Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Champagne / Sparkling Wine, Part 1

Be careful not to put your foot in your mouth when discussing these wines.  A wine labeled as “Champagne” MUST come from the Champagne region of France.  The quickest way to show you are a novice is to refer to a sparkling wine from California as “Champagne.”  Unfortunately, this occurs quite often.  You may use the term, “Sparkling Wine,” when it comes from anywhere outside Champagne.
Located north of Burgundy, we can easily surmise that the climate of Champagne is a cool one.  The soil here is chalk, which helps reflect the sunlight to the grapes during the growing season.  Its natural conductive properties keep the vines warmer in winter and cooler in summer.  When drinking Champagne, if you pick up on a bit of chalkiness, know that it is a derivative of the soil and not a faulty wine.  
Champagne is made predominantly from one, or a combination, of three grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier or Pinot Noir.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir we already know as white and black, respectively; Pinot Meunier is also a black grape.  Within Champagne, there are five subregions with different specialties.  Cotes des Blanc uses Chardonnay, Montagne de Reims likes Pinot Noir, and Valley de la Maine (Epernay) uses Pinot Meunier.  The last two, Cotes des Sezanne and Cotes des Bar, use all three.
Sparkling wines made with white grapes are called Blanc de Blanc, which means “white of whites.  Those made with red (black) grapes are Blanc de Noir, or “white of blacks.”  Rose Champagnes or sparkling wines are made either by allowing the wine to sit on the skins a bit longer to extract some color ow by adding a small amount of red wine.  
When choosing a grape for sparkling wine production, high acid and low sugar are key.  To understand why, you need to know a few things about winemaking.  First, during fermentation sugar is converted to alcohol.  Therefore, low sugar equals low alcohol.  Second, alcohol kills yeast.  When the yeast is gone, fermentation stops.  Finally, sparkling wines go thru a second fermentation.  Yeast is necessary for this additional process.  As such, low alcohol ensures enough yeast is around to finish the job.
If the bottle is labeled as “Vintage,” this means that it contains only grapes picked during that particular year.  A “Non-Vintage” is going to consist of grapes of several different vintages.  In fact, it really should be dubbed “Multi-Vintage” to avoid confusion.  Since a wine will only be labeled “Vintage” if the weather conditions - and thus, the yield - of that particular year are exceptional, these wines are going cost more. 
Sparkling wines from areas outside Champagne may or may not have such strict regulations as to their required ingredients.  While you may very well find one or more of the three grapes present, you are also likely to find other local varieties.  To give you some examples, the Loire Valley will use Chenin Blanc.  Germany will use Riesling and/or Gewurtztraminer.  Sparkling wines of Italy will include Muscat, Brachetto or Glera (Prosecco); where Spain uses Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Australia is making sparkling wines with Shiraz and the United States likes to use the traditional grapes, but also may include Pinot Blanc.  
There are seven styles, or sweetness levels, of Champagne and sparkling wine.  They are as follows, starting with the most dry: Brut Nature (next to no sugar), Extra Brut (really dry), Brut (dry), Extra Dry (semidry), Sec (semisweet), Demi Sec (sweet), Doux (really sweet). Most of what you are going to see on the shelves will be Brut, Extra Dry and Demi Sec.
Before you start uncorking any new purchases, we should talk a little bit about the proper method of opening a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine.  The pent-up carbon dioxide inside can lead to some unfortunate accidents if you are not careful.  Make sure the wine is chilled well before you start and do not ever point the bottle at anyone or anything you don’t want broken.
To begin, place a kitchen towel or serving napkin next to the bottle.  Make sure the bottle has been well-chilled.  Then, remove the foil.  Fold the towel over the top of the bottle and, with your thumb on the top of the bottle, loosen the cage, but do not remove it.  With the top of the bottle in one hand, maintaining a firm grip on the cork, and the bottom of the bottle in the other, begin slowly turning the bottom of the bottle.  Never remove your thumb from the top and always point the bottle away from danger.  The pressure inside will push the cork out.  If you really want to open Champagne like a professional, practice until you can remove the cap with only a hiss, not a “Pop.”
Tasting Exercise
If you are not yet sure which sweetness level you prefer, choose one Brut or Extra Dry and one Sec or Demi Sec for this tasting exercise.  If you're already confident you like dry wines better, choose one each of the first two.  If your sweet tooth carries over to your choice of wine, try one each of the last two.  Note how they compare as you go along the sweetness scale.
On The Label
Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir
In The Bottle
Green fruit, stone fruit, mineral, chalk, bread, nut
At The Table
Aperitif, oysters, caviar, sushi, fried food, egg, fruit
Photo credits:
Foot in mouth -
How to open Champagne -

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