I love things that sparkle. I love jewels and glitter and the stars in the sky. Most of all, I love the sensation of a bubbly beverage that tickles my senses. They are refreshing and fun. Sparkling wines or bubbles…as they are so affectionately called…are the epitome of fortune and success. Clinking flutes full of tiny bubbles seems to be ever-present at celebrations of all kinds. However, this doesn’t mean we must wait for a celebration to enjoy sparkling wine. Anytime we drink bubbles, it’s a celebration in itself. To quote Madame Bollinger, who reigned over the famed Champagne house of the same name, “I drink it when I’m happy. I drink it when I’m sad. I drink it when I’m alone. I consider it obligatory when I have company. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty”. Though many think of these wines as one big category, let’s take some time to consider all the different styles in which sparkling wines can be made.
All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Champagne is a wine growing region in France and as with most old world wines, the name of the region is also the name of the wine. Champagne being such a highly regarded and coveted product, many other winemaking regions have tried to attach the name Champagne to their sparkling wines. However, the winemakers of champagne have fought hard to protect the name “Champagne” and there are several lawsuits to prove it. There has been a great deal of effort spent towards making “Champagne” a trademarked name. There are a few Californian wines that carry the name “Champagne”, but since 2002, we have agreed with the EU to consider the name a French regional brand. What makes Champagne so special comes from the chalky soils, cool climate and its fermentation process. Champagne goes through a second fermentation in the bottle known as Méthode Champenoise. The bubbles that are in the bottle are the result of carbon dioxide being created from the yeast eating the sugar. This makes for very small and tight bubbles, a sign of quality in sparkling wines. This process also creates the lovely bread-like notes found in Champagne. Many other sparkling wines around the world are made in this style and “traditional method” is usually noted on the label.
Another way sparkling wine is made is to go through the fermentation process in a large tank under pressure. Unlike still wine, the carbon dioxide is not able to escape this tank and the wine is bottled with its bubbles intact. The least desirable way to make sparkling wine is an injection method like you would see in soda production. These wines are what terrible hangovers are made of.
Many regions around the rest of the world and even the rest of France make wonderful sparkling wines that are NOT considered “Champagne”. In France, sparkling wine will be called a Crémant of the region. Crémant de Bourgogne and Crémant de Loire make lovely sparkling rosés from Pinot Noir. Italy has its fresh and easy drinking Prosecco, sweet and fruity Moscato d’Asti, and a lovely bottle-fermented sparkling made from grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir called Franciacorta just to name a few. Spain is also known for their Cavas—a sparkling wine likewise always made in the Traditional Method. Lastly but certainly not least, the United States makes wonderful sparkling wines. Many of the famous Champagne houses of France have sparkling wine facilities in California. Louis Roederer, producer of the famed Cristal, has Roederer Estates. Möet and Chandon, known for their Dom Pérignon, is the proprietor of Domaine Chandon. Believe or not, even New Mexico is home to transplanted Champagne makers with Gruet. Their sparkling wines are made in the style of Champagne as well. The cool climate of the New Mexican Mountains makes for great sparkling wines.
This is just a small peek into the wonderful world of sparkling wines. In my opinion any day is a good to celebrate. So pop a cork and fill your glass. Let’s toast to this wonderfully sparkling, bubbly beverage.
– Nikki Bowes, Sommelier at the Forum at The Greenbrier Resort. HashtagWV May 2017.