Monday, December 18, 2006

Ringing in the New Year -- Champagne & Sparkling Wine

As we close 2006, I figured we'd end the annum with the traditional New Year's drink. After all, what's New Year's Eve without a little bubbly…

Champagne is the region in France where this celebration-and-headache-inducing wine originated. "Champagne," in common parlance, has come to mean any sparkling wine. The only wines that are truly "champagnes" are from the French region, so when you hear "This champagne's not Korbel!" -- that statement is 100% accurate. Korbel is from Sonoma, California -- so the correct phraseology would be "This Korbel's not Champagne!" Most non-French producers now simply label their productions as "sparkling wine."

However, a useful related term to know is "Méthode champenoise." If a sparkling wine bears this designation, the bottle has been carbonated in the traditional style of the Champagne region. This process was discovered by a French monk by the name of (wait for it…) Dom Pérignon. This procedure is near and dear to my heart as a homebrewer -- as I bottle-condition homemade beer with practically the same process. Here's how it works:

After a wine has barrel-aged for what a winemaker deems a proper length of time, the wine is bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast and capped. The additional yeast and sugar causes fermentation -- but since the CO2 cannot escape, the bubbles are forced back into the wine, carbonating it. This step is where homebrewers stop, since we don't mind the lees (WineSpeak for "leftover dead yeast") in the bottle bottom. However, as most wine drinkers prefer a clear product, we proceed to step called "riddling" after the carbonation is complete and the wine has "rested on the lees" for an appropriate length of time (usually at least a year).

During riddling, the bottles are racked with the neck pointing downward about 45º. The yeast settles into the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned a quarter turn every day or more often and the downward angle is increased. After a month or two, we are ready for the removal of the yeast or "dégorgement." At this stage, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a sub-freezing liquid, and the settled yeast freezes into a plug. When the plug is fully formed, the cap is removed and the carbonation forces the plug from the bottle. The bottle is then quickly corked and "caged." You're ready to go.

There are, of course, less expensive methods of bottling, but méthode champenoise tends to create the best quality of carbonation (meaning the tiniest, longest lasting bubbles) and flavor. The carbonation also tends to force the alcohol into your bloodstream more quickly, causing the "quick drunk" of champagne, as well as the intensified potential hangover, so keep that in mind.

Sparkling wines can be made from just about any varietal of grape. Traditionally, they're either made from chardonnay ("blanc de blanc"), pinot noir ("blanc de noir"), or a blend of a number of other grapes.

One final important note when choosing a sparkling wine. There are three basic flavor profiles. They are, from driest to sweetest: Brut, Extra Dry, and Demi-Sec. Yes, you're reading that correctly -- Extra Dry is not as dry as Brut. There is also a fourth category, Doux, which is very sweet -- but I haven't seen much of that. My personal preferences tend to fall on the drier end of the spectrum, but your mileage may vary.

I would also be remiss in a sparkling wine column if I didn't include a quick note on opening these bloomin' bottles. While it's a great deal of fun to take the cage off, put both thumbs under the cork's ridge, and launch the cork off three walls or partygoer's noggins and drench yourself and everyone around you like you were Jim Edmonds in the Cardinals locker room a couple of months ago -- you're doing three problematic things. First, you're gonna put an eye out. Second, you're wasting the carbonation. Third, if you get a nice fountain of foam, you're WASTING WINE. Do. Not. Do. This.

Instead: get a towel, remove the cage from the cork, put the towel over the cork and grasp it firmly. Twist the cork gently and slowly back and forth. The cork will start to come loose. Ideally, you'll release the carbonation with a small pop or hiss instead of that loud POP. If you open the bottle like this -- not only are you protecting your guests, but the bottle often retains its carbonation for hours. If you don't finish the bottle that night, put a bottle stopper in and you'll have perfect mimosa makings.

Here are a couple of offerings as you do your party planning:

Gruet “Methode Champenoise” Brut Sparkling Wine – Gruet is a winery in New Mexico which produces very solid, inexpensive sparkling wine. As you can see, Gruet does traditional style carbonation. Since they produce such solid wine, I appreciate them taking the extra time to carbonate it properly. This wine is also the traditional blend of grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As with most Brut, this wine is very dry and crisp. A little grapefruit nose and green apple flavor. A very nice, sharp, bubbly wine for any occasion. (Many sparkling wines also come in half-bottles, which is a nice option if you're doing a tasting.) While most people think of these wines as either for a party or after a meal, dry sparkling wine goes very well with any number of foods. My wine mentor, Renee Koerner, clued me into a great secret about sparkling wines. Most countries produce wine to match their regional cuisine. French cuisine tends to be very fatty (the "French Paradox") -- so many of their wines go smashingly with fatty food. A great deal of American food, especially fast food, is fatty as well -- so drier, Champagne-style wines go extraordinarily well with french fries, fried chicken, potato chips, and other such bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good foods. A regular "we don't feel like cooking" meal around the Vine House is a pizza with a bottle of brut. Give it a try. You'll be amazed. $10-12 for a standard size (750 ml) bottle.

Freixenet Extra Dry Cava Sparkling Wine – This wine, instantly recognizable in the jet black bottle, is a product of Spain. Cava is this wine's native Spanish grape. As promised by the designation, you'll find this wine a little bit fruitier and “wetter” than the Brut. While they have similar flavors, I often like the little bit of sweetness to cut through the carbonation. Asian or Mexican food go great with extra dry, as does almost any pasta that isn't in a heavy tomato sauce. So do hard cheeses and nuts. As for the morning after, extra dry probably makes the best mimosas. Experiment! $8-10 for a standard bottle.

Mondoro Asti Spumante -- Asti Spumante is an Italian version of sparkling wine. Unlike the semi-dry prosecco from my Thanksgiving column, Astis tend to be sweeter -- much more of a "dessert" sparkler. ("Spumante" means that it's "fully sparkling") Asti is made from Muscat and the product tends to have a fresh, grapey taste. I wanted to try something other than Martini & Rossi, the ubiquitous makers of Asti, so I went with the Mondoro. An Asti -- or other demi-sec sparkling wine -- is an entirely different taste experience. This is a very fruity wine with a gentle pleasant sweetness and a little bit of raisin on the finish. Sweeter sparkling wines are best after a meal or with desserts. The Mondoro would go well with fruit or with dark chocolate. Dark chocolate dipped strawberries would be divine with this. $10-12 for a standard sized bottle.

So, have a happy New Year, everyone. I sincerely thank you all for making The Naked Vine a success. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by to read my musings and I hope you've picked up a little something here and there. Also, an anniversary wish to my sweet partner in crime. How you've put up with me for five years still astounds me. Peace and love to you and yours and I'll catch you after the ball drops.


JettieSatellite, The_Wizard of Covington said...

Thanks for this! I don't know shit about this variety...

The Naked Vine said...

As well, champagne would go well with those ramen noodles you live on, Wiz...

JenJen said...

Freixenet is good cheap bubbly... also check out Rotari Brut from Italy.

And... since I tend to open champagne for customers often, and I'm even more concerned about taking an eye out in public, I've always found that you should grip the cork firmly, and turn the bottle slowly. But I suppose your method works just as well. :-)