The holiday season and then into Carnival is truly the season(s) of revelry and popping corks. Sparkling wine and Champagne are the unofficial beverages of record, and they are welcome wherever folks gather – or maybe even when you are by yourself, whatever floats your boat.
There’s a lot of misinformation about sparkling wine out there, and innuendo has morphed into “fact.” You don’t want to spread untruths, and you don’t want to appear authoritative when you are not. Leave those departments to our elected officials.
A few items that may serve you well as you savor wines with bubbles and feel the need to show those around you that you are well-informed:
Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne
In fact, wine with bubbles was quite the accident and happened well before Perignon’s moments. Going back a long way into history, when the chemistry of wine was not fully understood but the beverage was enjoyed, the wines often did not achieve full fermentation. And that meant that there was still some sugar in the liquid not yet resolved, along with a little bit of wild yeast that lives on the skins of grapes. When you seal up those items in a warm liquid environment, fermentation, which was supposed to be finished the first time around, can start anew. And that second fermentation, a natural occurrence, is where carbon dioxide takes center stage. You know, the bubbles.
Many wines were made back in those days in the cellars of monasteries, and the monks depended on winemaking to raise money in order to support their home and lifestyle. So, when these wines went astray and created bubbles in the wine, no one really wanted that. Further, when the pressure that accompanied the process then led to exploding bottles, the loss of eyes and limbs began to add up.
Dom Perignon, a monk in the Abby of Hautvillier in the northeast corner of France, was given the directive to stop the slaughter. Instead of just halting production, he decided to try and control the part of the process that was causing all the trouble, the secondary fermentation. He set about to design a stronger bottle and to define exactly under what conditions a wine of quality could be sparkling.
It is doubtful he ever uttered the words that he was “drinking the stars.” Some PR guy in the early part of the 20th century really hit on a nice and catchy phrase.
In Bubbles, Size Counts
Simply put, the smaller the bubble, the better the quality of the wine. It’s tough to tell bubble-size while the wine is in the bottle. However, there is another way to know what quality the wine is:
More than any other wine, sparkling wine and Champagne are defined by price. All the wines are more expensive than their still wine counterparts. The process is expensive and the grapes must be of a particular quality.
It follows that in general, price is a good indicator as to how high up the quality totem pole you have gone.
Keep in mind that sparkling wines vary a bit in price from one place of origin to another. The main areas of France, Italy, Spain and America are all to be considered with their own neighbors. Comparing a top quality sparkling wine from Spain to one from California is not fair. But the range of price points within those areas, comparing one wine to its neighbor, will yield to you a general and reliable answer to your “is this a good quality wine?” dilemma.
Charmat Is Not the Same as Champagne
The production method used in Champagne, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the very bottle you are buying, is known as methode traditionelle or methode champenois. The latter designation is not used as much anymore because the folks in the Champagne region of France want nothing suggesting Champagne on any bottle not from their well-defined by law area. They are fussy and protective and they have likely earned the right to be both.
There is another process to put bubbles into wine that is used when cost of production is a consideration and that is the Charmat process, otherwise known unromantically as “bulk.”
Instead of the second fermentation taking place in the bottle and requiring a lot personal attention, after the wine is made and fermented (oh, yes, sparkling wines were indeed still wines first), then the wine is placed into large stainless steel, tightly sealed vats, along with yeast, and the second fermentation takes place under those conditions, not in individual bottles but in bulk in the tank.
Over the past 40 years, the bulk/Charmat process has been refined and now offers a decent, sometimes excellent, product. Think Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy, and Sparkling Wine from America. These are not Champagne; they are not as elegant and do not possess great depth; neither do they cost a high sum.
So, sit back this Holiday Season and enjoy a glass of wine with bubbles. Toss out a few pearls of sparkling wine wisdom to those less-informed souls in the area. Revel in the praise they will surely shower you with in appreciation of you sharing your wine knowledge.
Then for goodness sake, drink and let the celebration begin. It’s Holiday Time! Happy Holidays to you, and to those you cherish from the entire staff at Happy Hour.
Read Happy Hour here on MyNewOrleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored, at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life" every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcasted episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/