“While drinking I look for the way it sits in the mouth. Like a beautiful couture dress, I pay attention to where it clings, where it floats and the impression it leaves behind.” Belinda Aucott, Champagne Republic.
Tasting stars. I can’t think of a more eloquent way to describe sipping on a glass of Champagne (note: I’m talking about Champagne, from France, not champagne, darling!). Of course, these words are not my own though, they belong in fact to the spiritual father of this divine drink, Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638 – 1715). Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Upon first discovering Champagne he most brilliantly declared, “Come quickly! I’m tasting stars!”, or at least that’s how the legend goes.
There’s this je n’ais c’est quoi about Champagne that makes everyone happy – it’s certainly not just the bubbles that make us girls swoon. It’s the attributions; the moments of celebration, the sentiments of pleasure. Those delicate glasses. It’s class, luxury, and hedonistic indulgence all realised in this bottle of bubbly goodness. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the only alcoholic beverage to truly warrant the title ‘nectar of the gods’. Wouldn’t you say?
Now by no means am I a Champagne expert, but I am curious about the art of this fine drink; and it is an art. That’s where Belinda Aucott comes in. During the work day she’s a content strategist for a media company in Sydney, but every other moment she’s a living, breathing Champagne aficionado who knows more about the drink than I know about most things. Her blog, Champagne Republic, is a dedicated bible of everything you need to know on the subject. Full of beautiful drawings, it’s a visual treat too with each post accompanied by her own pastel illustrations of the respective bottles and labels (as featured throughout this post). That’s love.
I chatted to Belinda about the wonder that is tasting stars. Savour this one. It’s meant to be enjoyed…
Tell me a little about who you are and what you do…
Champagne is my most ardent passion. I’m constantly covered in pastel chalk, carrying around a bottle of Champagne to draw and I am usually headed somewhere to taste something new. (I work as a content strategist for a media company. I blog in my spare time.)
We’re curious about your blog Champagne Republic. What’s it all about?
I started Champagne Republic during a very lush holiday in New Zealand. I was spending all my days is relative isolation, cooking, drinking Champagne, swimming and lying in the hammock. So I started drawing all the different bottles and labels. I made about 90 drawings in six days. So that’s when I realized: ‘I love this!’
How and when did your fascination with Champagne start?
My fascination with Champagne started as a teenager in the Adelaide Hills. At age 19 I was working for a winery that was part owned by Bollinger. There I was trained as a silver service waitress and worked on the cellar door for Petaluma. The type of wine Brian Croser made then, and people around me, was extremely formative.
How did you learn so much about Champagne?
I spent time in France living in Paris, from 2004 to 2006. I visited the Champagne region a few times to learn more about it, and I was just lucky.
My friends and family also taught me about Champagne in Adelaide as a teenager. Good friends Monica Jansons and Phillip White (of Drinkster) took me under their wing. They both had excellent, finely tuned palates. My friend Nick Stock (who writes the Penguin Good Wine Guide) was making wine back then and a dear old friend Zar Brooks was an international marketing guru. He now heads up Dandelion Vineyards. Adelaide, like NZ, is a wine rich market with lots of knowledgeable people gathered there. Those generous wine industry folks always treated me to exquisite Champagne that I could never have afforded as a uni student. I tasted those wines in their homes or at bars when we went out.
Professionally, I also went to London and worked for Marco Pierre White as a sommelier. I spent time as Food & Wine Editor for GQ and I did most of my formal training under Christine Ricketts as a wine educator for Berringer Blass. Heady, heady days.
Can you tell us a little about the different types of Champagne?
Brut is dry. Most Champagne is made in the dry style. This style was pioneered by Pommery. Brut or Extra Brut is great. It is rid of the sugar that makes it taste sweet and cloying. Think dry – think fresh.
Rosé is a slightly sweeter, more perfumed style. It is a pretty fragrant wine that smells like peonies and roses. It can also be extraordinarily dry and savory. Rosé is made from a pink base wine. Think pink – think delicate. Match with feminine foods or drink on its own before your wedding.
Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made only from Chardonnay grapes. White grapes. Blanc, of course means white in French so this “the white of whites”. Blanc de Blancs is special because Chardonnay is not as easy to grow in France. Blanc de Blancs carries on it special fruit flavours of lemon, apple, apricot and fig. Blanc de Blancs is great for food – drink it throughout the whole three courses. Try the Ruinart for a good entry level example or the Larmandier Bernier Vertus – this is organic, biodynamic, grower and producer Champagne which is ranked extremely highly. Subtle!
What do you look for in a taste in Champagne?
The first thing I look for is colour. Pale straw, warm gold, pink, deep gold, strawberry blonde – the colour always varies. Then the bouquet. I look for as much as I can find in the bouquet before I sip. Then, while drinking, I look for the way it sits in the mouth. Like a beautiful couture dress, I pay attention to where it clings, where it floats and the impression it leaves behind. Some Champagne leaves a long, alluring trail.
What do you think makes an excellent Champagne?
Asking what makes good Champagne, is like asking what makes a good person. The answer is balance. Champagne should be layered and full of flavor – but have a nice tight acid that gives them structure. They should be long and linger in the throat, but still have zest and energy on the front of the tongue. They should be memorable – which means individual, and they should show some expression about where they have come from. Just like a nice person. They have layers and roots.
Excellent Champagne has a nice fine bead too, the sign of long aging in the bottle. Personally I like a nose that contradicts the palate. Like a man for whom you discover there is so much more than meets the eye. I find that surprising and enticing. It makes me want more.
What are your favourite Champagnes?
Dom Perignon Vintage 2004 – a riveting journey. The Veuve Cliquot Rosé is a lovely and savory wine for lunch. And probably the Elgy Ouriet or Agrapart et fils for that chalky and mineral expression that is so distinctive of the region. It’s just the greatest, most inimitable wine character in the world, period. Just divine!
What is the best way to store Champagne before we drink it?
Leave your Champagne sleeping. Lie it down on its side in a cool dark place. Leave individual bottles out of the fridge until you are ready to chill them. Place them somewhere safe where they won’t get knocked about. If you have a cool, dark cellar use that, if not a cool kitchen cupboard that is stable – i.e NOT next to an oven or a garage.
How long should Champagne last?
It varies, but about 20 years. People do drink really ancient Champagne rescued form the ocean floor, but it honestly loses its bead and becomes more like vintage wine. Just drink it when it is 10 or 20 years old. You can drink the 2004 vintage now for instance and be in heaven. Taste the stars! It’s aged 10 years. It is lovely. All things being equal (including the company), it’s perfect.
What is the best way to serve Champagne and store the bottle once it has been opened?
Drink it chilled (about 12-15 degrees), but not too cold as that sucks all the flavor into a ice rock freeze, and then drink it straight away, or leave it overnight and have it with breakfast. The teaspoon trick does not work. It’s a daggy urban myth. I use left over Champagne to make a risotto with seafood or I make a Bellini for breakfast. Life is short.
I wrote a blog post about chilling Champagne. You can read it here.
What is your favourite way to enjoy Champagne?
My favourite way to enjoy Champagne is in the great outdoors with a lover. I really love drinking an exquisite bottle while staring at the ocean. It is nice to pick out a simple picnic of salmon or oysters and head off to the water with your ice pack and rug. You don’t have to deal with waiters, noise or bad food, instead you can truly relax and enjoy the Champagne. Also rooftops – The Raphael in Rome, The Perchoir in Paris – chic, unusual spots.
What are some Champagne facts we probably don’t know?
- Champagne is good for you. It is as good for the blood and heart as red wine is.
- It makes a woman look more beautiful after drinking a touch.
- Champagne used to be made sweet for women and dry for men. The Russians championed sweet Champagne, starting with the considerable market at the Russian court.
- There are 5000 Champagne brands in Champagne.
- One single Champagne bottle contains the same pressure as 80 car types.
- Champagne does not have the same fermentation or good bacteris properties as kombucha – people keep asking me. No it doesn’t.
You do beautiful illustrations to accompany your posts. Can you tell us a little more about this? Are these available anywhere?
I am currently working on a book called Champagne Republic designed by Frances Yeoland in New York City. It will be released in December. The drawings will be available on my site from October and I am just in throes of organizing a special exhibition now. The demand for prints is growing and I am chuffed.
I told you you’d enjoy this one. Now who wants a glass?
Note: All images are Belinda’s own illustrations and are copyright to Belinda Aucott and Champagne Republic.