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The Chalk Garden


Kawika

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OK this is actually the followup to the Wine Tasting blog... someone here who also looks at my blog elsewhere suggested I post this... I'm writing something new I promise... thank you for your patience and thanks a million for looking at the archives...

 

The title this week may seem a bit cryptic  but I've chosen it to explain the soil conditions  for growing grapes in the Champagne region of France and later I'm going to take a detour from wine altogether and segway over to "The Great White Way" and discuss briefly a show slated for a return to Broadway.

But before I do anything else this week I got a couple of messages about last week asking me to expand a bit on the smell and taste of wine... so briefly...

Good smells include...
Flowers
Nutty
Citrusy
Fruity (like apples, melon, berries, cherries and apricots)
Vanilla
Wood
Smoke
Mushroom
Herbs & Spices
Slightly burnt wood

Bad smell include but are not limited to...
Glue
Chemical solvents
Vinegar
Decomposing fruits
Sauerkraut
Gasoline
Sulpfur
Bitter or rancid nuts
Banana
Leaves  (especially decomposing leaves)
Excremental aromas

When tasting a wine some of the following can help you describe what you are actually tasting...
Tart
Crisp---refreshing and lively
Elegant--- refined and well balanced
Bitter--- a fault if excessive
Cloying--- excessive sweetness and lacking acidity
Hollow--- empty and shallow substance
Hot--- high alcohol
Oaky--- flavored like oak barrels
Tannic--- bitter and dry
Toasty--- a gentle roasted flavor
 

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The area of France known as Champagne is one of the most beautiful and distinct parts of the country and lies about an hour and a half northeast of Paris (so next time you are in the area during harvest  season I can't recommend a tour and a tasting highly enough)...The wine festivals in France can be traced back to the sixteenth century; the celebration is held before going into the fields to pick the grapes rather than after when everyone is exhausted.... it's a marvelous boisterous celebration.

The soil and the subsoil of a specific region is one of the most important aspects in growing grapes--- In Champagne  the soil composition is solid, chalky, limestone-laden and full of fossilized shells from a few million years ago as the region was submerged by the sea; many feel that is the reason the conditions in growing grapes in this region can not be duplicated  anywhere else in the world... in addition the coolness of the area and the shorter growing season of the grapes (the grapes are picked with a higher acidity) all account for Champagne's distinct taste.
 

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The Champagne region is the only place in the world where the product can legally be called and labeled Champagne... produced anywhere else it is sparkling wine... The region in Champagne is divided into three  areas---
Valley of the Marne
Mountain of Reims
Cote des Blancs

You may be surprised to know that Champagne grapes  are not used in the production of Champagne... They are known as Black Corinth grapes and are the smallest variety of seedless grapes and are known for their sweet taste and thin skin that pop when you bite into them; they are called Zante currents when dried.
 

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Champagne Grapes

Chardonnay is the only major white wine grape permitted in the production of Champagne and is usually blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. When Champagne is produced only with Chardonnay grapes it is referred to as a blanc de blancs and is usually a quite refined variety ... The acidity in Champagne is not only what gives it it's freshness but is also crucial to it's longevity; by that I mean for example that Dom Perignon Champagne is aged 6-8 years before it's sold and put on the market.  Once bought I'm a big believer in chilling it and drinking it within the first year  as it does not improve substantially over time in my opinion.

 

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Chardonnay 


 

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Pinot-Meunier

 

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Pinot-Noir



One can not really discuss Champagne without paying tribute  to a Benedictine monk named Pierre Perignon, better know as Dom Perignon who is considered the creator of Champagne as he was the first to discover that wine stored in a bottle with sugar and yeast would in time become sparkling and he exclaimed on tasting "I'm drinking stars!"... he was also the first to blend different wines to produce the best tasting Champagne--- he is also credited with storing it in a strong bottle with a cork stopper. In recognition to his contributions  the firm Moet & Chandon has honored him with a prestigious brand bearing his name.

Methode Champenoise is the precise process Champagne is made and the step by step applications taken are as follow---
 

  • Harvest--- in late September or early October
  • Pressing the Grapes--- only two pressings are permitted the first pressing is called cuvee  and is used in higher quality Champagne and the second is taille  that is usually for non-vintage Champagne
  • Fermentation--- all Champagnes undergo an initial fermentation when the grape juice is converted to wine (about 2-3 weeks)
  • Blending--- this is probably the most important step when the winemaker has to determine which wines and how much and which years vintage will be used to create the Champagne.
  • Liqueur de Triage---  this is adding a blend of sugar and yeast that will begin the second fermentation; at this point it's put in a permanent bottle with a temporary cap. 
  • Second Fermentation--- this is where the bubbles form and this process causes sediment to collect in the bottom of the bottle.
  • Aging--- this is one of the other crucial steps in Champagne production  as it is one of the key determinations of the quality.
  • Riddiling--- This is the process of removing the sediment by placing the bottle in a rack with the neck down and gradually tipping the bottles further downward  for 6-8 weeks until the bottle is upside down) Madame Clicquot affectionately called La Gande Dame by her employees at the cellars of Veuve Clicquot was said to have invented this part of the method by placing bottles in angled holes cut into her kitchen table and other Champagne houses quickly mimicked this new technology.
  • Degorgement--- the top of the bottle is tipped in a brining solution to freeze it and when the the temporary cap is removed the sediment flies out propelled by the carbon dioxide.
  • Dosage--- a combination of wine and cane sugar is added and determines if the Champagne is sweeter or drier.
  1. Brut--- Driest
  2. Extra dry--- less dry
  3. Sec--- more sweet
  4. Demi-sec--- sweetest
  • Recorking--- the product is re-corked with a real permanent cork instead of a cap.


Non-vintage Champagne must be kept in the bottle and stored for at least one year... most fine Champagne houses age non-vintage Champagne for at least three years.
Vintage Champagne  can not be sold until at least three years after the initial harvest but   most age it for at least five years.
Tete de cuvee/Prestige This represents the best that a Champagne house has to offer--- they are almost always produced as vintage and are always very expensive. (examples include Dom Perignon, Cristal and La Grande Dame)
 

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The actual Champagne bottle comes in various sizes... the Standard bottle will serve about six people (if I'm one of the people it serves three) and a Magnum is equivalent to two Standard bottles.
The following are rarely seen in retail stores and usually bottled for wine auctions....

Jeroboam = four bottles and serves 24
Methuselah = 8 bottles and serves 48
Salmanazar = 12 bottles and serves 72
Balthazar = 16 bottles and serves 96
Nebuchadnezzar = 20 bottles and serves 120

To open Champagne correctly  you first warm the neck of the bottle slightly with your hands to help prevent an explosive opening and wasting of good champagne... then cut the foil around the top of the bottle and put your hand on the cork and don't remove it, take off the wire and wrap a towel around the bottle for safety and spillage (just in case)... now remove the cork slowly turning it clockwise while moving the bottle counter clockwise. The idea behind opining a bottle of Champagne is easing it out of the bottle so as not to let too much carbon dioxide escape (that's what gives the Champagne it's bubbles)--- if you are Christening a ship then go ahead and let it rip and make the loud pop and the spray of foam (I just hope you are not using a fine vintage Champagne to do it.--- Finally Champagne is best served in tall glasses to allow the bubbles and aromas to develop.
 

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For me nothing kicks off a party or special occasion quite like opening a bottle of Champagne and enjoying it with friends and loved ones... I enjoy Champagne with almost everything but I think my absolute favorite is with birthday and wedding cakes... I once worked for a caterer and probably one of the most difficult and time consuming things I've created and gained in culinary skills was making a wedding cake... One of my secrets is I substitute about 3/4 of a cup of good Champagne for any liquid used in the batter and a tablespoon in the filling and a teaspoon in the icing... it's subtle but delicious!
 

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... I've always found the composition of the soil in Champagne interesting because in flower gardening chalk in the soil is nutrient poor and always leaves flowers hungry and withered but can be reversed with counter measures... and from this I'm always reminded of the parallels and metaphors in Enid Bagnold's play "The Chalk Garden" that opened in 1955 and was later a screenplay for the movie in 1964.... it's the story of people living together in a house with secrets and some of the dynamics in the story line involve  an older woman who hires a governess to help with the garden and raising her troubled and spirited grand-daughter... The line that sometimes pops into my head out of the blue is..."You're trying to grow flowers in chalk... but nothing in the world has been done for them. Have you time, Mrs. St.  Maugham before death, to thrown away season after season?'--- I won't spoil it but I always thought the script was wonderfully written and the parallel of the garden and the  characters lives very moving... I'll only say one more thing--- one of the people must leave for their own personal salvation to live and grow. The show is slated for a revival  in the 2017-2018 Broadway season which means there may something to look forward to in the world of theatre again but unfortunately  Angela Lansbury who had said she would return to the stage in the role of Mrs. St. Maugham has pulled out citing the rigors of a show would be too much of a strain for her (I can't really blame her because I'm unsure how I would feel at the prospect of doing 8 shows a week)...  I'm unsure of the status of the production actually going forward without Miss Lansbury in the lead role as I'm sure the backing was based on her draw to the production... but I'll remain as always optimistic and positive... In closing I'll just say when I was working for the airline I never had less than 20 bottles of Champagne chilling in my refrigerator... Ah those were the days the parties and company were always festive... the Champagne helped a lot!
 

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See you next week.

PS The show never made it to b-way with everything that's happened in the world since I first wrote this... but  I was thrilled to read for one of the parts!

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jakester

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I met Bagnold a few times and had tea with her in her garden in Rottingdean, the chalk garden of the play. Her house was built by Burne-Jones and was graceful and disheveled. There was a lawn of chamomile. She had an extraordinary life, a lot of which she tells in her autobiography. I love her novels, The Loved and the Envied, The Squire, The Happy Foreigner about her experiences driving ambulances in WWI, and of course National Velvet, set in the neighboring village of Lewes that she changed to Sewel. She wrote Serena Blandish as a young woman, soon after her marriage. It was published anonymously as the work of 'A Lady of Quality'. With the rise of the Angry Young Men in the early '60s she went violently out of fashion - she was Lady Jones, after all, wife of Roderick Jones the head of Reuters. She said that the theatre had broken her heart.

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