It’s that time of year again when restaurants and wine stores see an uptick in their sales of sparkling wine and for good reason as well, since it has become the most festive style of wine worldwide. That is, for the last several centuries at least, since the origins of sparkling wine go back to southern France in the 1530’s and Dom Perignon famously put the Champagne region on the map in the late 1600’s. By the 1800’s, even Napoleon himself famously exclaimed “I drink champagne when I win to celebrate and I drink champagne when I lose to console myself…” Still there is much more to the world of sparkling wine outside of Champagne, though this has admittedly become the standard-bearer by which all sparkling wines are judged. The thing about Champagne is that it often comes with a hefty price tag, hence its association as a “special occasion” wine. And while a nice bottle of Champagne will certainly help elevate your celebration, it is worth noting that there are a plethora of sparkling wines that are also deserving of consideration around your holiday table.
First however, let’s consider Champagne and why it is considered by many to be at the top of the “beverage”-chain when it comes to sparkling wines. And first, let’s specify that Champagne is literally a sparkling wine from the Champagne region of northeastern France made using a very particular method of winemaking. So, using the word “Champagne” as a generic term referring to ALL sparkling wines is rather like calling all tissues “kleenex”. Beyond being from a certain place, Champagne is very much defined by HOW it is made as well…a method referred to as “Methode Champenoise”, or the Champagne Method. Basically a low-alcohol wine (11%-ish) is fermented from grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier and put in barrel. The wine is dry and still and, at this point, has NO bubbles in it whatsoever. After a specified period in barrel, the wine is actually bottled, but the process is not complete. Instead, a small amount of wine, sugar and yeast is put into the bottle as well and then it is capped and left to sit in the cellar for an extended period of time, during which a “second” fermentation begins anew. However, this time the CO2 that is produced as a by-product of the fermentation process is not allowed to escape, but is instead trapped inside the bottle, where it becomes dissolved in the wine. Viola! Sparkling wine! After what might be several years in fact in the cellar, the caps on the bottles are blown off releasing the dead yeast cells, the wine is topped off and then corked. As a result, Champagne is usually a hearty sparkling wine with some body, creaminess and toasty notes. And because of the time and effort that goes into this production, it is usually expensive.
Now, you can have wines from other parts of the world that may not be “Champagne” but even so still use this same method and do a heck of a job producing a similar wine, sometimes at a lesser price too! In California, for instance, look for sparkling wines that use the term “Traditional Method”, such as Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg or Domaine Chandon. In some cases these are even wineries that were started by Champagne houses that came over to essentially expand their operations, so the same pedigree is often there. In other parts of Europe even, you will see the term “Methode Classique” for instance, and this signifies the same production method and often very high quality. Spanish Cava and Italian Franciacorta are both examples of excellent wines in this style. Look to South Africa as well, which has become very well-regarded for its “Methode Cap Classique” often using Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc.
Still, others may desire a sparkling wine that is lighter and fruitier and perhaps sweet, and thus we have seen a surge in wines like Prosecco and Moscato from Italy. A wine such as Prosecco uses different grapes, which give it a fruit-forward appeal, but it is also made using a very different method as well….the so-called “Tank Method”. Here again, a low-alcohol wine is fermented to dryness in a tank, but then the wine is combined with additional sugar and yeast in another tank that is sealed thus trapping the CO2 that is produced by the second fermentation inside the tank. This wine is a lighter, fresher and fruitier product that has become very popular as a result. Moscato is made in a similar fashion, but the tank is simply sealed towards the end of the primary fermentation, thus trapping the remaining CO2 that is produced with the sugar that’s already in the juice. Then the wine is filtered, removing the yeast, before it has consumed all the sugar from the grapes. Moscato as a result is usually lightly sparkling, fruity and medium-sweet.
Whatever you preference is for sparkling wine for the holidays….or other bubbly beverages such as beer!….just make sure to toast in the New Year with a sparkler you’ll love and do so with friends and family because that is what really makes it taste so good. Happy Holidays and have a great New Year!
– Brian McClure. Beverage director at the Greenbrier Resort. Hashtag #84, December 2016.