Let the countdowns begin. Yes, it’s the time of year when our attention usually turns to the sound of a popping cork and the froth of bubbles rising in a champagne flute. What is it about Champagne or other sparkling wines that add the dash of specialness to our celebrations whether it’s a marriage, a birth, a New Year, a romance, toastable occasions or, my favorite, just any ol’ time you feel in the mood? A cynic might say “marketing” (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – but I think it’s simply because this kind of wine adds sparkle to life. The monk Dom Perignon is credited with inventing Champagne and supposedly declared, “I am drinking the stars!” I get it. That’s how if feel too when the bubbles reflect the light and tickle my taste buds.
Sparkling wines come in a lot of styles and from all over the world. But let’s dispense with one confusion – Champagne now only comes from the Champagne region of France. The French have adamantly protected the use of the name so effectively that all else from the rest of France and the rest of the world is “sparkling wine.” So when you see a Cava from Spain, a Franciacorta from Italy, a Cremant from France, or any of the better bubbly from the US they’re not “Champagne” – but they can be and are wonderful, festive, fun and tasty wines typically made the same way.
How do the bubbles get in the bottle? There are a handful of methods used to make sparkling wines, but since this is a blog and not a book we’ll hit a couple of highlights. The bubbles come from CO2 (carbon dioxide) that is captured in the wine under pressure. When you pop the cork that gas is released and the cork can fly out like a missile and the CO2 bubbles emerge to delight us. This CO2 got there through a second fermentation of the wine in the bottle caused by adding some sugar to already fermented still wine, then sealing up the the bottle. As the additional fermentation occurs the CO2 has nowhere to go so the pressure inside builds. That’s why Champagne and sparkling bottles are thicker and have an indentation, called a punt, in the bottom, and why the corks have a metal wire around them – can’t have that burst of gas unintentionally! Doing this in the bottle is called the “traditional method” or “Methode Traditionelle.” It can also be done in a tank that is kept sealed during that second fermentation then bottled, which is the way most Prosecco, German Sekt and some of the more mass produced sparklers are made. Another key part to the traditional method is some amount of time aging on the lees. GEEK ALERT: Lees are the sediment primarily of dead yeast cells along with other bits from the grapes. This sur lie aging adds flavor and character to the wine that often is tasted as toasty, wheaty or creamy when you sip it.
How sweet it is! Or rather, How sweet is it may be something to know when you reach for a bottle of bubbles. The label can help you fit your taste. From sweetest to driest here’s what to look for:
- Doux: Really, I mean really, sweet. Like a dessert wine.
- Demi-sec: Sweet and yummy this makes a nice companion to desserts
- Sec: Same as above but just a bit less sweet.
- Extra Dry: Tends to be a crowd pleaser since it’s mostly dry tasting (the term is off dry) and less acidic or tart tasting due to the bit of residual sugar as well as a nice match to spicy foods like a California roll with wasabi.
- Brut: Dry and crispy often with tastes of green apple, citrus and toast. Wonderful acidity delights the taste buds and make it a terrific aperitif and food wine – lobster, smoked salmon, eggs Benedict, food with cream sauces and lots more. My favorite with sashimi.
- Extra Brut: Tangy and tart but also a delicate tasting experience.
- Brut Sauvage: Zero sugar. Bone dry and even austere. Not a lot on the shelves.
All this writing is making me thirsty – so let’s get to it and Sip! And while we’re at it – here’s wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year! Let’s pop the corks!
2013 LLopart Leopardi Rose Brut Reserva Cava $20, Spain
Mionetto Prosecco Brut, $12, Italy
Gloria Ferrar Sonoma Brut $20, Sonoma
Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry Cava $10, Spain
Roederer Estate Brut $20, Anderson Valley
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut $43, Champagne
Tattinger Cuvee Prestige Brut $40, Champagne
2012 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc $33, Napa
2010 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut $33, Sonoma
Billecart Salmon Brut Reserve $50. Champagne
Louis Roederer Carte Blanche Extra Dry $45, Champagne
Laurent Perrier Brut Rose $75, Champagne
Ruinart Blanc de Blanc $75, Champagne
Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee Brut $150, Champagne
2006 Dom Perignon $150, Champagne
2006 lotus Rogederer Cristal $200