BUBBLY ON A BUDGET

Enjoying a toast at an affordable price

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

Can’t imagine the Holiday Season without a celebratory glass of wine with bubbles? Can’t get through a grand occasion without raising a toast with a golden wine that has fizz?

Can’t imagine paying current retail prices for champagne?

You are not alone.

As the economic malaise continues its sobering grip on the world monetary markets, some people still want to maintain tradition and open a bottle of wine that goes “pop” with fanfare and flourish. Bravo! 

It’s not just the price of champagne that has brought a wet blanket to the festivities. It’s all wines that exceed the magic ceiling price of $30.

The way out of the price problem with many wines is to find the New World substitute. If you like cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux, you will not be able to exactly match the aroma and flavor profiles of what the French region provides. But you can find great cabernet sauvignon from other places, such as Napa Valley, and often the stand-in brings new and exciting challenges to the party.

The same is true for Burgundy or Tuscany or Piedmont or the Rhone. Each region has identifiable grapes that are grown to great success in the New World. The U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina all grow grapes that originated in the Old Wine World with New World style and panache.

But wines that have bubbles are a bit of a different problem. Nowhere in the New World, or even in other portions of the Old World apart from Champagne, are the wines as deep, as nuanced, as striking in character and as elegant as those from that particular region in France, located a mere 90 miles to the north and east of Paris. Yet that does not mean you cannot have an excellent effervescent beverage from another place that will be pleasurable but not as costly.

Champagne is a costly beverage for a very good reason. Sometimes it means something to the consumer that there are valid reasons for a reasonably high cost. Sometimes the consumer is not in the least bit interested in the reasons.

Bottom line: Give me the juice in the style of champagne, and don’t let the wine’s price get in the way of its enjoyment. The new-economy mantra is: good wine, lower price.

One of the factors contributing to the cost of champagne is the basic economic law, which you learned in any college freshman business course, supply and demand. When only so much is made and it is in demand, the price will rise accordingly.

The Champagne region, like most other defined wine regions in France, operates by French law using defined products (only three grapes allowed: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier); grown only in specific places within the region; handled in a very specific way (second fermentation in the bottle; more on this later); aged for a specific period of time; labeled in a particular fashion; with the amount of wine defined in liters that can be made. 

Americans have a tough time understanding the concept of the government taking such a restrictive stance on land, operations and procedures when the business is owned by individuals and corporations. But that is the way it is in Europe, and it has been that way for a long time.

So champagne is the most expensive sparkling wine made in the world.

Just for definition purposes, wines that have bubbles, including champagnes, are called sparkling wine. But for sparkling wine to go by the moniker “champagne,” it has to come from that specific region. Therefore, if a wine is designated as a “sparkling wine” on the label, it is not from Champagne, but it may have been made by the same process as champagne.

Confused? Yes, why not? Join the crowd. There are still sparkling wines made in America that are called “champagne.” They feel they have a right to the name, even though the name is from another country. We won’t get into that.

Because we are mostly Americans, let’s focus on the sparkling wines from America’s greatest and largest winemaking area, the West Coast.

Creating sparkling wines is often a challenge gladly met by still-wine makers because, with deference to Monty Python, it gives them a chance to do something completely different.

The méthode traditionelle process, to which we alluded earlier, is actually a process that requires patience and intervention. First, like all still wines, fermentation takes place in a stainless-steel tank. The grapes are selected and harvested because they provide the fruit and the acidity that sparkling wine requires. The sugars in the grapes are converted into alcohol with the able assistance of yeasts, which occur naturally on the skins or can be selected by the winemaker for certain characteristics of flavor and aroma.

The wine is then bottled in its unfiltered state, and to that bottle is added another bit of yeast. The yeast this time is specifically selected to create a particular style. In the bottle, which is the same bottle you will pick up at the store or have on your table in a restaurant, the yeast; the wine; and the lees, which are bits of organic material that come along for the ride, will mingle for up to three years, lying there quietly and just involving themselves with the other elements. The yeast keeps things active.

Incidentally, there is no cork in the bottle during this period of time. The entire package is sealed shut with a soda pop bottle-style cap.

After the yeast has been spent, you have to get the organic matter, including the dead yeast cells, out of the bottle.

Through a process called “riddling,” which has nothing to do with Batman, the organic material ends up in the neck of the bottle, which is now stored upside-down on its head.

The neck of the bottle is moved through a frozen brine bath, which causes the wine in the top and the neck of the bottle, along with all the organic material, to turn to ice.

Very quickly, the bottle is turned right-side-up, the cap is pried off the bottle, and the pressure that has developed in the wine forcibly expels the frozen material from the bottle. Now you have a clear wine, free of dead yeast cells and organic matter, but not a full bottle of wine.

So still wine is added to the bottle to the proper fill point. It can be aged wine or the same type of wine from which the sparkling wine was made or even something very different. It’s up to the winemaker. Also at this time, when the bottle is refilled, the winemaker adds some level of sweetness in the form of sugar cane syrup.

Adding just a tiny amount of the syrup designated a wine as “brut,” the most common style. By adding a bit more sugar, you create the designation “extra dry,” a little sweeter than brut. Adding still more syrup makes for wine labeled “sec,” which is much sweeter than brut, and then there’s demi-sec, a wine that is very sweet.

Going the other way, reduce the sugar, and you have the designation “extra brut.” 

Sparkling wines also can be defined as either “vintage,” meaning the majority of the grapes came from the harvest of a particular and named year, or “nonvintage,” which is a combination of grapes from several years’ harvests.

Nonvintage is sometimes noted as “multivintage,” which some winemakers feel is a more positive term.

Continuing on with explanations of terms on the label, sparkling wines may be noted with the designation “blanc de blancs,” white from the whites, defining a wine made primarily with chardonnay grapes. Or the wine can be noted as “blanc de noir,” which indicates a large presence of pinot noir grapes in the blend.

Today’s modern and well-crafted rosé sparkling wines use a bit of both but leave the initial juice in contact with the skins of the pinot noir grapes for just a bit longer. The grapes’ skins add additional flavors and complexities, as well as a tinted hue to the wines.

Americans, thanks to some history with very sweet, very poorly made wines that were also labeled “rosé,” tend to think such wines are sickeningly sweet. They are not.

True rosé wines are incredibly well-structured, providing solid flavors of freshness, and many even have definable tannins. They are able to stand up to just about any food on the dinner table. Rosé sparkling wines of quality are usually more expensive than the more common golden styles, and rosé wines are almost always denoted brut, indicating a low level of additional sugars, with the natural sugars fully fermented in the winemaking process.

So now you know about the method and the styles, and I hope you have a better appreciation of why wines with bubbles cost what they do.

And you are probably among the sparkling wine consumers around the world who love the taste of such wines, the feel of the bubbles on the palate and the inevitable festival atmosphere that comes with opening these wines.

However, you can’t afford to drink these wines every day if the bottles come from France’s Champagne region. From time to time, of course, you’ll want to splurge a bit and buy sparkling wine from the “home office,” yet that does not happen as often as you’d like.

So how do you assure you’ll be able to still drink quality while going a bit easier on the pocketbook?

Remember a few other places that create the style you will like:

• Sparkling wine from all the West Coast states that border the Pacific and sparkling wine from Long Island
• Sparkling wine from the Loire Valley in France
• Cava, which is sparkling wine from Spain
• Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine from the Veneto region

That’s it. Simple, huh?

You will drink well, and you will drink at a reasonable price.

The sparkling wines from California are, on the whole, really terrific. Most of the good ones, such as Domaine Carneros, Mumm Napa, Roederer Estate and Domaine Chandon, are the American establishments from the great champagne houses of France. They all know how to make good bubbles.

You would also be wise to try wines from Gloria Ferrer, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, J, Paradise Ridge and Schug. These excellent domestic producers of sparkling wine have brought to the marketplace a product that can take a rightful place among the best of the breed.

Further north, in Oregon, is Argyle, and further north than that, in Washington State, is Domaine Ste. Michelle.

Although these places are doing wonderful work with bubbles, choose your styles carefully. Some of these can run a bit sweet, and sweetness tends to cover up little flaws. Stick with brut and rosé, and you won’t regret the purchase.

Long Island is an interesting place and is coming on very strong with phenomenal wines. Wines from Long Island are sometimes hard to find, but you should not close your eyes to this emerging area that is, ironically, one of the oldest wine-production regions in the U.S. and yet not seen often in our market.

Only seven of Long Island’s 38 wineries make sparkling wine, but those that do are passionate about quality. Look for Pugliese and Lenz, as these seem to be receiving the widest distribution.

The Italians have an amazing track record with sparkling wine. The Prosecco region, which also has given the grapes used in this area their name, has been making wine since Pliny the Elder first dipped his feet into a vat of freshly picked grapes back in Roman times.

But really only recently have the wineries taken the whole quality business seriously. The producers of prosecco are now absolutely convinced that if they treat the wine correctly, if they adhere to high production standards in the winery and the vineyard and if they continue to upgrade and spend money in all areas of winemaking, they can produce an excellent sparkling wine.

They are, of course, correct. They can, and they are now doing so. OK, so it took a few thousand years. What was the hurry anyway?

Prosecco is an excellent sparkling wine, produced in the classic method and perfectly suited to be enjoyed on its own or mixed with a bit of fruit juice. The classic Italian cocktail is the Bellini, a mixture of purée of white peach and prosecco. It is, as Dante would say, “divine.”

A bit further west, the Spaniards take a back seat to no one when it comes to producing sparkling wine. The qualities of grapes that provide an acid backbone, along with fresh fruit and some yeast notes that make you think of homemade bread in the oven, combine in a Spanish manner in a wine they call “cava.”

All of this is done in an area very close to the charming port city of Barcelona, which was the port from which Christopher Columbus embarked on his quest to prove the world was not flat. And neither are cavas.

They are small-bubbled wonders of sun-ripened fruit and treated with care as they proceed through the méthode champenoise.

One other very important point about the entire category of sparkling wine: These wines go with everything. They are great accompaniments to any occasion and all styles of food. Try them with fish, meat, dessert, on the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve.

And at easy prices, you can enjoy it more often. There’s the good news you’ve been looking for. Celebrate now, even if it’s only Wednesday.
 

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