Let's face it, nothing says "Party over here!" like the pop of the cork. What makes Champagne and Sparkling wines so good? Methode Champenoise, the unbelievably complex process that creates fine Champagne and sparkling wines, one bottle at a time. A low-alcohol, still wine, blended from mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes of various harvests (hence the term non vintage), is bottled with a special mixture of sugar and yeast (dosage d'tirage), and then capped.
A secondary fermentation results, creating more alcohol, trapped CO2 – proto bubbles – and dead yeast cells, politely called lees. Months of aging in the bottle “sur lees” creates that biscuit-toast flavor commonly associated with good quality Champagne. How producers rid the wine of that cloudy sediment is what separates the players from the pretenders. The best winemakers use the method developed in the 17th century by the 27 year old widow, Veuve Clicquot.
In this method, the bottled is riddled (repeatedly rotated while being slowly inverted) over several weeks. After the dead yeast collects in the bottle neck, the neck is frozen, and under pressure, the plug of yeast is expelled (degourgment). More still wine, and a bit of sugar (dosage d'expedition) is added to make up for what is lost, and to determine the final sweetness level. The bottle is then corked, wrapped, and ready to go. Other less expensive methods involve filtering the wine into another bottle under pressure, but that also filters out flavor. So, generally speaking, stick to bottles with some version of the words "Methode Champenoise", "Traditional Method", or "fermented in this bottle" on the label .
Bling. Bling. Every great Champagne house offers an expensive, very carefully crafted, special wine. Veuve Clicquot's Grand Dame, Moet's Dom Perignon, and Roederer's Cristal top the list . Typically, these Vintage Champagnes, made from the very best grapes of a single outstanding harvest, are only released in years with exceptional weather. Unlike their non vintage counterparts, these will improve with age (up to about a decade). All other sparkling wines should be consumed with in a few years of release. These wines need nothing but a bucket of ice and a nice flute. Do what ever you enjoy, but don't you dare put a strawberry in my Vintage bubbly.
Though true Champagne is ONLY made in France, great sparklers come from all over the world. Cava is, by far, the best bang for the buck, with Prosecco from Italy as a close second. Cava is made from Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Chardonnay grapes using Methode Champenoise or Metodo Tradicional in the Penedes region of Spain. It spends less time "sur lees" so it is a bit fruitier.
Prosecco, made from the grape by the very same name, uses the Charmat Method. The wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in steel tanks, is filtered and bottled under pressure. It may be faster and cheaper, but it really works for Prosecco because it allows the the fresh fruit quality of the grape to shine through.
Most quality American producers use the traditional method. Good houses include Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Niebaum-Coppola, and Gruet. Also, many famous French houses have set up shop in California because the sunny climate works so well for grapes. Domaine Chandon (Moet), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Mumm Cuvée Napa (Mumm) and Roederer Estate are delicious choices that are widely available.
Take note of the the dryness labeling, it is decidedly user-hostile, but worth learning so you get what you want.
- Brut Natural -- Extreme dryness.
- Brut -- Very Dry.
- Extra Dry --Fruity start, dry finish.
- Sec -- Fruity and every so slightly sweet, with a dry impression.
- Demi Sec -- a touch of sweetness balanced with acidity.
- Doux -- A sweet, dessert wine.
Sparkling wines work with all kinds of food, but my favorite is a little smoked salmon on some crusty bread. Enjoy with great gusto. Have a happy and safe New Year. Many thanks, Heather