By Gay L. Johnson
Valentine’s Day and champagne go together like two, starry-eyed lovers strolling hand-in-hand through the park. Champagne is a celebratory drink that evokes such exuberance, people who ordinarily don’t drink champagne pop the cork and imbibe on sweethearts’ day.
The history of Valentine’s Day, like most folklore, has varied origins. The most popular version is that the Roman Emperor Claudius II forbid men from marrying as he thought it made them bad soldiers. Believing this unfair, a third-century priest named Valentine ignored the ban and continued to arrange marriages. As a result, he was tossed in prison, where allegedly he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. Unfortunately, in this version the lovers did not live happily ever after. Infuriated, the Emperor had Valentine executed on February 14th. Many years later, Valentine was martyred by the Catholic Church. His story was turned into a Christian celebration, with people eventually referring to a sweetheart as their “valentine.”
Champagne is synonymous with special occasions, when the custom originated around the French Revolution, according to Kolleen Guy, professor of history at the University of Texas, San Antonio. The idea was to create a national culture and nation-building solidity, as well as create an aura of status. The French embraced the new tradition and soon the rest of the world adopted the beverage as a sign of wealth, success and prestige.
When selecting a special Champagne, you have to reach into your wallet a bit more than with most “still,” non-bubbly wines. With Champagne, it’s all about those “Tiny Bubbles,” as the 1960s pop artist Don Ho first sang. There’s a saying about Champagne, “The smaller the bubbles, the smaller the headache.” In other words, if you’d like to reduce the odds of having a hangover, avoid drinking lesser-quality, or cheap sparkling wines.
Those tiny bubbles make Champagne so uniquely extraordinary. The bubbles in Champagne are formed when the base wine undergoes a secondary fermentation, trapping carbon dioxide inside the bottle. With Champagne, once the winemaker fills the bottle with the wine, it never leaves that bottle until it’s poured into your glass. This detail is imperative. The technical term is vessel fermentation, with the vessel being the Champagne bottle and not a large tank. The grape varieties used in this labor-intensive method process is crucial in differentiating Champagne from other sparkling wines such as Processo, Asti spumante or brands such as Korbel. Since there are strict laws regarding labeling a sparkling wine as “Champagne,” the other sparkling wine producers from California, Australia or Spain for example, want potential customers to know they are using the same time-consuming, high-quality process as Champagne. They do this by adding “méthode champenoise” or “traditional method” to their labels.
Valentine’s Day is the second-most popular day for marriage proposals, behind Christmas. On this day, six million people become engaged each year according to a 2013 survey by American Express. If you are proposing marriage and we a receiving the resounding “Yes,” raise a congratulatory glass of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1999 ($170). The fine bead of bubbles rising in the glass confirm the high rating it earned for being an impressive vintage. This 100% chardonnay displays a yeasty, butter-cream brioche aroma; followed by flavors of baked apple, hazelnut and vanilla; and just perfect for sipping while snuggling with your valentine by a toasty fire. For those of you who are among the thousands of lovers who were married on a previous Valentine’s Day, raise a glass of this excellent bubbly to celebrate your anniversary.
The French love naming their wines by geographic location. For instance, they refer to Pinot Noir as a red Burgundian, meaning it is from the growing region or appellation of Burgundy. Champagne is no exception. Champagne, the appellation, is located only 90 miles east and slightly north of Paris. Nothing could be more romantic than taking a honeymoon or anniversary to Paris, then venturing out to wine country. Most of the popular Champagne houses such as Dom Perignon, G.H. Mumm, Veuve Cliquot, and Pol Roger are located in the co-capital towns of Reims and Épernay. Another favorite is Bollinger, the drink of modern-day James Bond. Either quaint town can be reached on a day trip from Paris by train. It’s only a little more than an hour away. As you walk from one Champagne house to another along the Avenue de Champagne (yes, it really does exist), you may become giddy thinking about the 70 miles of cave cellars beneath the streets filled with millions of Champagne bottles, ageing.
If you’re looking to up your love game and get serious, open your heart by opening your wallet for a vintage Champagne such as Duval-Leroy Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut 2006 ($110). Vintage champagnes are only produced in years where the growing conditions resulted in exceptional grapes. When making your restaurant reservations, ask if it is OK for you to bring this bottle. If they don’t have it on their wine list, then they should allow you to bring it. Then, let them know you are proposing marriage and they may even waive the corkage fee, which typically cost $15-$30. Though an almost sure-fire way to have this fee waived is to offer the sommelier or wine server a pour.
Reminiscence about all the amazing times you’ve shared together while sipping a Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2006 ($169). Winston Churchill fell in love with this Champagne in the 1920s when he befriended Odette Pol-Roger, whose husband ran the Champagne house at the time. Their friendship continued up until his death in 1965. After his death, his friendship was rewarded with a namesake bottle.
Here’s to you and your valentine having better success than Valentine and his jailhouse crush. And if this Valentine’s Day finds you without a special someone, celebrate you. We all can heed the words of Alice Walker, “I have learned to not worry about love; but to honor its coming with all my heart.” To everyone – Cheers!
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