All That Sparkles
I absolutely love fizzy and sparkling wines! And, since New Year’s Eve celebrations are fast approaching, I thought it may be fun and helpful to share some information about Champagne and sparkling wines. I’ve also included a few of my favorites.
First, all that sparkles isn’t Champagne. Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s from the Champagne region in France and made in the traditional method (méthode champenoise). The traditional method is a labor intensive, multi-step process (two fermentations) that contributes to the expense. Champagne can be made from three grapes: chardonnay and red-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier. Sometimes the label will use the terms “blanc de blancs” meaning the wine was made from white grapes, or “blanc de noirs” indicating that the Champagne is a white wine made from the dark pinot noir and pinot meunier varieties. There are also different levels of dryness/sweetness in Champagne:
**Grower Champagne refers to sparkling wine that is not only made in France’s Champagne region (as a protected designation of origin), but is also specifically crafted by families who are cultivating the grapes on their own land. It is made in much smaller volumes, and can really showcase the terroir of each farm. Since the elements that inform the terroir can vary (sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically), each year’s output is different than the one before.
Brut Nature/Brut Zero: Bone dry. No residual sugar.
Extra Brut: very dry
Brut: very dry to dry
Extra-Sec or Extra Dry: off-dry to medium dry
Sec: medium dry
Doux: super sweet
*Special note: More Champagne houses from France are opening vineyards in California: Roederer Estate (by Champagne Louis Roederer), Domaine Chandon (by Moët & Chandon), Mumm Napa (by G.H. Mumm), and Domaine Carneros (by Taittinger) are a few of the French producers in California.
Crémant: French sparkling wine that is made outside of the Champagne region in France but produced using the traditional method or méthode champenoise. Sparkling wines made in France that don’t adhere to the traditional method are called “Mousseux,” meaning sparkling. Crémant sparkling wines are more affordable than Champagnes, but offer the same consistent quality.
Cava: The name for Spanish sparkling wine made by the Champagne method (méthode champenoise). Cava is a specialty of the Penedès region of north central Spain near Barcelona. The two largest cava producers are Freixenet and Codorniu. Cava is somewhat dry with flavors of green apples with a hint of smoke.
Sekt: German, Austrian, and Czech sparkling wine.
Prosecco: Italian sparkling wines include Asti, made from the Moscato Bianco grape in the Piedmont region and Prosecco, made from the grape of the same name in the Veneto region. Prosecco is made using the Charmat method, which is like the champagne method, except that the second fermentation is in stainless steel tanks instead of the bottle (Champagne). Prosecco is a fruity sparkling wine and very affordable.
Sparkling Reds: These sparkling wines can be rosé or red. Australia produces wonderful sparkling red wine made from Shiraz (Syrah) grapes. There is also a sparkling Malbec in Argentina and Lambrusco and Brachetto in Italy.
How to Open Sparkling Wine
First, don’t be afraid! I was a little intimidated the first time I opened a bottle of sparkling wine, but it was fairly straightforward; just take it slow: Most sparkling wines have a metal wire over the cork to hold it secure against the pressure of the bottle–this is the cage. Start by untwisting the bottom part of the cage, but don’t remove completely. Put one hand over the top of the cork and cage and PRESS DOWN FIRMLY WHILE YOU SLOWLY TURN BOTTLE with your other hand. The cork will loosen and the pressure from the carbonation will begin to push it out. Slowly let the cork come out so that the pressure releases with a sigh. Don’t point the bottle at anyone during this procedure.
The traditional Champagne flute is designed to keep the bubbles flowing in your glass. However, a tulip-shaped wine glass or dessert wine glass with a slightly larger bowl will allow you to better smell and taste the wine.
Most of us enjoy sparkling wines on special occasions with friends and family, but if you’re craving a weeknight glass or want a single glass before dinner, you can still open a bottle without wasting a drop. Champagne stoppers lock into place using the fat lip on the rim of the bottle to keep the pressure–and the lovely bubbles–in place. Sparkling wine can keep at least three or four days in the refrigerator.