Wine 301: Making Your Holiday Sparkle
by Tony Aspler
More sparkling wine is sold in December than the rest of the year combined – which means we still think of wine with bubbles as the drink of celebration. When was the last time you toasted in the New Year with a still wine? But the real question is: what should you choose when it comes to quality and value?
First, you have to acknowledge that all that sparkles is not champagne. To be called champagne the wine can come only from the Champagne region of France. Even other sparklers made in, say, Burgundy of the Loire Valley, can’t use the term ‘champagne’ on their labels.
Champenois producers doggedly defend their appellation by suing anyone who uses the term ‘champagne’ or even ‘champagne method’ on their bottles. Which is why the Spanish call their bubblies made by the same process, Cava, the Germans, Sekt, and the Italians, Spumante. Other English-speaking producers will use terms like Traditional Method or Classical Method. The South Africans, incidentally, call their bubblies made by the champagne method, Cap Classique.
And just what is the ‘champagne method’ that makes it produce such special wines that the Champenois will take you to court to defend?
Well, there are three ways to make a wine sparkle. 1. You can introduce carbon dioxide gas to a still wine at the time of bottling (pop wines like Baby Duck). These wines are fizzy and usually lose their bubbles (mousse) quickly. 2. Bulk method – secondary fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks, called the Charmat process after the Frenchman who invented the process. Most Proseccos are made by this method. 3. The Champagne method: the still wine (usually a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from three or more different vintages) is given a secondary fermentation in bottle by adding a mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast. The secondary fermentation creates the gas which gets trapped in the wine. But it leaves behind dead yeast cells that make the wine cloudy.
The dead yeast cells are removed by a process called ‘riddling’ - shaking and tilting the bottles over a period of time, until the debris settles on the inside of the crown cap. Traditionally, this was done by hand; now more and more by machines. The necks of the bottles are then immersed in a solution that freezes the dead yeast cells in a plug of ice. When opened, the pressure in the bottle (about two or three times the pressure in your car tires) ejects the ice plug and the producer tops up the level with wine that has been sweetened to produce the house style.
There are various styles in terms of dryness to sweetness; the largest category is Brut Non-Vintage. You can also find rosé (usually a blend of Chardonnay with some Pinot Noir for colouring), Blanc de Blancs (made with 100% Chardonnay), Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier). Then there are the top level champagnes – wines made from a single vintage which will bear the date on the label, or a special Prestige Cuvée, the name given to a Champagne house's highest quality wine.
Champagne is never inexpensive. They start around $40 a bottle. The most expensive champagne in the world is Krug Clos d’Ambonnay, a Blanc de Noir that has a price tag of $3,000 Canadian. For well-made champagne at an affordable price I would opt for Piper Heidsieck Brut ($54.95) or Lanson Black Label Brut ($54.95).
If you have lost that winning lottery ticket you can always settle for a Spanish Cava like Segura Viudas ($14.95) or a Prosecco like Bottega Il Vino dei Poeti ($13.95).
If you would like to celebrate with an Ontario sparkling wine I would suggest you try Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut ($29.95) or that winery’s Cuvée Catharine Rosé at the same price. Or Tawse Spark Brut Sparkling at $24.95.
How to Open a Bottle of Champagne (or any sparkling wine)
A champagne cork, if not securely held, will leave a bottle at the speed of 65 kph. So once you loosen the wire cage, you have a live grenade in your hands. To avoid accidents, wrap the bottle in a towel so it won’t slip, coming straight from the ice bucket or the fridge. Point the bottle away from your guests. Grasp the cork firmly in one hand and with the other slowly twist the bottle away from the cork. The cork remains stationary at all times. This way you won’t lose any wine or have a cork bullet flying around the room.