Good champagne, said Winston Churchill, should be three things: dry, cold and free. Churchill was in a better position than most to enjoy some freebies (he told troops that Britain defended France to save champagne, which probably earns you a bottle or two), but the fizzy stuff’s still pretty good, even if you have to pay for it.
Laurent Rospars, head sommelier for the Melbourne Pub Group, has the enviable task of drinking champagne professionally. An expert in all things wine-related, Rospars grew up among the French vines. His grandfather, a teacher, was something of an ambassador for the region and used to lead tours through the Moet et Chandon caves after the war. Rospars recalls being given his first taste of champagne. “I remember I was about 11 years old and I tried a glass of champagne in the cellar of Moet et Chandon,” he explains. “I think it must have gone straight to my bloody head. I remember falling asleep in the bath.”
Made in the northwest of France since at least mediaeval times, the method of champagne production is a fiercely defended tradition. Specific laws around which grape varieties, pruning, pressing and aging all apply – and, of course, champagne can only come from Champagne.
It’s not only the locale that makes the stuff so impressive. Champagne’s true calling card is its bubbles. Back in the day, champagne-makers came up with an ingenious way of getting the bubbles in the bottle. First, yeast and rock sugar are added to the bottle and allowed to ferment for at least a year. Then, the bottles are rotated on a diagonal so the yeasty scum settles. Finally, the necks are frozen and the residue is extracted, while the cork is quickly shoved back in.
The result, explains Rospars, is perfection. “I think champagne is probably the ultimate wine,” he says. “It’s white – it could be red, it can be red – it’s got bubbles, it’s got character.”
Rospars believes that to begin your champagne education, all you need to do is wade in. “You don’t really need to know about champagne,” he advises. “You go somewhere, you try something… You explore by going places and trying different things.”
But if you find yourself getting hooked, Rospars warns that, actually, price usually does mean quality. “The taste is up to how much money you’re going to spend,” he says. “You can spend thousands of dollars on a bottle of champagne. It’s not cheap if you want to get into it.”
If you’re feeling the pinch, you can always choose an Australian sparkling. Rospars believes that Tasmania’s Arras is so good that if you close your eyes, you can almost taste champagne. But nothing can quite replicate the original. “It’s got the name champagne for a reason: that’s where it comes from,” he says. “The Aussie winemakers, they do what they want to do, they make what they want to make. They’ve been doing champagne for hundreds of years, following a pattern and following a recipe and rules.”
Rospars also believes that there’s a champagne for every occasion. Indeed, it’s not just for a celebratory glass of bubbles. “It’s a great food wine,” he exclaims. “Oysters and champagne? Fantastic. Salmon and champagne? Fantastic. With chocolate, with lemon tart – it’s a fantastic food wine.”
Circa’s cellars feature champagnes ranging from the everyday to the ultra-impressive – a bottle of which you can enjoy for a modest $10,000. But if you don’t know where to begin, it’s best to ask your sommelier. “Some champagnes are not for everybody,” he admits. “That’s where we, sommeliers, come in. We pick the right bottle for the occasion and the individual.”