Tasting natural champagne can be tough. Weather, terroir and philosophy don’t just reveal their secrets to everyone, even when bottled. There were many times my attempt to do a natural champagne tasting resulted in mere natural champagne drinking, which made me miss out on the magic that was taking place in my glass. When natural champagne tasting is done well, however, you’ll be treated to a personal message from the vines. It’s a message that stays with you, even during dark times when your wine cabinet is empty. That’s worth looking into, I’d say!
Having tasted my share of natural champagnes, I discovered what it takes to truly explore the content of your glass, and *surprise*, it’s not about quality alone. Natural champagne tasting has to be done while taking into account 5 factors:
- Glass type
- Knowledge on context
Star Chef Michael Nizzero told me he very much enjoys a glass of Jacques Selosse when staying at the Selosse-owned hotel Les Avisés. This makes sense, as location matters when you decide on which champagne to drink. Your surroundings heavily impact your peace of mind, which in turn has an influence on your senses. When I’m at Les Avisés, I too order Selosse almost exclusively, as it completes the fairytale I’m in. The mere thought that I find myself on Selosse territory, in their hotel-restaurant that was built on Selosse principles and values, makes their champagne more intense. The same goes with Au Bon Manger in Reims, where owner Aline introduces me to new growers regularly. Her enthusiasm and background stories make me want to explore new champagnes, so when I’m there, new and exciting champagnes taste best.
Bottom line: natural champagne flavours tend to adapt to your location (not a joke). Therefore, base your choice of champagne on the country or restaurant you’re in. If you have the luxury of adapting the country or restaurant to your favourite champagne: do it ;-).
Have you ever brought great wine to a party? Then you know the horror of having to watch while the host pours out your treasure in dirty glasses that are too small to function. Being the generous giver, you’re handed the first glass, and after your first sip, you make the shocking discovery that the legendary wine that was once safe in the bottle, has disappeared behind lipstick-stained glasswork. Conclusion: great wine, and therefore great champagne, desperately needs a great glass. This is even more important when you’re having natural champagne, as pure nature only reveals itself under the right circumstances. In my humble opinion, these circumstances can be found in Zalto white wine glasses (so not their champagne glasses!). The thinness of this type glass protects the delicacy of natural champagne, and as it’s wider than the well-known champagne flute, it allows the aromas to develop to the full.
Bottom line: when tasting natural champagne, don’t go with tulips, coupes or flutes. Instead, go with triple W glasses: Wide White Wine (it’s not a thing, I made that up). If possible, get your hands on a pack of Zalto white wine glasses and BRING them to the party. I did that once and people actually appreciated it. And even if they won’t: natural champagne is worth it.
Speaking of parties: natural champagne doesn’t go with every occasion. Once, I had a group of friends over that drink beer exclusively. One of them enjoys the occasional glass of Bordeaux and Barolo, but if you’d ask him to choose, he too would go with his favourite Belgian triples. I like Belgian triples too, but as I like natural champagne more, I decided to open up a bottle of Thomas Perseval. I poured everyone a glass, convinced my friends would feel the magic too. They didn’t. I got a polite “ah that’s nice” before they put down their Zalto glasses and got back to their beers. I shrugged my shoulders and sipped my Perseval on my own. And you know what? I didn’t like it either. The atmosphere was just wrong, and the delicacy of Perseval’s Le Village wasn’t strong enough. I had tasted the very same champagne in Au Bon Manger in Reims, and while tearing up, I had described it as “melted butter”. That’s the difference your companionship can make!
Bottom line: The truth hurts, but not everyone appreciates a glass of great natural champagne and it will kill your mood. Therefore, don’t just carefully select the champagne- also carefully select your company. This doesn’t mean you should get rid of your beer-loving friends; just don’t pour them natural champagne.
Natural champagne tasting requires patience and focus. I’ll explain this with yet another real-life example. Not long ago, a dear friend came over for dinner. Now, I like to open up the champagne bottle while I’m still busy in the kitchen, as it gets me and my guests into a great mood straight away. So that’s what I did. I hadn’t spoken to my friend for a long time, though, and while I was popping the cork, I asked her about work. Apparently, work had been hell, and my friend started a monologue that would last for ten minutes. In those ten minutes, I desperately tried to combine the art of listening with the art of tasting natural champagne, which can’t be done. Until this day, I remember everything my friend said (and don’t get me wrong, it was interesting and definitely more important than a drink), but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t really take in the taste of the Efflorescence by Marie Courtin. I did whisper “This is good!” to my boyfriend, who had also lost the fight, and the next day, we sat down to really focus on the champagne, which turned out to be heavenly good.
Bottom line: always listen to your friends first, then announce you’re going to open a bottle of champagne and explain why you will focus on the tasting process. That’s not mean, it’s snobby at worst.
Knowledge on context
Last but not least, the magic of natural champagne comes to life when you know what’s in your glass. It’s why I love going to Au Bon Manger, as there, I get information about the growers’ personal life, their highs and lows, philosophy, personal relation to Aline and way of working. And that truly is part of the fun! Knowing who made your champagne fortifies the effect the champagne has on your senses. Therefore, I recommend to look into the grower’s story. Does he (or she) work organically or biodynamically? Why? Does the grower live in the Aube region (which will explain his avant-garde approach and focus on pinot noir) or in Avize? Where did the grower learn the champagne making craft and who are his students today? Apart from being very interesting, these facts help you understand the growers and their champagnes, which in turn adds to the experience.
Bottom line: natural champagne is a story. Read up on the author!
I’m convinced that the 5 factors listed above will take your natural champagne tasting method to the next level. Try them out, finetune them to your own needs and let me know how it worked out!