Sparkling wine is so widely and deeply misunderstood in my view.
We’ve been taught to serve it at the wrong temperature (too cold). We’ve been taught to serve it in the wrong vessels (flutes are too narrow). We tend to guzzle it down on festive occasions (without taking time out to taste it properly). And the biggest issue, in my experience, is that we don’t have proper knowledge about how sparkling wine is made.
Instead they talk about alcohol content. And in the case of European sparkling winemakers, they talk about “degrees” of alcohol, which correspond to alcohol percentages in American wine parlance.
I was reminded of this when I had the wonderful opportunity to sit next to Alice Paillard, Bruno’s daughter, the other night at a dinner here in Houston. I rarely go to media lunches and dinners anymore but I could pass up the chance to interact (and grill) one of my all-time favorite sparkling producers.
With that in mind, they will probably be surprised to learn is that most Champagnes on the wine store shelf clock in around 11 percent alcohol. How does the winemaker achieve those missing two degrees? It’s by the addition of refined cane or sometimes beet sugar. But it’s not during the dosage that those degrees of alcohol are created. That comes at the end when the winemaker chooses to sweeten the wine. It’s during the tirage — the provocation of the second fermentation — that those missing two degrees are made up for.
I hate to break it to Champagne lovers but Champagne can have a lot of added sugar in it. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s a real thing.
Alice told me that she shoots for 10.5 degrees when she harvests. That means that she doesn’t need to add as much sugar to achieve the desired alcohol level of the final product. It also means that she picks grapes that are slightly — although significantly — riper than many of her peers’. And that means that the wines are riper in style and less oxidative in character
(A lot of folks find it hard to believe that the “toasty,” “yeasty,” and “brioche” notes in Champagne are owed not to lees aging but to oxidation of sugar. I’m sorry to break the news to the wine education establishment but it’s true. Just ask a sparkling wine grower. But that’s another story for another time.)
Alice talked a lot about how historically, climatic challenges, even before the era of climate change, compelled Champagne producers to make wines with “ingenuity,” as she put it. When you were faced with capricious weather, she explained, you had to come up with creative solutions like cross-vintage cuvées (blends), for example. You also had to contend with vintages where you were lucky to achieve 9 percent alcohol at harvest (because of the cold). Today, the problem is inverse: with rising temperatures, the grapes can become too ripe.
I’ve been drinking and following her wines now (at least those I can afford) for more than a decade and I’ve always found them to be pure, leaning gently toward ripeness, with clarity and focus.
In my view, the entry-tier Bruno Paillard Champagne is simply one of the best values and one of the best wines in the category.
I’m one of her biggest fans. And now, I know why.
Thank you, Alice, for coming to Texas! And thank you for a wonderful dinner and conversation!