I am not going to say, “Chestnuts roasting by an open fire.” I am not going to mention, “It’s beginning to look a lot like…” I’m not even going to slip in, “’Tis the Season to be…” Nope, you won’t get that trite stuff out me.
I have new trite stuff for you, like, “Wishing you the best of the Holiday Season. Wishing you a Champagne Christmas.” It’s really pretty amazing what comes out of the Hallmark factory in Kansas City.
But wine with bubbles, that’s the ticket this time of year. Well, any time of year. What? You don’t gravitate to Champagne, Cava, Prosecco, or Sparkling Wine (all wines with bubbles)? Maybe you’ve never had the right stuff. Maybe you had your mind made up before you even tasted the wine. Maybe the truth is simply you really don’t like wine with bubbles.
Except for the latter reason, I think we can resolve the other issues right here (yes, it’s a public service of this column) and get you on your way to appreciating one of the great pleasures of life. Even better than being stuck in traffic out in the middle of the Causeway. No, wait, that may not be a pleasure.
Let’s start by offsetting a few myths:
* All wines with bubbles are Champagne. Wrong. Only a wine made in specified-by-French-law methods, and made in the Champagne region of France – about 90 miles north and east of Paris – can be called Champagne.
* Dom Perignon invented Champagne. Wrong. The 17th century monk was actually assigned by his Abbot to stop the production of Champagne. Those exploding bottles were blowing away hands and destroying eyes. What Dom Perignon actually did was to properly get a handle on controlling that essential second fermentation. And he better designed the package, making the glass thicker plus creating an indentation in the bottom of the bottle, called a punt, to spread the pressure inside the bottle over a wider surface area.
* Champagne is best served at very cold temperatures. Wrong. While Champagne is a beverage best served cold, 45-48° F, if it is too cold the aromas and the flavors are muted to a point where the subtle elegance of the wine cannot be appreciated.
* Champagne is best served in one of those bowl-like glasses with a stem. Wrong. Those very old-fashioned glasses are called Marie Antoinette because, as the story goes, their shape is a reference to Marie Antoinette’s breast. A nice tribute and a lovely visual, but not a nice glass for Champagne service. The best glasses for Champagne are the same style in which you would serve Chardonnay. The flute is also not a great glass for Champagne because that shape does not encourage the action of the bubbles nor does it present the aroma well.
* Adding fruit, like strawberries, into Champagne is the proper service. Wrong. While you may enjoy Champagne with a little piece of fruit floating in your glass, and that is a good enough reason to add the foreign substance, at least for you, the addition into the wine of an additional source of sugar, changes the taste and the aroma from the way the winemaker wanted you to enjoy his/her creation.
* If a Champagne does not have a lot of bubbles, it is still fine. Very, very wrong. The bubbles are really the point. An absence of bubbles indicates a sparkling wine that is not in proper order.
* Dom Perignon said after tasting Champagne, “I am drinking the stars.” Maybe. No one knows. He could have said a lot of things and this may have been one of them, or not. There is no indication in anything else in his life that he was poetic or artistic, except when it comes to the art of winemaking.
Okay, now a primer:
* There are two methods of making a sparkling wine. The one used in Champagne, and in other places, is the methode traditionnelle. After the initial fermentation of the grapes in a large stainless steel container, the still wine, no bubbles yet, is placed into the same bottle you eventually purchase at the store or restaurant. Then a bit more yeast is added, a second fermentation takes place, and the bubbles and other characteristics are created.
The other method of making wine with bubbles is called the Charmat Method, or the bulk method. The fermented still wine, done in the same manner as noted above and the way most still wines are made, is placed into a large sealed container and then adding the yeast which also results in bubbles.
Champagnes are always made in the methode traditionnelle, formerly commonly referred to as the methode champanoise, as are cava wines from Spain. Most Italian Prosecco and less expensive sparkling wines from America are done in the second method. More expensive American sparkling wines, as well as those from South Africa, are done in the methode traditionnelle, as are other sparkling wines from France that are not from Champagne. These wines are known as Cremant.
With Champagne and sparkling wines, if you are in doubt as to whether it’s a good wine, price is usually a pretty good indicator of the quality of the wine. While there are good wines for less than $22 a bottle, those are the exception to the rule. Expect to pay more than $20 for a good quality sparkling wine, and northward of $35 for a good Champagne.
Also, keep in mind how you intend to use the wine. If you are making mimosas (sparkling wine with orange juice), you want a good wine but likely not a Champagne. The fruit sugars and acids in orange juice will fill in the low-end flaws of a less expensive sparkling wine. But don’t go too low in price/quality. Always, however, be guided by the first rule of good cocktails: use excellent base ingredients unless you just want a lousy drink.
And thank your lucky stars you were born in this era. Unless you were royalty back in the 1800’s, Champagne was only something you heard about. Drinking it was never a possibility.
Another reason to really love your parents.