Dear graduates, What a surreal week this must be, yes?
The range of emotions is vast. Expect nervousness, relief, concern for debt, hope for the future. You are faced with opportunities of many sizes every day and you’ve certainly taken advantage of many of those scenarios. Mostly, you should be proud. And you need to take a moment, or three, to forget the armchair quarterbacking of your life, gain some perspective and appreciate your accomplishments.
These moments deserve celebration. And there’s one beverage that’s synonymous with celebration: Champagne.
Champagne is both a beverage and a region, the latter comprising the former in a diverse, five-region landscape 70-100 miles northeast of Paris. It’s a cold and often wet region — hardly a place to grow zinfandel. The main three grapes of Champagne are chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. These grapes are often blended together during the production, due to their various positive attributes. But it’s not the Champagne grapes that we know, it’s the brands and houses.
If there is a need to do a Marketing 101 case study on branding, one needs to look no further than Champagne. Advertising dollars notwithstanding, many famous brands do make delicious wine, including Moet & Chandon’s prestige cuvee Dom Perignon.
These are high-priced bubbles. Their 2006 vintage, a pinot noir/chardonnay blend, is a $200 treat. This Dom is a stone/tropical fruit cornucopia, more about richness than anything else. The nebulous concept of mineralogy doesn’t factor too much into this wine right now. This should keep just fine for a decade though. As the fruit fades into the sunset, who knows? Maybe you’ll be tasting a slightly evolved and nuanced version at a lovely wedding anniversary dinner. However, there are gorgeous wines produced by small Champagne houses, often at a third the price. Should you be looking for these types of localized, “terroir” driven value, keep your eye out for Champagne imported by Skurnik or Martine’s. The United States has something to add to this discussion, of course. And when discussing American bubbles, the Davies family should be at the top of that list with their consistently impressive wines from Schramsberg Vineyards.
Their 2013 Blanc de Noirs is impressive for how pretty the fruit is: all raspberry, strawberry, cherry, and plum, with a lifted smell of roses. The $40 price tag is much more welcoming too.
The fruit is sourced from various vineyard strongholds: Carneros, southern Napa and Sonoma counties, Mendocino, and even the usually-forgotten Marin county due north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
For even less cash, check out Parigot’s non-vintage Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Blancs. First of all, let’s parse those words. All “cremant” means is wine made like the wines of Champagne, except not from Champagne. “Bourgogne” is French for Burgundy, which is a world-renowned region for high-quality chardonnay and pinot noir production. Seeing a pattern, yet?
“Blanc de Blancs” ultimately means white wine from white grapes. And that’s what this is. Parigot Blanc de Blancs is a crowd-pleasingly bright wine for $20, made from mostly chardonnay, with 20 percent aligote — the oft-maligned grape that historically is bombarded with creme de cassis, to make a Kir cocktail.
The good news is that aligote is occasionally a pretty helpful addition to a wine, or as a standalone varietal in the village of Bouzeron, due to its vigor and ability to retain acidity. There’s constant slightly-tart interplay of lemon and apple, and a methodical expression of bubbles constantly crushing your mouth. What I mean is this wine isn’t about finesse. It feels a touch fat by comparison to most Champagne. But when you’re dominating hot dogs or caprese on a 73 degree Michigan spring day, does anybody care?
While the three prior examples lean toward dry sparklers, Bowers Harbor’s Brix sparkling shows some slight sweetness. Made of chardonnay and pinot noir, again, Brix is a Demi-Sec style of sparkling wine. Whenever you see Demi-Sec, just think “kind of sweet but not as sweet as moscato.”
Impressively, this wine is effortless. It’s a little bit lemon bar, a little baked apple. It’s a $25 bottle that is worth a celebratory pause for any Michigander just getting into wine.
And that’s the goal often enough: to shine a light for Michiganders, by Michiganders. Champagne and other sparklers are one of the most successful vehicles for this task. As Winston Churchill wrote in 1946, “I could not live without Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”
I know of this quote because it was fastened to the Champagne section in Goodrich Shop-Rite’s wine department in East Lansing, where as an employee in 1997-2003, I first developed an appreciation for wine. Were it not for MSU and Goodrich’s, my life would be very different, and probably for the worse.
If you may offer me the latitude to stray from wine for a few more lines, there is a quote from Nelson Mandela you may want to remember:
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
Good luck out there, Spartans. Justin King is a proud 2003 J-School Spartan alum, Advanced Sommelier, and owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt. He was named 2017 Best New Sommelier by Wine & Spirits Magazine.