine stuff — financial & giving reports, faculty and alumni news, etc.  But the first, and pretty much the only thing I read, is Last Call.  The obituaries.  And I have no idea why (I mean, I didn’t go to school with these folks), but I always read the Last Call.  I guess it’s my silent thank you to these men and women for their service and sacrifice.

For as long as I can remember, Last Call has started with a poem by English poet, Laurence Binyon. Poetry rarely means anything to me, but this one?  This one gets me right in the feels.

Binyon wrote the poem, For the Fallen, in 1914, at the start of the First World War.  This is actually the fourth (and most quoted) stanza of the poem.  And this is Binyon’s own handwriting.  There is no font that conveys emotion like handwriting.  I love the yellowed, wrinkled paper, and the fading ink, the words falling on the right side . . .

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 6.10.57 PM

What did I tell you?  I’ll pass the tissues.

This weekend, I raise my wine glass in humble thanks and remembrance, to all those who gave their lives in the service of our country.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature

A relic of segregation in Virginia . . . a one-room schoolhouse in Remington, reclaimed by the forces of nature.

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Forces of Nature.
Our instructions:  This week, share a force of nature from your corner of the world.

I couldn’t think of a better way to demonstrate the force of nature than to show how nature reclaims what we abandon.

This is Routt’s Hill School, a one-room schoolhouse in Remington, Virginia.  It was an all-black schoolhouse, in the days before desegregation came to Virginia.  Routt’s Hill School was built in 1926, on the site of the former Fox Hill School, which was built by freed slaves in 1866.  I’m not sure exactly when it closed its doors to students, but I’m guessing sometime in the late 1950s.

I read an article in our local newspaper about Routt’s Hill School, so I drove out to Remington to see if I could grab a couple of photos.  I really, really wanted to peek inside, but I respected the no trespassing signs.  Mother Nature has reclaimed this old schoolhouse, but I’ve heard rumors of a possible restoration.  The historian in me really hopes that happens — it makes me sad to see historical treasures fading away.


Nikon D800
ISO 400 | 24mm | f/16 | 1/125 sec

Related Armchair Sommelier post:

Black & White Photo Challenge, No. 1:  A look at Schoolhouse No. 18 in Marshall, Virginia, and the story of desegregation in Virginia.

Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 51

Earlier this week, a painting by Pablo Picasso (Women of Algiers), set a world record at auction. Some anonymous someone paid $179 million for it.  Could you imagine the wine cellar you could create with $179 million?!?  After I mostly got over the sticker shock (and a little bit of envy), I started wondering about Picasso, the man.  Was he a wine drinker?  He was a Spaniard who spent most of his adult life in Paris, so you’d think so.  And while I’m almost sure he drank wine, his preferred muse was The Green Fairy, absinthe.  I think that’s where I’ve been going wrong with Cubism.  If I drank a glass or two of absinthe before I looked at Cubist paintings, they’d probably make perfect sense.

I tried to find a few of Picasso’s words about wine or absinthe, but failed.  So this week, I’m going with the maxim, a picture is worth a thousand words:

This is Picasso’s Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table, 1912.  It was part of a series of collages Picasso created with the same still life subjects.  The medium is charcoal, ink, cut and pasted newspaper, and graphite on paper.  And according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Picasso subtly contrasts the political reality of the times against the carefree bohemian lifestyle of Parisian cafés. Picasso’s use of collaged newspaper also sets up a dichotomy between his artistic interpretation of objective reality and reality itself, making the lines between art and life even more ambiguous.

Right.  That’s exactly what I was thinking.

Working Title/Artist: Bottle and Wine Glass on a TableDepartment: Modern and Contemporary ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1912 photography by mma, Digital File DP219380.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 6_5_12
That, and this would look outstanding hanging above my fireplace.


Scratching the Surface of Champagne


Rosé Champagne: The view from above.

If you follow my Carpe Vinum adventures, you know that a couple of us are heading to France on vacation this summer (I’m going Paris and north; my girlfriend is going Paris and south). A couple of months ago, we embarked on an in-depth study of the French wine regions where we’ll be traveling — our very own Tour de France.

For every Carpe Vinum wine tasting, I try to do a research post on our chosen topic.  It’s part of my self-guided continuing wine education.  Here’s the ongoing list of our Tour de France stages (the research post is listed first):

Stage One: Provence and our Provence Tasting
Stage Two: Alsace and our Alsace Tasting
Stage Three: Champagne (today’s post)

The French have all kinds of rules about making Champagne — maybe even more rules than the Germans.  😉  There are rules about regional boundaries, grape origin, pruning, fermentation, press yield, blending, alcohol content, aging, labeling, et cetera.  Honestly, it all made me dizzy.  (But, if anyone ever asks me how many liters of must can be extracted from every 160 kilograms of grapes, I’m gonna raise the hell out of my hand!!  The answer is 102.)

What I need is a shortened, condensed, and completely abridged Champagne.  What follows are my notes and thoughts on Champagne.  If someone else can benefit . . . bonus!

First thing’s first — a map of Champagne (you know I need a map).


Map Credit

Champagne — Why is it Different?

We’ve all heard the refrain:  All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.  Only Champagne is Champagne.  Champagne is different.  Why??

A stressed out vine makes great wine.

Terroir, terroir, terroir.  The Champagne region lies at a latitude of 49° North.  This is the very northern edge of what’s possible for growing wine grapes.  You can try to grow grapes above 50°, but you’ll be really disappointed.  The Champagne region has cool summers and cold winters — the grapes only barely ripen.  This is why most Champagne is NV, or non-vintage. Producers can’t rely on a consistent grape harvest every year.

The soil in Champagne is unique – it’s a limestone subsoil rich in chalk.  The chalk drains well, but also retains moisture, so the grapevines are rarely thirsty.

The terroir of Champagne contributes heavily to it’s hallmark acidityminerality, and overall deliciousness.

The Grapes of Champagne

There are three main grapes used in the making of Champagne:

  • Chardonnay
  • Pinot Noir
  • Pinot Meunier

There are four other grapes permitted in Champagne:

  • Pinot Blanc
  • Pinot Gris
  • Petit Meslier
  • Arbane

Vineyard/Regions of Champagne  (check the map ⬆)

  • Montagne de Reims
  • Côte des Blancs
  • Vallée de la Marne
  • Côtes de Sézanne
  • Aube

How is Champagne Made?

The Traditional Method (aka Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionelle):

  1. Press the grapes.  There are three types of juice pressings:
    • Cuveée – the free run + first light pressing.  High in sugar and acids; used for the highest quality Champagne.
    • Taille – the juice from secondary pressings.  Lower in sugar and acids; usually used for demi-sec or extra-dry Champagne.
    • Rebêche – the remaining juices.  Not used to make Champagne; sent to distilleries for the production of spirits.
  2. First Fermentation.  The juice is fermented (usually in tanks, though some Champagne houses still ferment in wood casks) into a base wine, which is wildly acidic and low in alcohol.
  3. Blending/Assemblage.  The juice is blended (usually with réserve wine from other vintages), and then bottled.  You need to be part magician and part oracle to master the blending process involved in making Champagne.  Most Champagne is non-vintage, but in exceptional years, a Champagne house can declare a vintage Champagne.
  4. Secondary fermentation — Liqueur de tirage (a mixture of wine, yeast and sugar) is added to the base wine (this is what triggers the secondary fermentation).  Bottles are topped with a temporary cap (just like a beer cap) and stored horizontally, usually in underground caves, for a few weeks.  The yeast eats the sugar and produces carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the bottle as . . . bubbles!
    • History Break:  Many of Champagne’s chalk caves, crayères, were once chalk quarries dug by the Romans to construct the city of Reims in the 3rd century.
  5. Aging on the Lees/Sur Lie (dead yeast cells).  When Champagne is allowed to age with the lees, it lends character and depth to the wine, producing the characteristic “bready” aromas and flavors.
  6. Riddling – bottles are placed on special racks called pupitres, at a downward 45° angle, and turned frequently (usually by machine, but sometimes still by hand), each time increasing the angle until it reaches 90°, forcing the lees into the neck of the bottle.
  7. Disgorgement/Dégorgement – the temporary cap and sediment are removed by dipping the neck of the bottle into a frozen brine solution or liquid nitrogen.  This causes the pressure inside the bottle to increase, and the sediment plug comes flying out. Watching a mass disgorgement is definitely on my bucket list.
  8. Dosage – the Champagne is topped off with liqueur d’expédition (base wine + some degree of sugar). The amount of sugar in the liqueur d’expédition determines how sweet the champagne will be.
  9. Recorking – Put a cork in it!  Add a fancy cap, secure it with a muselets (the wire cage), and foil.  You’re done!

Types of Champagne

  1. Non-Vintage (NV) – the most abundant type of Champagne.  The goal of each Champagne house is to produce a consistent, even signature style of NV Champagne each year.  Requires at least 15 months of aging.
  2. Vintage – made from a single year’s harvest.  Requires at least 3 years of aging.
  3. Prestige Cuvée or Cuvée Spéciale is the highest quality, top of the line Champagne produced by a Champagne house.  Think Dom Perignon or Cristal.
  4. Blanc de Blancs – made entirely from white grapes.
  5. Blanc de Noirs – made from red grapes.
  6. Rosé – made from adding red wine to a white blend, or fermenting the juice in contact with the skins.

Sweetness levels in Champagne (listed from driest to sweetest)

  • Brut Nature (no additional sugar, bone dry)
  • Extra Brut (very, very dry)
  • Brut (very dry)
  • Extra Sec (extra dry) — which is not as dry as very dry.  Confusing?  Hey, I didn’t make the rules.
  • Sec (dry)
  • Demi-Sec (half-dry)
  • Doux (sweet)

What are Grower Champagnes?

Champagne made by the same people who actually grow the grapes.  Think artisnal Champagne.  I need some.

Non-sparkling wines, in Champagne?

Champagne has two AOCs for non-sparkling wines:

  • Rosé de Riceys – rosé wines from Pinot Noir.
  • Coteaux Champenois – red, white or rosé.

How many bubbles are there in a bottle of Champagne?

56 million.  This, according to a study by Bollinger.

I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of Champagne here.  You can get much nittier and much, much grittier.  But I needed to build a solid Champagne base before I start peeling away at those Champagne rules.

Stay tuned for our Carpe Vinum Champagne pairings!

Related Armchair Sommelier Posts on Champagne:

  1. To Coupe or Not to Coupe — a look at whether bubbles do better in coupes or flutes.  Also one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written.  So take a look!
  2. The Chalk . . . and the Waiting — a historical look at Champagne during World War I.