Badass Sommelier: Champagne Cocktails or How To Solve All Your Problems In One Easy Step
“Oh god never again.”
You’ve had this morning (or midafternoon, I don’t judge). That wake-up-screaming headache, the all-over pain. Your limbs feel heavy, and your mouth tastes of batteries and mothballs, and even though it has no basis in biology or physical science you know, you know, that your liver is on actual fire. The only thing for it is to drag your ass to the couch and watch John Ford movies all day.
You stumble into the kitchen and there on the counter you see it. Like a fetish to some long forgotten deity. Like some angel sent from heaven, some mad prophet of hope. Salvation, you think.
That half-empty bottle of Champagne you were drunk and stupid enough to open at dawn, even though everyone else in the room told you not to. But why is the floor sticky and wet? Did you try the thing with the sword again? Never mind that now, there are more pressing matters.
Has it been open too long?
Quickly now, you pick up the bottle. Give it a shake, peer in through the side like some Dr. Pretorius with a jar full of tiny mermaid.
And you sigh relief that you see bubbles. Tiny, golden, life-giving bubbles. Now if only you have orange juice. You do! Sweet providence, there sits half a gallon of fresh squeezed.
So you grab a flute off the bar, fill it halfway with Champagne, and then orange juice to the top. And there, Mimosa in hand, you commence to show that hangover who’s boss.
The Champagne Cocktail
Now, restorative powers notwithstanding, the Mimosa (or its Venetian cousin, the Bellini, which we’ll come back to) is not really a cocktail. It has the booze, and it has the fruit, but it lacks the bitters. And Bill Norris would be the first to tell you: no bitters, no cocktail. So for a true Champagne cocktail, we need to have a look at the Champagne Cocktail.
This, a favorite of Claude Rains’ Captain Renault in Casablanca, is the great granddaddy of bubbly-based libations, and it is delicious. It’s my favorite kind too (because lazy), the kind you build right in the glass.
Drop a sugar cube into your Champagne flute, and apply a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters and a little water, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Then pour in a quarter ounce of brandy (treat it like you’re cooking with wine: if you wouldn’t drink it neat, don’t use it), and three ounces of Champagne (read: fill to the brim). Then garnish with an orange slice and a Maraschino cherry.
Enjoy while casually displaying your sparkling wit to your sophisticated and worldly guests.
The French 75
Oh God the French 75. Nothing gets me into trouble like Gin gets me into trouble, except maybe Champagne. This fucker has made me miss like nothing else in the world. I’ve missed work because of the French 75. I’ve missed dates. I’ve missed my stop on the last train home. I once missed a connecting flight and had to spend ten hours in Florence International Airport in South Carolina.
It is actively detrimental to my development as a fully-functional adult, and is one of my very favorite drinks.
To make it, take an ounce of gin, half an ounce of lemon juice, a sugar cube, and shake with ice until the sugar dissolves. Strain into a flute, fill Champagne to the top, and stir.
Enjoy while singing, loudly and in public.
Let’s Take a Moment to Talk About Sparkling Wines.
Champagne is expensive, and I for one can’t afford to drink it every night (and if you can then can we be friends? I will be charming and handsome and you can pay for all the drinks. We will add our names to all the great partnerships, and stand proud amongst Holmes and Watson, Gilbert and Sullivan, McFly and Brown, Hercules and Legendary Journeys). And when I drink Champagne, I very rarely mix it with anything.
But I love cocktails made with Champagne. So what’s an enterprising tippler to do? Thankfully, “Champagne is expensive” is a problem everywhere in the world, and so there are plenty of good alternatives.
We’ve talked about the importance terroir plays on wine, and the same is true in Champagne. In fact, this sense of place is the reason wine from Champagne is the best sparkling wine in the world. It has to do, in no small part, with the climate and the soil.
Champagne is in the northeastern part of France, where it is very cold. The grapes that grow there are thin-skinned, high in acids, and low in sugars. This high natural acidity is part of what makes Champagne so refreshing, but is also what makes it so hard to make.
Then there is also the chalky soil.
That sheer wall of chalk has excellent drainage, forcing the vines to dig deep into the earth for water and nutrients. This gives Champagne its distinctly mineral character, an appropriately chalky texture that is impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world.
The other important factor in what makes Champagne, well, Champagne is the method of production. There are two main ways to make sparkling wine. Alcohol is the byproduct of yeast eating sugar. But as this happens, both heat and carbon dioxide are created. The méthode rural for making sparkling wine is to begin the wine’s fermentation and bottling it while the yeast is still alive. The wine will continue to ferment, building pressure and making the wine bubbly.
The second way of making sparkling wine is the méthode Champenoise (guess where it developed) or méthode traditionelle*. This process entails the finished wine undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle. It takes a long time, upwards of three years in Champagne, but produces a wine with a more elegant texture.
Smaller bubbles. That’s basically what this is all about.
The méthode traditionelle is primarily used for the production of sparkling wine throughout the world. It’s used throughout the United States, especially in California where several Champagne houses own and operate wineries producing wines in the style of Champagne. Of note is Taittinger, who made some of the first sparkling wine in the state at their Domaine Carneros winery. Also, keep an eye out for Gruet from New Mexico. Their Blanc de Blancs in particular is fantastic.
Spanish Cava is also in this style, as is France’s Cremant d’Alsace and Cremant de Bourgogne, and Italy’s Franciacorta.
The notable exception is Prosecco, Italy’s most famous sparkling wine. The region, in the far north of the country, has long been known for making wine its own way. Prosecco is made using the Charmat or metodo Italiano process, where the crucial secondary fermentation takes place in large stainless steel barrels and is then bottled under pressure. Prosecco is casual and friendly, and second in my mind only to the Alsatians when it comes to inexpensive sparkling wine. Look for dry or brut offerings, like the Nino Franco Rustico, which has a pleasant lemony zest and will always treat you well.
And you’ll need Prosecco to make Bellinis, the be-all and end-all of bubbly cocktails.
It’s not as elegant as the Champagne Cocktail, or as rousing as the French 75 (or, for that matter, as purifying as the Mimosa, which is less a drink and more a Potion of Cure Light Wounds), but its simplicity is what makes the Bellini so special.
You only need two things: white peaches and Prosecco. You should be able to find fresh peaches at your local farmer’s market this time of year, so hop to it. The fresher the better, the best Bellini I ever had was made using peaches I picked right off the tree minutes before drinking it.
And it has to be Prosecco. Champagne, or any wine made in the traditional method, is going to be too dry and too…graceful for the Bellini. You need the rough edges and ever so slight sweetness of Prosecco for this to work.
Purée your peaches, and pour about an ounce into a Champagne flute. Fill with Prosecco, gently stir, and serve.
*So there’s this whole thing where the Champagne AOC got very tired of wines that aren’t from Champagne calling themselves Champagne, and they took steps to protect the name. Today, wines can’t be called Champagne unless they’re from the region, and even the term méthode champenoise is frowned upon.