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Guide to wine
Champagne And Sparkling Wine

Champagne & Sparkling Wine

Champagne and the best sparkling wines share the unique quality of making any occasion special – and of making special occasions that much more magical. The pop of a cork has traditionally signaled the start of a celebration, after all.

Yet the great secret of Champagne and other sparkling wines is that they are good all the time. There’s no need to wait for New Year’s Eve to enjoy a sparkling wine, when affordable and delicious bubblies are increasingly produced in all of the world’s great winemaking regions. Dry sparklers, with their zesty, palate-cleansing acidity, are marvelous food wines. So it’s easy to incorporate fun sparkling wines into your happy hour, or a casual brunch or dinner. Sweeter sparkling wines keep the party going through dessert. The setting doesn’t have to be fancy: The Italians, who know a few things about food and wine, like to pair their sparkling prosecco with potato chips.


Champagne and other sparkling wines vary in style and quality depending on where they are made (and by whom). The greatest factor is whether the wine is, in fact, Champagne. All Champagne is sparkling wine, but only the sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France is really Champagne. According to “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” less than one-twelfth of the sparkling wine produced around the world is actual Champagne.

The rest, when it’s produced in the United States and Australia, is dubbed “sparkling wine “; in Spain, it’s Cava; in Italy, it’s Prosecco, Asti and other bubblies; and in France, outside Champagne, it’s Crémant.

The basics on bubbles

What puts the sparkle in all of these sparkling wines? The not-very-romantic answer is carbon dioxide.

History tells us this style of wine was accidentally discovered as the result of secondary fermentation occurring within bottles of still wine: In the centuries before central heating, bottled wine would get cold over the winter, and in the spring, the contents would warm up and begin fermenting again. The fermentation process releases carbon dioxide. However, the gas has nowhere to go in a sealed bottle, and forms bubbles that are suspended in the wine. This accidental effervescence was not welcomed at first – a lot of bottles exploded before patrons discovered how tasty the sparkling wine was, and created heavier, stronger bottles to contain the lively new wine.

Today, there are several ways to create sparkling wine.

Champagne and other high-quality sparkling wines are produced using what has become known as the traditional method. The winemaker starts by creating a dry, still wine for the base, and then blending it with others to achieve the desired style (cuvée). This wine is bottled, topped off with a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast (liqueur de tirage) and then sealed. Back in the cellar, the secondary fermentation begins in the bottle, taking up to six weeks for the yeast to break down the sugar and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The length of time the yeast remains in the bottle helps determine the wine’s flavors and the quality of carbonation. The bottles in the cellar are regularly shaken and rotated over a period of weeks or months (the process, known as riddling, may be mechanized or manual), until the remaining yeast lodges in the neck of the bottle. That clump is then removed (disgorged). Additional wine is added, plus a small amount of sugar to balance the flavors. The bottle is sealed with a compressed mushroom cork and wire cage to keep all the good stuff inside, and then returned to the cellar for more aging.

The traditional method is clearly time-consuming and labor-intensive, and over the years winemakers have developed less costly variations on the process. The simplest is the tank, or Charmat, method, in which winemakers induce the secondary fermentation of still wine in a large pressurized tank instead of individual bottles.

Champagne and other high-quality sparkling wines are produced using what has become known as the traditional method. The winemaker starts by creating a dry, still wine for the base, and then blending it with others to achieve the desired style (cuvée). This wine is bottled, topped off with a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast (liqueur de tirage) and then sealed. Back in the cellar, the secondary fermentation begins in the bottle, taking up to six weeks for the yeast to break down the sugar and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The length of time the yeast remains in the bottle helps determine the wine’s flavors and the quality of carbonation. The bottles in the cellar are regularly shaken and rotated over a period of weeks or months (the process, known as riddling, may be mechanized or manual), until the remaining yeast lodges in the neck of the bottle. That clump is then removed (disgorged). Additional wine is added, plus a small amount of sugar to balance the flavors. The bottle is sealed with a compressed mushroom cork and wire cage to keep all the good stuff inside, and then returned to the cellar for more aging.

The traditional method is clearly time-consuming and labor-intensive, and over the years winemakers have developed less costly variations on the process. The simplest is the tank, or Charmat, method, in which winemakers induce the secondary fermentation of still wine in a large pressurized tank instead of individual bottles.

 

The traditional method is clearly time-consuming and labor-intensive, and over the years winemakers have developed less costly variations on the process.

The chief advantage of the Charmat method is its lower cost of production. The tanks are sometimes large enough to produce 100,000 bottles at a time. Sparkling wines made this way tend to be less complex, and have larger, shorter-lived bubbles than those produced in the traditional method. Still, the wine’s basic ingredients and care in production are vitally important – the better the base wine, the finer the product, regardless of fermentation method.

The dry and the sweet

Champagne and most sparkling wines indicate their level of sweetness on the label. Look for these key words, which describe wines from driest to sweetest:

Brut: This is a wine with no perceptible sweetness. It will go well with food, because of the low sugar level and bright acidity.

Extra Dry: Surprise! This wine is actually slightly sweet, not as dry as Brut. There is just enough residual sugar on the palate to make it noticeable, but not so much to be cloying.

Sec: This wine labeled with the French word for “dry” is sweeter than Extra Dry.

Demi-Sec: This is a fully sweet sparkling wine, often served with dessert.

Guessing the grape

Many Champagnes and sparkling wines will give you a clue to their contents in the name. Look for these French phrases on the label:

Champagne: This is made from a combination of all or some of the traditionally permitted grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Blanc de Blancs (“White of whites,” or white wine from white grapes): This is made from 100 percent white grapes. In the case of Champagne, it will be 100 percent Chardonnay. In regions outside of Champagne, any white grapes may be used, either as a pure varietal or a blend. These wines are typically lighter and more delicate than those incorporating red grapes.

Blanc de Noirs (“White of blacks”): This is wine made entirely of black grapes—either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two. It will be heavier-bodied than a Blanc de Blancs or Champagne made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. After crushing the grapes, winemakers quickly remove skins from the clear, free-run juices, so little of the grapes’ color is imparted to the wine. Blanc de Noirs will range in color from golden yellow to salmon pink.

Rosé (sometimes Rosato on Italian sparklers, and Rosado on those from Spain): These wines are generally fuller-bodied, great for accompanying meals, and are either produced in a similar fashion to Blanc de Noirs, above, or by adding still red still wine to a sparkling white. Colors range from barely perceptible light pink, to salmon, to a deep, rosy pink, and flavors can be dry or sweet.

Guessing the grape

Many Champagnes and sparkling wines will give you a clue to their contents in the name. Look for these French phrases on the label:

Champagne: This is made from a combination of all or some of the traditionally permitted grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Blanc de Blancs (“White of whites,” or white wine from white grapes): This is made from 100 percent white grapes. In the case of Champagne, it will be 100 percent Chardonnay. In regions outside of Champagne, any white grapes may be used, either as a pure varietal or a blend. These wines are typically lighter and more delicate than those incorporating red grapes.

Blanc de Noirs (“White of blacks”): This is wine made entirely of black grapes—either Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two. It will be heavier-bodied than a Blanc de Blancs or Champagne made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. After crushing the grapes, winemakers quickly remove skins from the clear, free-run juices, so little of the grapes’ color is imparted to the wine. Blanc de Noirs will range in color from golden yellow to salmon pink.

Rosé (sometimes Rosato on Italian sparklers, and Rosado on those from Spain): These wines are generally fuller-bodied, great for accompanying meals, and are either produced in a similar fashion to Blanc de Noirs, above, or by adding still red still wine to a sparkling white. Colors range from barely perceptible light pink, to salmon, to a deep, rosy pink, and flavors can be dry or sweet.

 

Serving sparkling wine

Most sparkling wine should always be served very cold, from 39 to 44 degrees. Champagne should be served slightly warmer, from 43 to 48 degrees, and special vintage Champagne from 46 to 51 degrees.

Don’t chill your bubbly in the freezer – that tends to kill the wine’s effervescence. For quick chilling, place the bottle in a mixture of ice and water for 15 to 20 minutes. Time permitting, lay the bottle down in the refrigerator for three to four hours.

Don’t chill your bubbly in the freezer – that tends to kill the wine’s effervescence.

How to open a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine? Very carefully! Don’t forget this wine is bottled under pressure of 90 pounds per square inch – three times greater than that of an automobile tire – so a misguided cork can cause real damage. Watching the cork explode from the bottle in a frenzy of froth and fizz punctuated by a loud “pop” is fine if you have just won the Super Bowl … but for most of us, it’s just a waste of good wine.

Begin by pointing the bottle neck away from your face and away from your guests. Remove the foil surrounding the wire cage. With one thumb firmly placed on top of the wire cap (yes, even at this early stage, caution is required), begin untwisting the wire, loosening the cage. Gently remove the wire and immediately replace your thumb on the exposed cork. Now place the rest of your hand firmly around the rest of the cork and twist gently, while counter-twisting the bottle gently with your other hand. The idea is to resist the pressure of the cork as it naturally pushes its way out of the bottle. Allow the cork to gently free itself from the bottle with a quiet sigh, leaving the bubbles and wine inside the bottle.

Use long-stemmed tulip glasses or flutes to minimize the wine surface area that comes in contact with the air. Wide-bowl glasses look great in old movies, but they tend to let the bubbles dissipate too quickly.

What goes with Champagne and sparkling wine?

Sparkling wine is as versatile at the table as it is varied in styles. Brut and Blanc de Blancs are appropriate as aperitifs, while Blanc de Noirs or Rosés pair well with full-flavored main courses and entrées. Sweeter styles may be served with dessert. Salty foods and foods fried in oil are particularly good matches for sparklers, as the wines’ acidity and effervescence provide a refreshing palate cleanser. We won’t argue if you agree that sparkling wine needs no particular meal or special occasion to be enjoyed.

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