"Remember gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne!" A young Winston Churchill so described the mission of his men in the First World War. Noël Coward drank it for breakfast, and Hemingway drank it at bullfights. We mortals generally toss it back the night whenever someone gets saddled with new in-laws. For a drink with such a flouncy reputation, champagne and sparkling wines can be fun, when properly applied.
The proper application, by the way, is with oysters at a random Saturday lunch. Don't worry if the month has an "r" in it or not. That was a useful rule of thumb when oysters were harvested into unrefrigerated carts and covered in burlap. The extreme heat of the "without an R" months could cause the wet oysters to steam themselves slightly open in the cart, causing the brine to drain away, allowing the oysters to get funky. These days they go from seabed to refrigerated truck, and it doesn't matter how you spell the month.
You might argue that there are better things to do on a Memphis afternoon than eating a dozen or so oysters, drinking a crisp bottle of bubbly, and taking the inevitable nap — but they can wait. Trust me on this one.
This little bacchanal can be accomplished without breaking the bank. The first time I splurged on a good bottle of champagne, it was Veuve Clicquot. I didn't order via a sommelier or because the Queen of England favors it, but because that's what James Bond drank in all the Ian Fleming books — as often as not with scrambled eggs. I reasoned that Fleming, being something of a well-heeled soak, would know the good stuff. He did.
A bottle of VC Brut will set you back around $50 at most local wine purveyors. If you are neither Her Majesty nor in Her Secret Service, that might be more than you are looking to spend, but it's a great champagne for the price.
In the same range is Pol Roger, a favorite of Winston Churchill — another cash-strapped aristocrat willing to suffer the best of everything. He drank it at lunch every day and saved Western Civilization from itself. I don't know if there is a causal connection, but there we are. The company even named a wine after the man. Hell of a loyalty program, but he was hell of a customer.
The point of this exercise, though, is to rescue this great wine from the clutches of engagement parties and New Year's Eve. Back when Hemingway was a starving ex-pat artist, he drank gallons of Spanish sparkling wine while he was on hunting and fishing trips, sleeping with married women, and hectoring poor Scott Fitzgerald with all that fizzy "live for today" foolishness.
A bottle of Freixenet, from the Penedès region of Spain, will cost you around $10. At that price, this oyster-and-champagne afternoon for two will cost you about the same as lunch at any local gastro-pub in the city. The Spanish sparkling wines are cheaper than those made in the Champagne region of France because you can't legally call them champagne. The French are very French about this. Remember, though, that's marketing, not necessarily quality. Freixenet is a decent value, and it doesn't have that sickening sweetness of those cheap "New Year's Eve with 2,500 of Your Closest Friends" bubblies.
In the end, it's best to not worry too much about price. The truth is I can't even recall the name of the "finest" bottle of champagne I ever had, although I remember the night we drank it very well. A friend in the wine business had just gotten engaged, and the folks at the old Bayou let him open the bottle for the occasion. I remember his explaining that the heavy, sour "breadiness" was a sign of really good champagne. Someone said it tasted like Play-Doh, and she wasn't far off, either. That, he said, was a sign of quality and quickly pointed out the proper circumference of the bubbles.
He was certainly more educated on the subject than I, but the true sign of a great champagne is that you want to drink it again. Soon. On a Saturday. With oysters.