But First, Champagne

Photo by Tyler Shields

Photo by Tyler Shields

“His Majesty we all acclaim. King Champagne is his name.” So goes a song from Johann Strauss rollicking operetta, Die Fledermaus.
Indeed, King Champagne features in many songs, and who should be surprised? Remember the joyful song: “The night they invented Champagne,” from the musical film Gigi? Lovely bubbly music.
Just listen to the elegance of Andrea Bocelli’s song, Champagne, recorded in 2012. It’s romantic enough to pop anybody’s cork.
It’s been said the bubbles in that royal drink are wine’s laughter and nobody can be gloomy when drinking bottled laughter.
Tradition has it that Champagne was invented (or should that be, discovered?) by the Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, who was cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, in 1693.
He is reputed to have shouted “Come quickly! I think I am tasting the stars!” when he took his first sip of the sparkling wine.
This is almost certainly not true, but why spoil a good story for mere facts? Sparkling wine was certainly known long before the good monk tasted his stars. What certainly is true is that Dom Pérignon made a great contribution to viticulture and, in particular, to the technique of producing sparkling wine. He was one of the first vintners to perfect the art of making a white wine from the red grape, Pinot Noir. The grape remains one of the two most important varieties used in classical sparkling wines to this day, the other being Chardonnay.
Vintners had been trying for years to find a suitable way of making white wine from Pinot Noir, which is a notoriously difficult grape to work with. Dom Pérignon’s achievement is possibly the single most important step leading to the production of Champagne.
Interestingly, he spent a great deal of his time looking for ways of getting the bubbles out of his wine. They are the result of secondary fermentation inside the bottle and he wanted to make a still wine.
Many Champagne lovers today can be grateful that he failed to remove those bubbles. What a dreary world this would be without the joyful pop of the Champagne cork!
Experience has shown that certain styles of wine team up best with certain kinds of food—full-bodied reds, for example, go well with hearty stews and roasts, while fruity white wines can enhance the flavours of fish and poultry dishes. A rosé is cheerful company for a plate of summer salads and thinly sliced ham, and a glass of port is the perfect match for well-matured cheese.
One of the delights of Champagne, however, is that it fits in comfortably with any meal, and at any time of day.
It’s the only wine socially accepted to serve at breakfast time.
A well-loved quote from Madame Lily Bollinger, head of the Champagne House of Bollinger, puts it succinctly:
“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.”
Sadly, a whole generation of South Africans grew up without ever experiencing the joys of Champagne’s tiny bubbles.
Until 1971, the only sparkling wine on the South African market was the rather sticky sweet Grand Mousseux, which was trotted out at every wedding, anniversary and 21st birthday and consumed dutifully because “Champagne is the wine for drinking toasts”. It was also unjustly blamed for many a hangover. After consuming several beers, a glass or two of the host’s free whisky, two glasses of wine at the table and then a small glass of bubbly, guests often woke up with throbbing headaches the following morning and of course blamed them on the bubbles. (“I never get headaches after drinking a couple of beers. It must have been the Champagne.”)
All this changed in ’71 when the legendary Frans Malan of Simonsig produced South Africa’s first Méthode Champenoise sparkling wine which he called Kaapse Vonkel (Cape Sparkle). Suddenly South Africans discovered a whole new way of celebrating —and not just celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Bubbly was now being enjoyed as a celebration of life in general.
It still is, and Kaapse Vonkel is still one of the leaders in its field. Today there are more than 100 South African MCCs on the market and the list continues to grow.
It’s one of the very few wine categories that has shown a steady growth over the years and who can be surprised? We live in troubled times and need all the joy we can get, so why not pour a glass of bottled joy?
Added to this is the fact that South African bubblies are rated among the finest in the world, offering serious competition to some of the most respected sparkling wines of Champagne and Italy.
At most wine-related functions in the Western Cape, a tall glass of Méthode Cap Classique (usually known as “MCC” because we are not allowed to call it “Champagne”) is served as a matter of course to greet guests when they arrive.
We drink it, sometimes blended with orange juice and called Buck’s Fizz, at breakfast time. We sip it at sunset and we enjoy it chilled in the heat of a midsummer’s day. We have discovered the delights of the Bellini, a cocktail consisting of Champagne and peach juice, invented in Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1934. The Bellini’s gold and orange colour makes it the perfect accompaniment to a glowing South African sunset.
MCC is probably the most versatile wine in any wine lover’s cellar. It goes with sushi and salmon, duck and droëwors, pork and pecan pie. It can be as formal or as informal as the occasion demands, whether it calls for faded jeans or elegant black ties. It links lovers and binds business contracts; it marks memorable milestones along life’s bumpy road.
Most of all, it is raised daily around the world to drink a toast to the most important occasion of all—that fleeting moment we call Life.