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…
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
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
Freixenet Extra Dry Cava Sparkling Wine – This wine, instantly recognizable in the jet black bottle, is a product of
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")
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.