Fat Cork applies obsessive attention to the most celebratory of beverages.
Like many Americans, I most often encounter champagne as either an $8 bottle of supermarket saccharine to cut with OJ for Sunday brunch or as a signifier of fantastic wealth to spill over a Kardashian’s chest in a music video. Turns out there’s more to it than that.
Fat Cork, a champagne retailer and subscription service based out of a stylish basement office in Queen Anne, points conscientious drinkers toward the libation’s richly storied and delicious middle ground.
Over the course of an hour-long tasting, Fat Cork founder Bryan Maletis detailed champagne’s nuances in origin, production and palate and poured from four different bottles. He described the 70-some varieties he sells at Fat Cork as “grower champagnes,” meaning the grower of the grapes is also the maker of the champagne. This rare proximity between grape and bottle is akin to fine wine and single-malt scotch—and a far cry from most well known “Grandes Marques” champagne houses, which source and blend grapes from some 19,000 growers throughout the Champagne region of northern France.
Fat Cork champagnes are mostly organic or, to a greener extreme, biodynamic, grown in accordance to celestial cycles and Gallic superstition. They are family-made in tiny quantities from only the best grapes, redolent of their terroir. They are, in a word, artisanal.
Paging through the Sexy Book—Fat Cork’s catalog—Maletis explained champagne’s production process. It starts as wine from one of three grape varietals, all native to the chalky soil and damp, chilly climate of Champagne. This flat wine ferments in a metal or wood vat and is then transferred to pop-topped glass bottles, along with yeast and sugar. The yeast metabolizes the sugar in the bottle and, when no more sugar remains, dies off. Millions of tiny yeast corpses aging in the wine impart good champagne’s chewy flavor; the second fermentation provides its bubbles.
The bottles are then angled nose-down in racks to sink dead yeast cells into the neck and rotated a quarter turn every day for the next 15 months to 15 years. At the end of the aging process, the grower uncaps the bottles and, in a mystifying process called disgorgement, removes the dead gunky yeast cells from the bottle, leaving a clear golden liquid. To perfect levels of alcohol, acidity, sweetness and carbonation, he’ll add a few milliliters of sugar-fortified wine—known in French as a dosage—and then cork the bottle for a few more months. The result of this tedious, labor-intensive méthode champenoise is an occasion appropriate for the word voilà.
Unlike typical importers or distributors, Fat Cork tracks each bottle’s grape blend, vintage, disgorgement date and dosage and, in keeping with the process-related over-sharing of food geeks, prints this info on every bottle. The reason is quality control and total disclosure—based on grapes and sugar content and date of disgorgement, an astute drinker can predict the flavor of any given champagne.
I’m certainly not astute, but I am a drinker, and the champagne I was given was rich and complex. Maletis, a compact, 30-something dynamo in khaki pants and Vans sneakers, allowed me four from the robust middle of the good-champagne spectrum. The first was dry-ish and yeasty, the second bright and fruity, the third brighter and fruitier still (“clear gummy bears,” Maletis noted), the final rosé a floral confection. Like all of his champagnes, they ranged from $40 to $150 per bottle, including the impressive magnum he opened.
Maletis repressurized and re-chilled the bottles in preparation for a Fat Cork tradition. The following afternoon, 50 or so local Fat Cork subscribers would visit the store to pick up their bi-monthly champagne collections and sample several bottles. The store is open for standard retail, he said, but taste is developed by tasting.
111 W. John St. Suite 136A
Photo by Chona Kasinger