Champagne, sparkling wine, bubbles, spumante- whatever you call it these effervescent wines are a special part of our society. We mark life’s most memorable moments with a clink of the glass and best wishes for the future. Weddings, birthdays, graduations and new adventures all call for a celebratory glass of bubbly. Or some of us simply celebrate Tuesday night dinner. It’s the little things in life, right?
But sparkling wine can be a bit of a mystery. How do they get those bubbles in the bottle? Where does the best bubbly come from? How do I know if it’s real Champagne or not? Let us cast the veil aside and uncork (sorry) the secrets of sparkling wine.
First thing is first. Repeat after me: IT IS NOT CHAMPAGNE UNLESS IT COMES FROM CHAMPAGNE, FRANCE. Maybe repeat it one more time, just to be sure. Nothing shows lack of wine knowledge as quickly as calling Cooks sparkling wine “Champagne”. This is like calling Myrtle Beach, South Carolina the equivalent of Paris, France. Or like saying a McDonald’s hamburger is the same as a prime piece of Kobe beef. See where I’m going with this?
While both Cooks and Champagne have their place in the world, comparing them as the same is doing Champagne a great injustice. Champagne is where it all began. This is the part of the world where, hundreds of years ago, winemakers learned how to intentionally produce sparkling wine. The wineries of Champagne were the first to perfect the process- no small feat.
We know other regions in France make sparkling wine, so what should we call wine from regions outside of Champagne? Crémant (“cray-mont”) is the word you’re looking for here! Look for Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne or Crémant de Alsace as a few examples. What is great about these wines is that they can be made from a wide range of grape varietals so each region is unique and there is great diversity even within France.
But let’s go back to the beginning so we can fully understand how fizzy wine came to be. Bubbles in wine have been observed since around 300AD in ancient Greece. However, at the time this phenomenon was attributed to lunar influence or evil spirits. It wasn’t until the 1500’s that sparkling wine was produced intentionally.
Although the legend of Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon creating sparkling wine in the late 1600’s and declaring “come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” is a lovely, romantic story it also unfortunately is not true. The reality is that intentionally creating sparkling wine was a trial and error process over hundreds of years. If anything, bubbles in wine were more commonly viewed as a flaw and it was quite some time before we would come to view Champagne with the reverence and awe of today.
So how do they get those bubbles into the wine anyway? There are several methods, but the most iconic method that produces the highest quality bubbly is the Champagne Method, or Méthode Champenoise (“Meth-ode Shahmp-en-waa”). This process was developed and refined in Champagne, but can be used anywhere in the world. It is also the most demanding, expensive way to produce sparkling wine. The gist is that the wine goes through two fermentations; one to take it from grape juice to still wine and another to take it from still wine to sparkling wine.
To put it another way, this method is the equivalent of making a gourmet meal from scratch versus reheating food from the pre-made section of Whole Foods. Or Kim Kardashian after going through her doubtless intense morning makeup routine. It takes a lot of work is what I’m getting at.
Méthode Champenoise begins by bottling still wine and adding a small amount of yeast and sugar before closing it with a cap. Yeast loves to eat sugar more than a stoner on April 20th, so soon enough all of the extra sugar is consumed by the yeast. The yeast then produces carbon dioxide (bubbles!) and alcohol. When there is no more sugar to gorge on, the yeast dies during a process called autolysis. The wine is then aged for a period of time determined either by the wine laws of the region, or by winemaker prerogative.
The wine must then have the sediment from the dead yeast cells removed through a process called Riddling. The bottles are placed on an A-frame rack called a pupitre and each day are turned one quarter until the sediment consolidates in the neck of the bottle. Imagine it is your job to take thousands of bottles through the riddling process each and every day! Luckily, with modern technology we have a machine called a gyropalette that does this for us. Otherwise, the threat of a carpal tunnel epidemic among winemakers would be real.
The wine is then disgorged by popping the cap and letting the sediment plug shoot out. Of course, a small amount of liquid is lost in that process so it is replaced with a small amount of wine and sugar (dosage) before being corked, wired and labeled. Then, voila! The wine is ready to hang out in a cellar until the winemaker determines it is ready to drink.
So if you see Champagne Method or Méthode Champenoise on a wine label you can expect tiny, persistent bubbles with a nice mousse (the foam that appears after the wine has been poured).
There are other, less complex, ways to get bubbles in wine. The Charmat or Tank Method has the wine undergoing its second fermentation in a large tank. The sparkling produced using this method is less bubbly. Prosecco is a good example of this method. Remember this the next time you’re on your 3rd bottle at brunch with your girlfriends- you will be sure to impress them with your random wine factoids!
The most budget-conscious wineries will simply inject carbon dioxide directly into the bottle like a more fun SodaStream. This is generally the lowest quality of the sparkling wines.
And perhaps you have also heard whisperings of Pét Nat, which is very popular these days among wine geeks. Pét Nat, or Pétillant Naturel is sparkling wine that is bottled before the first fermentation is complete. So unlike the Champagne Method, it only undergoes one fermentation. This method is actually the most old-school way of making sparkling wine, having been around since before Champagne was established in its current glory. Pét Nat wines are great for their easy drinking, low alcohol, no-muss-no-fuss personalities.
So where does the best bubbly come from? Champagne will always be the King of sparkling wine like Meryl Streep can easily be called the Queen of Hollywood. The woman is classic, iconic & elegant, just like the finest Champagne.
High quality sparkling can be found in any country where wine is made and new regions continue to emerge. Even Britain in recent years has made global news with its sparkling wine. The Queen even has her own wine!
So what do you pair with sparkling wine? Well, that depends on the wine. If we are talking Champagne one of my personal favorite pairings is a fuller bodied Champagne like Saint Chamant’s Millésime Blanc de Blancs enjoyed with fried chicken and waffles. But one of the best dessert pairings I’ve had was Henriot NV Brut Rosé with fresh strawberries and cream.
Champagne has a myriad of styles, but as a general rule pairs well with almost anything. The bubbles act as a palate cleanser, making it good to enjoy as a apéritif or as a fun way to end the meal. The bubbles also help sparkling wine stand up to richer foods like foie gras, dark chocolate cake, hearty cheeses and even steak. Think outside the box when it comes to pairing food with Champagne- you might be surprised at how well they work together! There are plenty of fun, delicious ways to experiment with pairing.
Prosecco can be enjoyed on its own, or as is popular these days with a splash of orange juice over brunch. If you have a drier style of Prosecco go with prosciutto, quiche, asparagus, sushi or mild cheeses. For sweeter styles look for sponge cakes, macarons, fruit salad, parfaits or even popcorn for a sweet & salty combo.
I’ve focused mainly on Champagne and Prosecco but I urge you explore sparkling from all over the world. There is some beautiful wine coming from the US, Spain gives us lovely Cava, there is the lightly sparkling red Lambrusco from Italy and even Tasmania makes some delicious bubbly!
Also, don’t be afraid to enjoy some bubbly even when you aren’t celebrating something! With a wide variety of styles, price points and pairing options, there is no reason not to enjoy a glass or two any time- even with your Tuesday night dinner.
Courtesy of Sommelier and Guest Blogger, Meghan Vandette