Bubble Rapt: The basics of sparkling wine + some bargains

bubblyI consider the holidays the time to gorge, slurp and wallow in absurd decadence. Bring on the mayo-laden spinach dip, the gurgling, fatty eggnog and the sugar-encrusted Santa cookies – ‘tis the season to throw calories to the hips and enjoy friends, food and, of course, drink. Self-indulgence is quite possibly the most righteous gift we can give ourselves – and what evinces hedonism more than a glass of bubbly? Yes, this time of year, the corks fly and blurred visions of hangovers dance in our heads, but at least festivity makes the hangover worth enduring. And with higher acidity and discreet fruit, effervescent wine pairs nicely with many a motley buffet. Here are a few tips about sparkling wines to make the experience, but unfortunately not the ache, easier.

“Cava,” “Prosecco,” “Crémant,” Frizzante,” “Sekt” and “Spumante” are all words for sparkling wine, but from different wine regions. Just like Kimberly Clark owns Kleenex, the French own the “Champagne” brand, so to play in this fizzy sandbox, the other kids had to claim their own name. The majority follow a similar, pricey process in birthing bubbles called Méthode Champenoise. This age-old technique involves filling a bottle with regular wine, adding yeast and sugar, then sealing it to induce carbon dioxide production (a byproduct of fermentation). By law, all French Champagnes and Spanish Cava are required to use this expensive, time-consuming system. Another, less costly approach, called “charmat”, or tank method, involves adding yeast and sugar to a vat of wine and covering it tightly, thus mimicking the traditional environment for the second fermentation. It’s less sexy but most Italian Proseccos are produced in this fashion, so it’s got some class.

Take a look at the bubbles next time you pour a glass of bubbly. Méthode Champenoise produces tinier bubbles, whereas charmat’s bubbles will be larger and feel less fizzy on the tongue. But there is an easier way to know the difference before you buy – most wineries flaunt their extra effort by labeling the bottle “Méthode Champenoise” or “Fermented in the Bottle”. Keep in mind, however, both modes can produce excellent results.

That said, there’s plenty of sparkly plonk out there, so shop carefully. A vintage-dated bottle is not necessarily better than non-vintage. If you see no date on the bottle, it simply means the winemaker blended wines from two or more years to produce an often more complex product.

But wait, there’s more confusing stuff on the label. “Brut” means the wine tastes dry. If you see a bottle labeled “Extra Dry,” it’s not drier – it’s slightly sweeter than a brut. Go figure. “Blanc de Blancs” indicates the wine was made from only white grapes, normally chardonnay and will generally be crisper and toastier. And “Blanc de Noirs” is the opposite – it’s produced from only red grapes, generally pinot noir and pinot meunier, and has an earthier smack.

The best way to chill a bottle is to place it in a bucket or sink with half ice, half water and a handful of salt for about 20 minutes. Of course, this means you didn’t plan ahead and put it in the fridge for a few hours – the easiest route to the cold stuff. Drink bubbly nippy – 43 degrees to 48 degrees Fahrenheit.

One final note. Not only does sparkling wine’s freshness perish faster than other wines, it tastes better younger. Sure, some vintage-dated bottles definitely improve with age (and change flavor), but most non-vintage bottles are meant to be consumed within the first two years after release. So pop that non-vintage number you’ve been saving since your trip to Napa  five years ago.

Sip It
I tried a ton of great, affordable sparkling wines and even Champagnes this season. Great bargains to be had by all.

Segura Viudas Aria Brut (Spain) Sw=1, $11.
Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut (Washington State) Sw=1, $12.
Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blancs
(Washington State) Sw=1. $12.
Cantine Maschio Prosecco (Italy) Sw=2. $12.
Henkell Trocken Sekt (Germany) Sw=2. $13.
Zonin Prosecco
(Italy) Sw=1. $15.
Mumm Napa Brut Prestige (California) Sw=1. $15.
Roederer Estate Brut (California) Sw=1. $20.
Sofia 2008 Blanc de Blancs (California) Sw=2. $20.
Domaine Carneros 2005 (California) Sw=1. $24.
Biltmore Estate Brut (North Carolina) Sw=2. $26.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier
(France) Sw=2. $37.
Laurent Perrier Brut (France) Sw=1. $35
Schramsberg 2006 Brut Blanc de Noirs (California) Sw=1. $40

I also tried the replacement wine for Moët et Chandon’s White Star: Moët et Chandon Imperial. Good stuff, but for $40, I’d rather drink Napa’s Schramsberg.

More recommendations

Sweetness = 1 to 10, 10 being really sweet.

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3 comments to Bubble Rapt: The basics of sparkling wine + some bargains

  • Brian

    Hello Taylor, I really enjoy your writing style…a little light-hearted and humorous, but not overly so.

    I was happy to see the Domaine Ste. Michelle here. I used to buy their sparkling wine pretty often and I always thought it was a good value for the money. I used to but the extra dry (yes, horrors). I would probably get kicked out of France for admitting that if anyone found out. But truthfully, I think the extra dry is not overly sweet (it’s still comparatively dry), but for many people, bruts can be too dry (especially for novices).

    Nice to see some proseccos too. I’ve always found proseccos to be a good value – and just plain fun to drink! Maybe because they’re cheaper than champagne?

    I assume that Moët & Chandon are still producing their methode champenoise in California too? I actually thought that was fairly decent stuff – and a good bit cheaper than White Star.

  • I can’t tell you how I appreciate this. I am a red wine person, but I am in charge of buying the bubbly this year, so now I might even look smart! I’ll just quote this article and pretend I know what I am talking about.

  • Ronni

    Hi Taylor! I really liked this article and definitely appreciate the advice. I never knew my way around a champagne bottle before, but this helps.

    Happy New Year,
    Ronni

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