Dec 21, 201112:16 PMFood & Wine
'Tis the Season for Bubbly!
I happen to love a good sparkling wine at any time of year. (I can “see” you nodding in agreement!)
The sparkling wines of the world are often thought of as just for special occasions. My view is that any occasion with friends and family is made more special and festive with sparkling wine!
While it is tempting to use “champagne” to describe all sparkling wines, in fact the term can be used only to describe bubbly from the Champagne region of France. It is a protected name. The category of sparkling wine is actually quite complex and can be confusing to consumers. Earlier this month I attended a terrific seminar at Cincinnati State’s Midwest Culinary Institute (MCI) presented by sommelier Laura Landoll. With her permission, I want to share presentation highlights of the history, styles and production methods of sparkling wine, the latter to explain quality and pricing. We both hope you will head right over to your favorite wine shop armed with great information just in time to stock up for the holidays.
Champagne is arguably the best known sparkling wine production region, often credited with “inventing” sparkling wine. However, the history of bubbles actually predates better-known stories attributed to the French monk Dom Perignon. In truth, he was perplexed by still wines that turned unpredictably bubbly in the cool cellars of Champagne, and he worked hard to get rid of the fizz!
The Romans can take full credit for introducing vineyards to France. In turn, the rest of us can credit the French wine region of Limoux (southwestern area) with producing the first lightly fizzy wine, called Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale, in the early 1500s. About 150 years later, in the 1660s, the Brits created their own version of bubbly by adding sugar to still wine. (It is in fact sugar and yeast that are responsible for starting a second fermentation process that creates effervescence. More on that in a moment…) It wasn’t until the early 1700s, in part owing to an intense rivalry with Burgundy, that Champagne was intentionally made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Many of the most important innovations in sparkling wine production came from Champagne during the next hundred years and are still used today.
Sparkling wine can be, and is, made everywhere in the world. We have many wonderful selections available in the Cincinnati market. The four countries best known for its sparklers are
- France: Champagne, which is called Crémant in all other French regions, as well as the more obscure Clairette de Die and Blanquette de Limoux
- Italy: Prosecco, Franciacorta and Moscato d’Asti as well as light spumante
- Spain: Cava
- United States: sparkling wine made using “traditional” champagne methods
Australia is producing more and more mid-price sparkling wines increasingly available in our local market, including a sparkling Shiraz (red). Occasionally I will find a sparkling Gruner Veltliner from Austria or a German Sekt. Although South Africa (Cap Classique), Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Tasmania make lovely sparkling wines, they are generally not available in the Cincinnati market. I have to order them online (from wine.com or Sherry-Lehmann, for example).
More than any other type of wine, sparkling wines exemplify the old adage that variety is the spice of life!
Sparkling wine can be, and is, made from many different grapes, red and white, and nearly always blended according to winemaker tastes. The three permitted grapes of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This classic combination is replicated all over the world, especially in the United States and other new world countries where the so-called international varieties reign supreme. Regions of France other than Champagne illustrate best the diversity of grapes and the unique aspects of each grape’s spiritual home. For example, Crémant d’ Alsace typically includes other white grapes (Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris), and Crémant de Loire likely includes a touch of Chenin Blanc as well as Cabernet Franc. The grapes of Cava are Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. The grape used in Prosecco is glera.
Sparkling wines can be, and are, made in a variety of styles. Non-vintage (NV) is more prevalent and affordable than vintage. A superficial definition of the words might suggest that a “non”-vintage wine isn’t as good as a vintage wine. A better assessment of the difference would be to understand NV as the winemaker’s house style, a unique blend across vintages as well as varieties and vineyards. It is a goal, an aspiration, a statement about the winemaker. Vintage wines typically cost more because they are made only from the very best grapes in the very best years, and by their nature are available in only very small supply. In addition to NV and vintage style classifications, also look for Blanc de Blanc (100% white grapes), Blanc de Noir (100% red grapes) and Rosé.
Finally, although most sparkling wines are dry or nearly so, they can be and are fermented to various levels of sweetness. The measure of sweetness is expressed in degrees of “residual sugar” (RS) present in the finished wine. Without getting too geeky on the dominant rules specified by the EU, here are the names of the sweetness levels found on the label, in order from driest to sweetest: extra brut, brut, extra sec, sec, demi-sec and doux.
Production methods contribute greatly to quality and price. The traditional method, or méthode champenoise, is the gold standard for sparkling wine. The complexity and duration of wine-making processes explain the higher price of the best sparkling wines.
In brief, the traditional process works like this. After fermentation of grapes into a fresh still wine, the juice is blended (assemblage) according to house style and/or vintage. A mixture of sugar and yeast (liqueur de tirage) is added to the blend to stimulate a second fermentation – the secret of sparkling wine! The wine is then allowed to sparkle away in the bottle where the juice interacts with the remaining grape particulate (lees) for a period of time, imparting flavor and texture to the wine. Bottles are slowly turned clockwise and downward (riddling) to stir the lees and gather the particulate into the neck of the bottle. At the last ready moment, the neck of the bottle is frozen in nitrogen and the “pellet” of particulate is disgorged just before any final adjustments to sweetness using cane sugar and possibly a drop of brandy (dosage of liqueur d’expedition). Quickly the final cork stopper, foil wrapper, cage and label are applied to prepare the bottle for market.
The two other major sparkling wine methods are transfer, in which the disgorged wine is consolidated in a tank for filtering and then rebottled, and Charmat, in which the second fermentation takes place in a tank in “bulk”. Many new world sparkling wines are made using the transfer method. Italian Prosecco is made using the tank method, which explains its terrific affordable price.
A final word about food. Sparkling wines are best served as an aperitif (dry) or dessert (sweet). One exception to this rule is Moscato d’Asti, a lightly sparkling and low alcohol wine made from the Muscat grape that is seductively tinged with a perfumed sweetness. Good flavor and texture matches include creamy cheeses that provide a counter-weight to the bubbles, eggs (mini quiches are perfect appetizers), potato chips (think salt and crunch), smoked salmon, and seafood.
Wines of the world tasting:
- Champagne, France: Bernard Remy Brut Carte Blanche NV
- Franciacorta, Italy: Bellavista NV
- Crémant d’Alsace, France: Paul Zinck NV
- Prosecco, Italy: Bisol “Jeio” NV
- Cava, Spain: 2007 Finca Torremilanos Peñalba Lopez Brut Nature
- Willamette Valley, Oregon: Argyle NV
- Langhorne Creek, South Australia: Bleasdale “The Red Brute” Sparkling Shiraz NV
- Piedmont, Italy: Marenco Moscato d’Asti 2010
- Champagne, France: Lanson Demi-Sec NV
Laura Landoll is Southern Regional Manager for Columbus-based Grand Cru Wine Company. She teaches several different wine courses at MCI. A Level III Advanced Sommelier, Laura is preparing to sit exams for Master Sommelier.