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Monday, Jan. 4, 2010

Ringing in the New Year—Champagne & Sparkling Wine

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As we close the decade, I figured we'd finish out with the traditional holiday drink. After all, what's a party without a little bubbly…

Champagne is the region in France where this celebration-and-headache-inducing wine originated. "Champagne," in common parlance, has come to mean just about any sparkling wine. The only wines that are truly "champagnes" are from that particular French region. If you remember the old "This champagne's not Korbel!" commercials—since Korbel is made in California, the correct phraseology would be "This Korbel's not Champagne!" Most non-French producers now simply label their productions as "sparkling wine."

However, a useful related term to know is "Méthode champenoise." If a sparkling wine bears this designation, the bottle has been carbonated in the traditional style of the Champagne region. This process was discovered by a French monk whose name was...wait for it…Dom Pérignon. Here's how it works:

After a wine has barrel-aged for what a winemaker deems to be a proper length of time, the wine is "dosed" with a little extra sugar and yeast and capped. The additional yeast and sugar causes fermentation—but since the CO2 cannot escape, the bubbles are forced back into the wine, carbonating it. As the yeast finishes its work and dies, the residue falls to the bottom of the bottle. However, since most wine drinkers prefer a clear product, we proceed to step called "riddling" after the carbonation is complete and the wine has rested for an appropriate length of time (usually at least a year).

During riddling, the bottles are racked with the neck pointing downward at about 45. The yeast settles into the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned a quarter turn every day and the downward angle is increased. After a month or two, it's time for the removal of the yeast or "dégorgement." At this stage, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a sub-freezing liquid, and the settled yeast freezes into a plug. When the plug is fully formed, the cap is removed and the carbonation forces the plug from the bottle. The bottle is then quickly corked and "caged" and is ready for your party. There are, of course, less expensive methods of bottling, but méthode champenoise tends to create the best quality of carbonation and flavor.

Traditionally, sparkling wines are either made from chardonnay ("blanc de blanc") or pinot noir ("blanc de noir") but they can be made from almost any varietal of grape.

There are three basic flavor profiles in sparkling wine. They are, from driest to sweetest: Brut, Extra Dry, and Demi-Sec. Yes, you're reading that correctly—Extra Dry is not as dry as Brut. There is also a fourth category, Doux, which is very sweet—but I haven't seen much of that.

I would also be remiss if I didn't include a quick note on opening these bloomin' bottles. While it's a great deal of fun to take the cage off, put both thumbs under the cork's ridge, and launch the cork off three walls or partygoer's noggins and drench yourself and everyone around you like you just won the World Series—you're doing three problematic things. First, you're probably gonna put an eye out. Second, you're wasting the carbonation. Third, if you get a nice fountain of foam, you're WASTING WINE. Do. Not. Do. This.

Instead: get a towel, remove the cage from the cork, put the towel over the cork and grasp firmly. Twist the bottle gently and slowly back and forth. The cork will start to come loose. Ideally, you'll release the carbonation with a small pop or hiss instead of that loud POP. If you open the bottle like this—not only are you protecting your guests, but the bottle retains its carbonation for hours. If you don't finish the bottle that night, put a bottle stopper in and you'll have perfect mimosa makings for the morning after. (Sparkling wine's carbonation forces alcohol into your bloodstream more quickly, causing the "quick drunk" of champagne, as well as the intensified potential hangover.)

Here are a couple of offerings as you do your party planning:

Gruet “Methode Champenoise” Brut Sparkling Wine – Gruet is a winery in New Mexico which produces very solid, inexpensive sparkling wine. This wine is also the traditional blend of grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As with most Brut, this wine is very dry and crisp. It's very nice, sharp, bubbly wine for any occasion. While most people think of these wines as either for a party or after a meal, dry sparkling wine goes very well with any number of foods. Most countries produce wine to match their regional cuisine. French cuisine tends to be very fatty (the "French Paradox")—so many of their wines go smashingly with fatty food. A great deal of American food, especially fast food, is fatty as well—so drier, Champagne-style wines go extraordinarily well with french fries, fried chicken, potato chips, and so on. A regular "we don't feel like cooking" meal around the Vine House is pizza with a bottle of brut. Give it a try. $10-12.

Freixenet Extra Dry Cava Sparkling Wine – This wine, instantly recognizable in its jet black bottle, is a product of Spain. "Cava" is the native Spanish grape. As promised by the designation, you'll find this wine a little bit fruitier and “wetter” than Brut. While they have similar flavors, I often like a little bit of sweetness to cut through the carbonation. Asian or Mexican food goes great with extra dry, as does almost any pasta that isn't in a heavy tomato sauce. So do hard cheeses and nuts. As for the morning after, extra dry probably makes the best mimosas. Experiment! $10-12.

Mondoro Asti Spumante – Asti Spumante is an Italian version of sparkling wine. Astis tend to be sweeter—much more of a "dessert" sparkler. ("Spumante" means that it's "fully sparkling") Asti is made from Muscat and the product tends to have a fresh, grapey taste. An Asti—or other demi-sec sparkling wine—is an entirely different taste experience. This is a very fruity wine with a gentle pleasant sweetness and a little bit of raisin on the finish. Sweeter sparkling wines are best after a meal or with desserts. The Mondoro would go well with fruit or with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate dipped strawberries would be divine with this. $11-14.