A Guide To Champagne And Sparkling Wine: Choosing A Bottle For New Year's
All around the world people will be celebrating the new year that most likely includes a glass of bubbly. Sparkling wine has the great ability to pair with almost any food and any event, including birthdays, weddings, and holidays. If you're looking for a bottle this holiday season, it might be natural to reach for Champagne -- but keep reading to learn about all the other amazing options you should also consider.
How It's Made
The wine grapes most commonly used in the production of sparkling wine are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Pinot Meunier. If the particular sparkling wine is made from all white grapes, the label will read "blanc de blancs," and if it's made from Pinot Noir, it is labeled "blanc de noirs." Almost all sparkling wine is nonvintage (meaning the wine is not labeled with a year, e.g. 2011), where multiple vintages are blended together to form a house style wine. To create wine that sparkles, a second fermentation takes place in the bottle triggered by the addition of yeast and sugar. The bottles then go through the process of riddling, where the bottles are periodically turned, and disgorgement, where the dead yeast cells are expelled before the bottles are topped off in what is called dosage. This is the traditional method called "méthode champenoise." You are left with a bottle of sparkling wine.
The term "sparkling wine" denotes all wines that have bubbles, but not all sparkling wine can be called Champagne. Only sparkling wine that is made in the Champagne region of France can have that name. For those who prefer the so-called real thing, go with an authentic Champagne from Champagne, France. You'll most commonly see the term "brut" on Champagne labels, which means the wine contains less than 15 grams of sugar per liter. Other common terms include extra brut, which is slightly drier than brut; brut zéro, which is the driest; extra dry, which is between sweet and dry; and sec or demi-sec, which is sweet and semi-sweet respectively. Real Champagnes can range in price upwards of $40 for a basic nonvintage.
American Sparkling Wine
More and more Champagne houses from France are opening vineyards in California. Roederer Estate (by Champagne Louis Roederer), Domaine Chandon (by Moët & Chandon), and Domaine Carneros (by Taittinger) are just a few of the French producers in California. You might even call these sparkling wines American Champagne, a name that many American sparkling-wine producers are allowed to use.
Sparkling wines that are made outside of the Champagne region in France but produced using the méthode champenoise are called Crémant. (Sparkling wines made in France that don't adhere to the traditional method are termed "Mousseux," which just means sparkling.) Some of the regions that specialize in Crémant include Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Limoux. Brut rosé is a wonderful specimen of crémant -- it has a beautiful coral color, berry aromas, and a dry finish. Rosé is created by allowing the dark skins of the Pinot Noir grape to come in contact with the juice for a short period of time after pressing. Crémant sparkling wines are much more affordable than Champagnes, offering the same consistent quality simply with another name.
The Spanish name for sparkling wine is cava, grown in areas around Spain but mainly in the Penedès region in Catalonia. Originally called Xampany before the European Union ruled that only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France could be called Champagne, Spanish sparkling wine was rebranded cava after the tradition of storing the wine in caves. Cava wines are made using the traditional method and offer the same experience as Champagne. Cava is also available in rosé. If you're looking for a sparkling wine that has bang for your buck, choose cava, which is very affordable.
Italian sparkling wines include Asti, made from the Moscato Bianco grape in the Piedmont region and Prosecco, made from the grape of the same name in the Veneto region. Prosecco is made using the Charmat method, which is like the Champagne method, except that the second fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats. Prosecco was popularized by Harry Cipriani of Harry's Bar in Venice, where the Bellini cocktail was created using the sparkling wine and white-peach purée. Prosecco is more often dry than sweet and is either fully sparkling (spumante) or semi-sparkling (frizzante). You can find a good Prosecco for around $10.
You may assume that sparkling wines are only available in white, but, as mentioned above they can be rosé, or even red. Australia produces a wonderful sparkling red wine made from Shiraz (a.k.a. Syrah) grapes. You'll also find sparkling Malbec in Argentina and Lambrusco and Brachetto in Italy.
There's a wide variety of sparkling wines to fit everyone's taste and budget. Don't be afraid to spend some time browsing your local wine shop to see what's available. And if you can't make up your mind, the salespersons are there to help with suggestions. So no matter which sparkling wine you choose, you're bound to get one that you'll enjoy with family and friends on New Year's.
* Portions of this story have previously appeared on The Gastronomer's Guide.