Bubbly Holiday Spirits
A Short Course and Selective Guide to Sparkling Wines
Most of us associate sparkling wines with festive occasions: weddings, romantic evenings and the traditional New Year’s toast. It’s December, and New Year’s Eve is just around the corner, so here’s a short primer on Champagne and other sparkling wines.
Most wine-making regions produce sparkling wine from a wide variety of grapes. Champagne is a region in France, and technically only sparkling wines from there should be called by that name. In other parts of France, it’s Crémant or Blanquette; in Italy it’s Spumante; in Spain, Cava; in Germany, Sekt; and in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and other wine-making areas, it’s simply “sparkling wine.”
There are three methods of making sparkling wines: méthode champenoise, the transfer method and méthode charmat.
Méthode champenoise is the most complicated and most expensive, involving two separate fermentations, first in tank, and then in bottle. It starts with fermentation in large tanks, with the wine later siphoned off and (for non-vintage sparkling wines) blended with wine from previous vintages in order to make a consistent house style or cuvée. The wine is bottled with some sugar and yeast to start a second fermentation.
This secondary fermentation also produces sediment, so bottles are stored neck down and turned a bit every day to encourage the sediment to settle at the neck. This is called riddling. After several weeks, the vintner uncaps the bottle, and the pressure of the CO2 forces the sediment out of the bottle. Since the bottle is no longer full, some wine and sugar are added to fill up the bottle. This is called dosage. The amount of dosage added will make the wine extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry, demi-sec or doux, depending upon sugar levels. The bottle is then re-corked with a wire cage closure to prevent accidental opening.
The transfer method is the same as méthode champenoise up to the point of secondary fermentation. That fermentation takes place in special fermentation bottles that are later emptied under pressure, with the wine then filtered and poured into a new set of bottles, thus eliminating the expensive and time-consuming riddling, disgorgement and dosage processes.
Méthode charmat is the quickest and accounts for most of the sparkling wine in the world. Charmat wines are made in a pressurized tank for secondary fermentation, with filtering and bottling also done under pressure. This is the least expensive of the three, and can take as little as 90 days from first fermentation to bottling.
Generally speaking, sparkling wines have higher acidity, lower alcohol and more delicate flavor than their still counterparts. They just seem more fun and festive to drink than a regular table wine, and they match wonderfully with many foods. Indeed, pairing food with sparkling wines is easy. Caviar, oysters and other shellfish are classic matches, but you’ll find that white sparkling wines go well with just about anything in a creamy sauce and all sorts of vegetables, breads and cheeses. Rosé and red sparklers also do well with fish and white meats, fruit desserts and even some of the darker meats; grilled beef, tuna, swordfish and barbecue are outstanding with any sort of red bubbly. Sweet sparklers are best alone or with fruit desserts.
You can find sparkling wines at every price point—from the $10 range all the way up to $200-plus per bottle. Here are some of my favorites, available at several Island and off-Island shops, bars and restaurants.
Cristallino Rosé Cava ($10–$13): This pink Spanish wine is inexpensive, looks great in a glass and goes well with all sorts of hors d’oeuvres, from tapas to creamy cheeses.
Baumard Carte Tourquoise ($17–$20): From France’s Loire Valley, this crisp and clean methode champenoise blend of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc is just the ticket for a Christmas Eve seafood buffet, New Year’s Eve toasts or just hanging out in front of the fire with a loved one.
Zardetto Prosecco ($16–$18): From the Veneto in northeastern Italy, prosecco is both the name of the wine and the name of the grape. Frothy, light and with a touch of creamy sweetness at the finish, this is a delightful pairing with shellfish.
Agrapart 7 Crus Blanc de Blancs ($38–$45): Made from 100 percent Chardonnay, this grower Champagne is crisp and yeasty, made richer from barrel fermentation and extended lees (residual yeast) contact.
Roederer Anderson Valley Estate Brut ($19–$23): Locally grown and made in Mendocino County by Champagne producer Louis Roederer, this is a world-class wine at half the price of its French cousins.
Barbolini Dry Lambrusco ($15–$18): Not to be confused with the treacly stuff of the 1970s, this sparkling red wine is a perfect accompaniment to salume and charcuterie.
Heidrun Sparkling Dry Mead ($16–$18): Made from Humboldt County wildflowers, this Champagne-method sparkling raw honey is sweeter than the other wines on this list and is quite refreshing.
—By Jeff Diamond