Thursday 30 January 2014

The Bacchus Friends Champagne Tasting

Possibly the biggest lie anyone's ever told me (Apart from D promising to teach me how to cycle when I was 5, which still hasn't happened yet) was in the first few weeks of my new life in London, when I was informed that the universities' wine society had been forcibly shut down and wasn't going to make a comeback anytime soon, because everyone turned out to be a massive wino and administration had stepped in for reasons of health and safety. Imagine my surprise when, before the first day of class had even started, my course-mates told me all about this amazing wine society in school they'd already signed up for, and haven't I been a member all this while? Since it seems totally my thing? 

Turns out, the Bacchus Friends had been around all this time (And not just that. It'd been founded in 1895!). While I can't actually recall who conned me, when I do find out, they're going to get hung, drawn and quartered for making me miss out on three whole academic years of wine tastings. All that time I've wasted! It makes me want to weep. Even as a member though, I've been seriously missing out. This year, most of the events unfortunately clashed with other things, and the one other time I showed up half an hour early they turned me away at the door because they didn't have enough spaces for everyone. So, by the time the annual Champagne tasting rolled around and there was miraculously nothing else on, I knew I had to go. The rest of the Gs were bringing their A game as well, which was how the lot of us ended up in a pow-wow outside the venue an hour and a half to two hours before the event was due to start, toting an assorted of foods to snack on before and during the wine tasting.  

Getting us to rock up to the Champagne tasting with snacks had been an utterly inspired idea by DB, and it gave us a fair bit of things to do while waiting for the tasting to begin. We had a pretty varied selection of food that worked with the theme.  Between the lot of us, there were three different kinds of cured meats, a whole lot of cheese, water biscuits, bread, grapes, olives and even two tubs of Rocky Road mini bites, because it's really hard to go wrong with those. A shout-out here to Wensleydale and Cranberry, which is now my favourite cheese, as well as the Camembert that JR brought - it seemed way too overwhelming at first, but eaten with bread it worked for me. (All the wine & cheese nights we've been having have been very educational for my palate. Can no longer say I'm definitely not a cheese person any more.)

The evening's tasting was conducted and sponsored by the lovely people from the Scala School of Wine, and our speaker was their director Tim Hall. Very appropriately, he's a massive Champagne buff, with the credentials to back up his enthusiasm - he's been named the UK's Champagne Ambassador for 2013-14, and came in runner-up in the European Champagne Ambassador competition. Apart from all the qualifications, he was a great speaker as well, going through a whole range of information in a very compelling, conversational manner. Everyone had worksheets and for the evening, although we did have to share what brochures they had given the sheer number of attendees. 

I’m sorry to say I had utterly dreadful tasting habits throughout the evening, which went much like how most of my multiple course meals do. I’d take one or two sips when first receiving the Champagne, another bigger one to let linger, and then forget entirely about it while completely engrossed in listening and taking notes to A Brief History of Champagne, or How Champagne Is Made. Then, when Tim Hall announced “Let’s move onto the next bottle shall we?”, I’d panic and down what remained of the glass before the assistants came round with a new bottle. Darling SSH brought a bottle of water to share with me & GW, which saved me from all the bubbles going to my head. 

We were treated to six different types of Champagnes over the two hour course, going from the floaty and delicate Taittinger Brut Reserve Non-Vintage, to a more structured and powerful Bollinger Special Cuvée Non-Vintage. A Vintage Champagne came next, and we could really discern the difference of the 2004 Laurent-Perrier in its lingering aftertaste. From there, we tasted two different Rosé Champagnes, the first a perfectly pleasant Champagne de Castelnau Brut Non-Vintage, the second a fuller bodied Louis Roederer Vintage from the magical year of 2008. The evening was rounded off with a sweet Champagne Lanson White Label Sec, Non-Vintage, which would have paired quite well with a pâté.

GW looked on incredulously as I took notes on malolactic fermentation (A process which softens the acidity of the wine) and how rivers affect the taste of Champagne through the creation of warmer night ambient temperatures (In all fairness it was pretty compelling stuff), occupying her time instead in the creation of works of art that will no doubt one day be the foundation of her oeuvre. Here’s one she did of me, which I must say is an excellent impression:

The highlight of the evening was probably watching as Tim Hall did a demonstration on the best way to open a bottle of Champagne after briefly explaining the technological processes that had to occur before Champagne could be safely exported. Having been hit on the head by a stray cork before (It bounced off a wall and the ceiling before landing on me), I was terribly impressed with the ease with which he worked with the existing pressure inside the bottle, eventually pulling out the cork with nothing more than a gentle twist. Once we all heard the tell-tale pop, the room burst into thunderous applause. Definitely remembering that trick for the next time we open a bottle of bubbly.

I still think much of the allure of Champagne has to do with its association with celebrations and other happy occasions, rather than the actual taste of the Champagne itself. For me, it calls to mind family, sneaking a glass of Moet when we toured the region and expansive Sunday brunches with good company. Even so, it was good to finally have some guidelines when it comes to appreciating the flavours in each glass rather than just quaffing it straight down, and now I finally know that the buttery, biscuit-y tastes are there for a reason and it isn’t just my fevered imagination. Salut!

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