UNCORKED: Before last March, all I knew about champagne was that it was fun to drink. My background is in politics and public relations: I'd been on the Howard Dean campaign and when that ended, I responded to an ad looking for a PR person. Turns out the job was at the Office of Champagne, which represents the drink's French producers in the United States. I've really learned the most on the job, answering our online Champagne Hotline (www.champagne.us). We'll take any question -- someone once asked which kind of champagne had the least carbs, for example. I told them to get extra brut.
BUBBLY 101: Champagne is a type of sparkling wine that comes from a specific region in France. The appellation encompasses 75,000 acres of vineyards and lies about 90 miles northeast of Paris, but you can't draw borders around it and say this is the "champagne region." It has to do with the soil, what side of the mountain the grapes are grown on and things like that. There are only three grapes allowed -- chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Champagne is associated with special occasions because from 988 to 1825, all French kings were crowned in Reims, and it happened to be the local wine. It became known as the drink of kings.
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THE FULL SPECTRUM: There's a sliding scale of sweetness for champagne. Extra brut is the driest, then brut. As you increase sweetness, next come extra-sec, sec, demi-sec and doux, which is intensely sweet. Brut champagnes are the top seller nationwide, but certain markets, such as Miami and Detroit, prefer demi-sec.
DYNAMIC DUOS: I like to pair champagnes with contrasting food flavors. One unusual pairing that's been increasingly popular is champagne with barbeque food. There's something about the meeting of those tastes and textures. And I think traditionally we have this wine-cooler mentality about pink rosé champagnes, but they are growing more popular and couple well with food -- especially sushi.
TASTER'S CHOICE: Washington has the highest per capita consumption of champagne in the nation, so area restaurants offer good selections. Bistro Bis has four different varieties you can order by the glass and half bottle. If people want to throw a tasting party at home, we can help: Through our Web site, you can order kits containing maps and tasting notes; just add three to five champagnes and you're good to go. One bottle should serve approximately six well-filled glasses. As told to Kelly DiNardo