In the midst of our summer heat wave, let me create a mirage: a white, cloth-covered table on which rests a silver bucket with frosty beads of moisture on its surface and the distinctive cork and neck of a bottle of champagne protruding like a periscope from its icy depths. There are glasses on the table, of course, waiting to be filled.
Champagne, the publicists like to say, is always in season. Yet its superb color and tart flavor is never easier to appreciate than in an outdoor setting on a warm day. Champagne, the publicists also like to say, is traditional, eternal, unchanging. That's not really true. The champagne drunk from slippers at the turn of the century was somewhat sweet. The very dry brut and nature styles connoisseurs prefer today were not yet in fashion. Also, the rest of the world has discovered how to make, as well as how to drink, the sparkling wine a French monk named Dom Perignon devised in the 17th century. And the champagne industry itself continues to evolve in its native province.
Recent reports from Champagne indicate that mechanization may alter the famous process of remuage (turning the bottles by hand to ease sediment from the second fermentation into the neck, which is then frozen so the sediment can be removed). According to the Wine Spectator, Tattinger, a firm with a high reputation for quality, has had 120 machines at work turning non-vintage bottles. The machines are said to shorten the process from six weeks or more to seven to 10 days.
One aspect of champagne as it is made in Champagne that won't change is the method of manufacture. It is a costly and time-consuming process requiring three years or more, the key to which is inducing a second fermentation (which causes the bubbles) in still wine already in the bottle. Other wine-producing ares use this and other methods, some as simple as injecting carbon dioxide into a tank of wine. The French wish passionately that those who make wine with bubbles outside Champagne would call their products sparkling wine.
Of course the Champagne houses have not been above exploring new areas of production. Moet & Chandon, the largest house, has been making sparkling wine abroad, first in Brazil and more recently in California under the Domaine Chandon label. Now comes word that Piper-Heidsieck has become a partner with Sonoma Vineyards in a venture that will lead to Piper-Sonoma sparkling wine. The wine, as many as 30,000 cases of which should be produced this fall, will be made by the methode champenoise and -- unlike Domaine Chandon -- will be vintage dated. Sonoma's winemaker, Rodney Strong, expects to make three styles: brut, blanc de noir (from red grapes) and a tete de cuvee (top of the line).
Georges Lanson, who heads the firm that bears his family name, labels himself a traditionalist who prefers "evolution to revolution". In a conversation here recently, he indicated why Champagne firms, including his, are weighing foreign investments.
"There is jut not enough land left in our region to increase the supply of wine significantly without diminishing quality." he said. "But demand is high, in France and around the world. In Champagne, there are about 140 houses [manufacturers] and 13,000 to 14,000 growers. They have received more and more money for their grapes and as a result -- along with increasing production costs -- our prices have gone up. Now we must plan together for the future. Something must be done. We don't know what yet, but a younger generation is taking control of the houses and at this point there is good will on both sides."
Lanson said he and his competitors seek to "produce a certain type of wine, a style set by tradition, year after year." Nonetheless, he acknowledged that there has been a movement toward lighter, as well as drier, champagnes. He tastes each week, trying wines in various stages of development from his cellars and those of competitors, "everything possible," and has found several sparkling wines made outside France that please him. "Some are cheaper than ours," he said, "but if they did everything we do in Champagne they would cost just as much."
Lanson champagne has made great headway here in the past two years. The reason, he said, is a new sales effort based on price. "We had a good name in the U.S. before World War II," he said, "then after the war there were problems, several distributors and we lost out. We had two choices in trying to regain our market. We could advertise and hope for more customers, which I thought was risky, or intentionally put the wine out at an attractive price and gradually raise it to the level of other fine champagnes. We've done well and now we are raising the prices. We may lose some customers, but I don't think so."
For his own entertaining, George Lanson uses non-vintage champagne as an aperitif before lunch or dinner. "Champagne is easy to understand," he said. "People can enjoy it. But they shouldn't chill it in the freezer and they should beware of any sparkling wine that has big, aggressive bubbles."
Once you have found a sparkling wine with the right bubbles, and a proper setting, you might want to serve this seasonal drink at a party. PEACH BOWLE (30 to 40 servings) 12 ripe, medium peaches Juice of 1 lemon 1 cup sugar, or less to taste 2 bottles chilled Gewurztraminer (a fragrant white wine made in Alsace and California) 1 bottle chilled sparkling wine (champagne if you are reckless)
Slice the peaches and squeeze the lemon juice over them in a mixing bowl. Add the sugar, mix and pour in one bottle of Guwurztraminer. Place bowl in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours. Just before serving, add remaining Gewurztraminer and sparkling wine. Spoon several peach slices into each glass and fill with wine mixture.