The holiday countdown has begun and that usually means folks are beginning to think about what to eat and drink on festive occasions. Year-end musings also mean it's time for the annual treatise on Champagne, sparkling wine, bubbles, or whatever name suits your fancy.
I'm not sure of how many articles I've written on the enjoyment of sparkling wine, but it's probably been hundreds. One thing I always make sure to include in these articles is to mention the folks who put the bubbles in wine. Throughout the year, they faithfully remind us that bubbly is not just a wine for celebration, but a pleasure to be enjoyed year round.
Well, when I think of opening one of my dwindling number of sparkling wines, it's usually to toast a holiday or celebrate a special milestone of a friend or loved one or to toast a holiday, like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years...or even Boxing Day.
Holidays are, after all, about tradition and Champagne is the traditional choice of a wide range of wines with bubbles.
Most of the best bubbly from France is made by the traditional methode champenoise or classic method. And the classic method is universal when making top-end sparkling wine. Winemakers around the world accept the French right to use the word Champagne; the Spanish call their sparkling wine Cava and the South Africans use Cap Classique.
All references in this overview will be sparkling wine unless, or course, I mention Champagne.
Tom Stevenson, the British Master of Wine, is a Champagne and sparkling wine specialist who also is author of the "World Encyclopedia of Champagne sparkling wine," generally thought to be the best reference on the subject in the English language.
The use of the name Champagne has been controversial for years, with Champagne producers being very protective of the name and others claiming the name Champagne has become generic, like aspirin. In Stevenson's book, there's a short sidebar in the section on California sparkling wine where he accuses the champenois for being hard-headed and then scolds them for their rigid position on the use of the name Champagne.
Stevenson recalls Jack Davies, owner of Schramsberg, in the Napa Valley, offering to swap the name "Champagne" for "Champagne style" on all Schramsberg labels and the champenois flatly refused. Stevenson then offers this bit of irony: " they abuse their own appellation in South America, where companies such as Moet, Mumm and Piper sell domestic fizz as Champana (the Spanish for Champagne)."
I sampled Moet & Chandon's Argentina Champana, in Buena Aires and thought it not as good as Moet's sparkling wines in the Napa Valley and Australia's Yarra Valley, where the name Champagne is not miss used. The Moet rep in BA didn't see (or wouldn't admit to) the irony.
What's so special about the classic method? You can get bubbles in wine a lot faster and cheaper using Charmat or tank method. Use of the classic method, however, requires hundreds of manual steps, from base wine to driving home the mushroom cork.
Methode champenois means that each bottle is an individual fermenter. Bottles are filled with a base wine, a small amount of yeast is added, the bottles are sealed with a crown cap (think soda bottles) and left to ferment and slowly develop the pin-point bubbles, that foam and effervesce when the wine is poured.
There's much more to the process and you can find plenty of information on Champagne and sparkling wines in the introductory sections of Stevenson's book, or any of the many other books that have been written on Champagne and other sparkling wine.
Sparkling wines made by the classic method, of course, are not limited to Champagne. Production of traditional method California sparkling wine was more or less static until the early seventies. In
1973, the Champagne house of Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley,
followed soon by Domaine Carneros by Taittinger and Mumm, Roederer in Mendocino and J in Sonoma.
Before the French invasion, Schramsberg and Kornell in Napa, and Korbel in neighboring Sonoma County, dominated the market for classic method sparklers. Today, California's best bubblies are getting better and more refined with every vintage.
Elsewhere, Spain's Cava is made using the traditional method and despite the huge
quantities coming out of Penedes, such producers as Codorniu, Freixenet,
Juve y Camps, Segura Viudas, Castellblanch, consistently maintain high
quality. Another good bet are Australian sparkling wines, like Chandon's Green Point from Victoria.
Enjoying Sparkling Wine
The best way to open a bottle of fizz is to ease out the cork with a quiet release of pressure, more a light snap than a loud pop, accompanied by a faint cloud of effervescence that quickly disappears. Shaking the bottle, shooting the cork out with a loud bang and an exploding fountain of wine, is best left to the celebration at a Formula One race win.
Surprisingly, salty foods are good matches with sparkling wine. Mixed salted nuts, popcorn or even unflavored chips are nice when bubbly is served as an appetizer wine. Savory dishes, like lightly salted ham, work best with sparkling wines and the main course. For mains that lean more to sweet (including dessert) then savory, try sparkling wines marked Sec, Demi-Sec or Doux.
A final word on the sweetness of Champagne: The most common style is Brut, finished at about 1.2% residual sweetness, just enough to balance out the acidity. Sec is medium dry with a maximum sweetness of 3.5%, Demi-Sec maxes out at 5% and the rarely seen Doux is 5% or higher...enough to make your teeth ache.
Have a vinous holiday.
Next blog: Cape Winelands
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