Here’s Looking At You
All champagne is wine, but not all wine is champagne.
Today there is really no agreed upon toast except perhaps eye contact when toasting. Miss this crucial step, the Europeans maintain, and risk seven years of bad luck. And we’re talking of the carnal variety. Clink glasses…don’t clink…but always look each person in the eye as you do.
Toasting probably dates to ancient Greece, its provenance fueled by practicality—to ensure one’s wine wasn’t poisoned. Spiking wine with poison had become an all too common means of dealing with personal problems: disposing of an enemy, a political opponent, a mother-in-law. To assure his guests that the wine wasn’t poisoned, a host would pour wine from a common pitcher and drink it before the assembled in a symbol of friendship. When guests saw he didn’t keel over, he’d then raise his glass for all to do likewise.
The Romans who admired the Greeks, and tended to handle their social problems by similar means, also adopted the tradition of toasting. The term itself comes from the Roman practice of dropping a piece of burnt bread into wine. This tempered some of the less appealing wines the Romans drank since charcoal reduces acidity in bad wine making it more palatable.
In ancient Rome, bits of toast were floated in goblets of wine. One story tells of a rich man who threw quite the lavish party and filled the public baths with wine. Cheers. Beautiful young women were invited to swim in it. When asked his opinion of the wine, a guest responded: “I like it very much, but I prefer the toast.” And in the 18th century partiers got so caught up toasting, they toasted even to those not present. A woman who became the object of many such toasts came to be known as the "toast of the town."
You don’t have to wait till December 31st to drink champagne and make a toast. Raise a glass to life and all it offers. Toast your health and the health of your friends. Toast if you love deeply and toast if you’re loved. Life goes by quickly. Give gratitude that you didn’t become toast. Happy New Year to all, and may you know much peace and joy.
The following grower champagnes are my top picks for bubbly. All have two things in common: They are grower champagnes and Blanc de Blancs, meaning a lighter-bodied wine, which happens to be my favorite for champagne. Blanc de Blancs means all white grapes, and in Champagne this means all Chardonnay. Get to know some good grower champagnes, for they cost a fraction of what the big name champagne house wines cost and are often better.
Diebolt-Vallois, Brut, NV – From Cramant, an exceptional terroir, this was my top pick last year and I continue to love Jacques Diebolt’s wines. The Diebolt family has lived in Cramant since the end of the 19th century, and the Vallois family has been cultivating vines in Cuis since the 15th Century. A rich, medium-bodied champagne with grapes from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vines (Crammant and Cuis). Round, elegant, creamy with notes of honeysuckle and chamomile. $54.99
Voirin-Jumel, Premier Cru, Brut, NV – Another Blanc de Blancs from the outstanding vineyards of Cramant, Voirin-Jumel has beautiful floral and mineral characteristic. Notes of poached pear, meringue, dried fruits and apple. Pair with lemon-flavored scallops, sole or Carpaccio of salmon. $42
Le Mesnil, Grand Cru, Brut, NV – For years my favorite champagne was Salon Le Mesnil, and I’d trot off to Bill’s Tastings and buy it by the case. Alas, Salon’s price now prohibits me, but perhaps we need look no further for a solution to my first-world problem than this incredible grower’s champagne and bargain. The vineyards of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger are truly exceptional in that 100% are ranked Grand Cru. Vineyards face east so they drink up the rays of the morning sun. Topsoil over a base layer of chalk means vineyards have excellent water retention allowing the Chardonnay grapes to reach full potential. The village sits in the heart of the prestigious Côte des Blancs, named for the Chardonnay grapes that grow there. Krug and Salon have made Mesnil famous by their rare and expensive bottlings, but if I compare a bottle of the Le Mesnil for $39 to Salon’s price of $400-$500, there is no comparison. Biscuit, graphite, honeysuckle, peach and floral notes come together, and last throughout the complex finish. $39
Roland Champion, Grand Cru, Brut, NV – This Blanc de Blancs comes from a small, family-owned producer in the village of Chouilly with only Grand Cru vineyards. Fourth-generation daughter, Carole, has even made the trek to Nellysford. This is what one reviewer writes: “This Champagne offers ethereal grace and poise and harmony; if I were fighting a duel tonight, I would ask for this Champagne as my last beverage.” Notes of biscuit, toast and hazelnut. $49