Last year around this time, I swore I wouldn’t do another been-there-done-that column on sparkling wine. But I did one anyway, swearing never again.
I am fundamentally inclined to not talk about sparkling wine and Champagne during this season of short daylight and frozen thermometers. Bubbly is best served poolside in an ice bucket on a warm summer day, not on a cold winter’s night. And yet as the waning days of 2011 expire, people who don’t even know the location of their local wine store will blindly toddle down the Champagne aisle for a bottle or two.
So here I go again (grudgingly, mind you), with the 2011 edition of “I’m Not Writing About Sparkling Wine!”
With my new occupation as a wine consultant, I regularly run into those blind toddlers in the Champagne aisle. Many, many people remain a bit mystified by the whole concept of sparkling wine…besides the part where you’re supposed to enjoy it in the summer.
So, let’s review:
All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Champagne is a place in France that makes wonderfully unique bubbly from vineyards planted in its famous chalky soils.
Brut sparkling wine is not dry; it has sugar added just before it is sealed. Sparkling wine is made from very acidic, slightly underripe grapes. Winemakers counterbalance this searing tartness with sweetness. Winemakers in Champagne are required to use the following guidelines when adding the sugar syrup, otherwise known as the liqueur d’expédition:
Brut Nature (or Brut Sauvage, among other names), 3 grams of sugar per liter or less
Extra Brut, 6 grams or less
Brut, 12 grams or less
Extra Sec, 12 to 17 grams
Sec, 17 to 32 grams
Demi-Sec, 33 to 50 grams
Doux, 50 grams and higher
Demi-sec (half dry) and doux (sweet) are dessert wines. Extra sec and sec are generally inferior wines that use subtle sweetness to cover up their imperfections.
All Champagne and quality sparkling wines made around the world create their signature bubbles in the bottle. This is known as the méthode champenoise or traditional method. Winemakers add a little sugar and yeast into a bottle of still wine and cap it. Yeasts metabolize the sugar creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gas is absorbed into the wine and released in the form of bubbles when the cork pops open. The time spent with the yeast, which can last months or years (or even decades), gives sparkling wine it’s doughy, toasted nut quality.
Other sparkling wine methods exist, such as the charmat process, which creates bubbles in a bulk container, and the gas-injection method. Sparkling wines that use the gas injection method are patently awful.
The trapped carbon dioxide gas creates about five atmospheres of pressure in the bottle. That’s why sparkling wine makers place a metal cage around the cork, so it doesn’t get pushed out prematurely. Flying sparkling wine corks can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. Never point an uncaged sparkling wine bottle at anyone!
Contrary to popular belief, Dom Perignon, the famous 17-century Benedictine monk featured on the label of Moet’s premium Champagne, did not invent sparkling wine. He is, however, correctly credited with improvements to the sparkling winemaking process, improvements that reduced the incidents of exploding bottles. You go, Brother Dom!
Sparkling wine comes in many forms. Blanc de blancs are made only with white grapes; blanc de noirs are made with only red grapes but look like a white wine; rosés come in various shades of pink and can be made by adding red wine into the mix or by briefly leaving the wine in contact with red-skinned grapes.
California makes many fine sparkling wines, mostly following the traditions of Champagne, which rely on chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Other regions (such as Asti, Veneto and Franciacorta in Italy; northeastern Spain; Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Alsace in France; and Australia) make sparkling wines in the style of Champagne, but often use different grapes.
What will I be opening New Year’s Eve? Blind lemming that I am, it will be sparkling. Recently, I very much enjoyed a bottle of Nino Franco “Rustico” Prosecco from Italy. That’ll do nicely. I’m saving my Champagne for June 20, when I ring in the summer solstice.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a wine consultant for Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.