Champagne is the iconic celebratory drink, but it is also a serious wine, and recent studies suggest it’s a healthy choice, too.
Half of all champagne sales happen in the month of December, mostly in the last week. One of my New Year’s resolutions, however, is to make sparkling wine a more regular part of the rotation.
There’s no great sparkling wine that doesn’t start with good wine. Historically, it wasn’t always so. Relying predominantly on chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, wines of the Champagne region were northern cousins of burgundies, but the differences in terroir made ripening and fermentation more challenging. The wines tended to be lighter, and the effervescence was considered to be a flaw resulting from a pause in fermentation due to colder winter conditions. For years, there was a rivalry between the two regions and their wines, and it wasn’t settled until the Champenois embraced and mastered the style we know today over pale burgundies and chablis.
One of the great arguments fueling the rivalry between Burgundy and Champagne was whose wine was better for health, with patronage by the court of Louis XIV at stake. The Sun King, suffering from a range of maladies, had switched from champagne to burgundy on the advice of his physicians. A war of words erupted, culminating in a debate at the Paris Faculty of Medicine auditorium. Experts for the Champenois presented the case of a local vintner who married at the age of 110, and lived another 8 years, affirming champagne’s association with vigor and longevity. Burgundians pointed to the rich red color of burgundies, suggesting it was therefore better for the blood.
Research has largely confirmed red wine’s connection to longevity and health, with polyphenolic compounds in the skins and seeds given much of the credit. Research from the University of Reading in the UK found that two glasses of champagne a day may reduce the risk of suffering heart disease and stroke. Another study from the same group suggests that champagne may contain unique compounds that activate learning and memory centers in the brain.
There is, of course, the question of affordability if champagne is to become a quotidian staple. Good values can be found with Italian prosecco, Spanish cava, and New World sparkling wines, but if you want something interesting but Old World and sometimes less expensive, the trend is “grower champagnes.” The big champagne houses blend from many vineyards under contract, whereas grower champagnes are made by the vineyard owner. Look for the two letters “RM”—récoltant manipulant—on the label.
Richard A. Baxter, MD, is a plastic surgeon in Seattle and the author of Age Gets Better with Wine. His column, “The Doctor’s Glass,” will appear in each issue of Plastic Surgery Practice. Dr Baxter can be reached via [email protected].