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What happens when you age champagne?

A couple of weeks ago on a Friday evening, the week before our anniversary, my husband and I were scrambling to find a bottle of kosher wine in the house for the Shabbat blessings and coming up empty. We didn’t even have grape juice. I took one more look in the last-chance box and realized one of the bottles was kosher after all. It was a bottle of Yarden 2000 champagne I’d picked up on an after-Passover sale several years ago (our local Kroger affiliate supermarket has a not-quite-tuned-in approach toward Jewish holiday ordering; sometimes the matzah boxes arrive and disappear a week before Passover; sometimes they hang around for months, and sometimes they sell good wines at a fire-sale bargain because of the kosher label).

I’d saved that bottle for a special kosher-requiring occasion that never quite arrived. Vintage 2000–definitely the oldest bottle I’ve ever opened at home. As old as our daughter. Has it really been that long since 2000???

(OK, given the sorry yet predictable result of the mid-term elections, I have to say it hasn’t been long enough. But still.)

The bottle was QUITE dusty–almost a prerequisite for experimentation.

Neither my husband nor I are usually all that impressed with champagne–even the expensive mid-level ones, at $40-100 a bottle. Not that we’re usually in a position to sample those at home, but sometimes people splurge on them at Thanksgiving, New Year’s, etc., and we wonder why. They’re usually not as good as the cheaper Spanish cavas–if I had to buy champagne-style wine, I’d rather go with something like Freixenet, not to be cheap but because it’s closer to that bone-dry, yeasty, buttered-toast style I prefer to all the more acidic and flat-flavored mid-level champagnes out there. Taittinger and Moët et Chandon both come to mind as severe disappointments at the $45ish level. Their top-level champagnes might be quite different, but these just seem to be trading on the brand name and pricetag for the naive American market.

For that kind of money, I’d rather have a good, deeply-flavored still chardonnay than almost any of the usual fizzy lifting drinks, and you can get a pretty decent bottle of chard for under $20. Actually, most of the time I’d rather have a decent red.

And frankly nothing is as good as the (once-only) bottle of Dom Perignon my husband brought home 17 years ago, when we finally decided to get engaged after all those years of dodging family and friends, celebrating with some couples and outlasting others. After a lackluster and slightly glum Sunday afternoon discussion that ended with, “Well…okay,” we called each other at work the next morning and agreed we should probably do a little better than that. We were getting married, after all. Oy. We clearly needed some bolstering before we broke the news and faced the inevitable hocking from our families.

A really nutritious dinner consisting solely of Dom Perignon and a (smallish) box of Godiva truffles, each of which looked exactly like Miracle Max’s big chocolate pill from The Princess Bride, seemed to do the trick.

Of course, under the influence of the DP and chocolate, we decided we could do the parts of the wedding we liked (huppah, food, klezmer music, line dancing, ketubbah signing, friends and family, more food, more dancing) and just skip the stereotypical parts we found laughable, uncomfortable or downright detestable in other people’s weddings and wedding-themed tv ads (tux, white puffy dress, veil, speeches, first waltz, which neither of us knew how to do, tiered wedding cakes, arguing with either of our mothers over invitation fonts, color-coordination of any sort or description…)

We ended up having fun at our own wedding, which never really seems to be the primary goal somehow, we only decided where to go on our honeymoon the next morning while sitting around in our pjs, and I maintain that we’ve just kept getting weirder ever since.

Which brings us back to the Yarden 2000. To be fair, Yarden has been making some very decent kosher wines the last 10-20 years. But kosher or not, 14 years for any champagne below the DP level?

Champagne is supposed to be the only white wine that can age–maybe it’s all the trapped carbon dioxide fending off oxidation, but I’d never gotten close enough to try it out. The chemist in me has been waiting for another crack at mad scientist status for a couple of years now, so this was it. Plus it was getting after sunset already and we were hungry and there was no regular grape juice in the house.

Well…if we were daring enough risk our stomach linings and our eyesight by trying mead that had been sitting around for more than a year, we could probably risk a 14-year-old bottle of kosher champagne, once I got the major dust coat off it, anyhow. I found a deep enough pot to improvise an ice bucket but didn’t really have enough time or patience to chill the bottle well.

“Do you want a towel for the cork? It’s probably lost all its zuzz, you know,” my husband said.

Just in case it hadn’t, I opened the bottle carefully and with approved champagne-opening technique (the point-away-from-people-and-twist-the-bottle-gently-away-from-the-cork routine, not the find-the-Napoleonic-era-saber-up-in-the-attic version). The cork actually made a proper popping sound and the usual CO2 fumes rose up. It wasn’t dead after all! (“It was only mostly dead,” I hear you chime in. Stop digging around in that Godiva box already, willya? We already took the good ones.)

Then we poured it, and it foamed up–zuzz intact. So we made the blessing over the wine, and my husband very generously said he’d let me take the first sip. Which I did, but…

“You haven’t gone blind yet, have you?”

I glared at him. Or at what I thought was his general direction.

“How is it?” I made him try it himself.

I’m touch-typing as we speak, and I think I’ve found him a walking stick, but it might just be part of the antenna I broke off his ham radio while flailing about in the dark…

Okay, okay. It was fine and we still see a lot better than we really want to. The wine itself was not fabulous (one could dream), but it was decent enough in a lemony, unoaked chardonnay style. Although that style wouldn’t be my pick for either champagne or still chardonnay, it wasn’t spoiled, wasn’t vinegar, wasn’t even ambered at all (the way a 5-year bottle of chard I once opened was). It wasn’t notably yeasty or buttery, which would have been ideal in my book, and it didn’t really taste aged as such, but it was kind of fun to see how well it lasted. Kind of like us (although, to be fair again, we have aged. But we haven’t completely lost our zuzz).

Then we schlepped up to northern California to my in-laws again for Thanksgiving, and my mother-in-law opened two bottles of fancy-label champagne as soon as appetizers were out and well before the turkey was done. They were both bruts from Iron Horse, which is acclaimed for its champagnes.

Less famed, perhaps, but worth noting, Iron Horse has very good reds–very good reds. My husband and I discovered this very late one afternoon, also way back in 2000, at a spur-of-the-moment wine tasting up in Sonoma when our daughter was about 6 weeks old. The hostess had no more champagnes open, but she poured us generous last bits out of two library pinots, both nicely aged and way beyond our budget and both insanely delicious. Now of course I wish we’d splurged on a bottle and for once not saved it up for a mythical special event. But anyway, we never got to taste their champagnes until this Thanksgiving, and the Yarden experience two weeks earlier allowed me to put it all in perspective.

The first bottle was from the current release and the other was from 1997. The younger one, to my surprise, actually tasted quite similar to the Yarden–crisp, a little bitter at the edge, medium light rather than deep or rich or yeasty, and not a lot of changes on the palate. Although, to be fair yet again, I’ve just read an article recommending one drink at least the good  champagnes out of a regular wider-mouthed wine glass, not a flute, if you want to experience the flavor evolving and opening up. The flute doesn’t allow it to aerate much, and most people drink it more quickly than they should. So maybe I missed the nuances and they were actually there. In any case, I’m not sure that the similarity is a big plug for Yarden, since I’m not a fan of that style, but I can now say that at least Yarden’s not way behind in the competition.

The 1997 was more interesting–much more intense yellow color than the first, though not even slightly ambered–that checked with the Yarden experience too. Though still not in DP territory, its flavor had mellowed slightly and was better rounded than the current release, with a longer and more pleasant finish. Unlike the Yarden 2000, I could actually taste that it had aged slightly–but really, only slightly. So now, with two teenage champagnes put to the test in only a month, I can say that with a good seal, the CO2 probably does keep champagne from aging much in the bottle, and for surprisingly long periods of time.

And yet I’m not sure I’d fork out what my in-laws must have paid for either champagne. If I were going to spend over $25 a bottle on wine, I’d go with a good, memorable red–and to be honest, an Iron Horse red at the same price as the 17-year vintage champagne, or even at half the price, would almost certainly be sublime rather than “decent.” I think that’s still true of most American wineries’ offerings. Or I’d go for a really nicely developed still white with a long finish and interesting undertones. Or even a complex dessert wine. Something that changes and keeps changing on the palate, which most of the champagnes I’ve tasted this month (more champagnes than in the past 3-5 years put together) just don’t.

So…overall, I’m sticking with my main thesis on champagne: get DP  if you’re serious about flavor and sipping it slowly, in private, with someone special who can appreciate it. Otherwise get a decent brut cava at about $10-20 a bottle if you want something surprisingly good for the money at a party and you don’t have to impress anyone with a flashy label. Freixenet Cordon Negro brut has an 86 rating from Robert Parker (in case someone belittles it to you). Some of the other cavas are rated 90+. My current mad-chemist experience also tells me that at those prices, you can buy an extra bottle or so and age them a couple of years at modest room temperature (70s), either on purpose or by accident, without doing major harm or waste. They’ll either improve or they’ll be about the same. So don’t be a snob.

Speaking of snobs, we took it easy on ourselves this year and got Indian take-out for our 17th anniversary, because we knew we needed something low-key before Thanksgiving. It was just right. But now that all the big family hoopla is wrapped up and the pressure is off, maybe we’ll find a day to see what kind of trouble we can get into again with wine and chocolate. But still–no tuxes, white puffy dresses, bridezillas, status labels, or color coordination. Please. Those things really take the zuzz out, as far as we’re concerned.

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