The headline can only be referring to one style of wine, my personal favorites (among many), Champagnes and Sparkling Wines.
These wines come from a variety of different places, are made in a variety of ways, use a variety of grape varietals and range from quite dry in style to very sweet. As you can see, broad categorization is simply not possible. Nor do you want to cubby-hole such a romantic, fascinating and desirable group.
Wines with bubbles fire the imagination, stir the soul, demand attention and in general make any occasion something very special. All that seeming hyperbole and, in my opinion, not an overstatement anywhere in sight.
We are in the middle of “bubbles” season here, with New Year’s Eve, Carnival, Super Bowl and then Mardi Gras, so let’s quickly cover a primer of what should be known:
- The bubbles are the result of a secondary fermentation that is caused by the winemakers to occur with the introduction of special yeasts to the wines after the grapes have gone through their initial fermentation.
- This secondary fermentation, which defines sparkling wines, can either be done in sizeable quantities in a large pressurized vat, known as the Charmat (or Bulk) Method, or can be accomplished in the very bottle you purchase, which since 2005 is labeled Méthode Traditionelle, formerly known, prior to 1994, as the methode champenoise or champagne method.
- The sweetness level of the wine is determined at the very end of the process when similar aged wines are added to the bottle, along with some amount of sugar cane syrup. At this time, the wine is defined, from less to more sweetness, as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry or Extra Sec, Dry or Sec, Demi-Sec, Sweet or Doux. Brut is the most common style of sparkling wine or Champagne produced.
- All Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagnes. Only a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, within specified geographic areas and produced with defined methods and specific grape varietals, can be legally labeled Champagne. There are still a few American producers of sparkling wine that label their product American Champagne. They have been grandfathered, prior to 2006, into the international agreement defining Champagne and must use the term on the label in close conjunction with the place in which the beverage was produced, as in “California Champagne”. These wines are not welcome into the countries of the European Common Market (EU).
- The Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Perignon, at the Abbey in Hautvilliers in the Champagne region of France, not only did not invent Champagne but was originally assigned by his superiors in the late 1600’s to rid the wine of the bubbles. The pressure of the gasses produced during the secondary fermentation was causing the bottles to explode, a great waste of wine and a danger to the monks working in the cellars. Dom Perignon began experimentation with both the wine and the production of the bottles. Through standardization of quality of yeast and sugar, as well as better defining the manufacturing of the bottles, he was able to improve the wine’s quality, assure consistency in the product, and reduce the loss of wine due to exploding bottles, not to mention the minimization of physical danger to fellow monks when working with such a volatile liquid and its package.
- The reason for the development of the sparkling wine process in the first place is the fact that Champagne, the place, is one of the northernmost fine-grape growing regions in the world. Ripening of the fruit, and therefore achieving acceptable sugar levels to make fine wine, hardly ever occurs to an appreciable extent prior to the onset of rain and cold weather with the winter season. In order to produce a wine of desirable quality, sugar and additional yeast have to be added to the once-fermented still wine, and that causes the bubbles to form, resulting in commercially acceptable wine.
- Champagne up to the middle of the 19th century was a red beverage. Even with Dom Perignon’s contributions to the manufacture of a sparkling wine, most of the wine from the Champagne region was still-wine up through the 1850’s, when the sparkling wines were discovered and enjoyed by Parisian café society. Paris is less than 80 miles from the Champagne region.
- Champagnes and sparkling wines are almost always blends of at least two grapes, often three, maybe more. Most of the wines of this type are offered in a non-vintage, or in terminology some winemakers have recently adopted, multi-vintage, format. That means the wines will feature a “house-style,” in bouquet and taste that is duplicated every time the wine is made. Each Champagne or sparkling wine house establishes what this means to them. While vintage-designations, i.e. stating the year of the wine grapes’ harvest, brings variations based on weather, length of time the fruit has been left hanging on the vine, etc., non-vintage (NV) wines are pretty much the same from one year to the next as that is the result the winemaker or the production label wishes to achieve. In Champagne, in order to achieve this goal, the winemaker and all assistants taste and evaluate on an almost daily basis from as many as 300 wines of different lots, different years, and different storage conditions, all pointed to delivering to you a consistent product every time.
- Sparkling wines, depending on their point of origin, often go by different names. For instance, when a sparkling comes from America, it is designated a…er…uh…sparkling wine. Clever and to the point, yes? Spanish sparkling wine is labeled cava, and in Germany, the wine is sekt. Italian sparkling wines are Prosecco, spumante, Lambrusco, Franciocorta or Asti, depending on their area of origin. Sparkling wines from France but not from Champagne are often designated cremant or mousseaux, among other regional designations. None of those names have anything to do with sweetness levels, but are label descriptors telling you that the wine has bubbles and where it is from.
- Probably more than any other style of wine, Champagne and sparkling wine usually put forward a direct price/quality ratio correlation. You can go cheap and you will reap those “rewards.” That is not to suggest that you have to spend $50 and upwards to obtain something pleasant and good. You personally may not get that much pleasure from the beverage so why aim so high? But there is truth that in this category, you really do get what you pay for. You can find a decent cava or prosecco in the less than $12 range, and a good American sparkling wine under $25. Also if your intent is to use the wine in a cocktail, like a mimosa, why spend a bunch to toss the wine in with fruit juice?
- To dispel a myth, Champagnes can age well. They actually react to aging like other wines, taking on subtle nuances and different characteristics that could make them exceedingly interesting and enjoyable. Champagnes are, however, particularly susceptible within difficult storage conditions, such as fluctuations of heat and cold, humidity levels, and exposure to light.
- Keep in mind that Champagnes and sparkling wines do not go well into glasses that have soap residue. For personal use, rinse your glasses in hot, hot, hot water. No soap. Otherwise you will lose some of the bubbles and the wine will be “flat” right into your mouth.
- While we are at the serving question, keep Champagne and sparkling wines cold. Very cold. And unlike still wines, wines with bubbles in open bottles do not keep well over any period of time. Once you open the bottle, it will be best to go ahead and finish it in one sitting. Darn! I hate when that happens.
Okay, class, any questions? Let the celebrations begin!