December 26, 2007
Cheers to sparkling wines
Here's a New Year's resolution: to drink more sparkling wines in the coming year. With so many sparklers available at a wide range of prices, there's bubbly for every occasion, from birthdays to bad Mondays. So, in that spirit, here's a guide to sparkling wines you can use from New Year's Eve through next December.
Parsing the labels
In Champagne and most places that take Champagne as their model, sparkling wine is made from a combination of white and red grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The skins are removed from the juice once the grapes are pressed so that the juice doesn't turn red. The flavor of the final wine depends in part on the mix of grapes used. Rather than listing the grapes on the label, however, the maker may use one of these terms:
Blanc de blancs: Literally "white of whites," blanc de blancs wines are made from white grapes, typically chardonnay. They tend to be lean, even sharp, with the very white flavors of crisp chardonnay and chalky minerals.
Blanc de noirs: Literally "white of blacks," blanc de noirs wines are made from red grapes, traditionally pinot noir and a relative called pinot meunier. Blanc de noirs wines do sometimes have a hint of red fruit flavor, and a little deeper, darker flavor than blanc de blancs.
Rose: Rose wines can be made by letting the skins of red grapes soak in the juice long enough to lend it a little color, or by adding some still red wine to the blend. The red fruit flavor ranges from a hint to a bold suggestion.
Sparkling wine also can vary in sweetness from stone-dry to sticky-sweet. Unfortunately, not all the terms are as intuitive as one might hope. From driest to sweetest, they are:
Brut nature (or brut zero, pas dose, or sans-dosage)
Extra brut/brut extra
Extra dry/extra sec
Note: Although sec translates from the French as "dry," sec and demi-sec wines are dessert-sweet.
Vintage or nonvintage?
Most sparkling wine is nonvintage, or, more accurately, multivintage, as it contains the juice of grapes from different years' harvests. This tradition started in Champagne, a region of France where it's often too cold to get a decent harvest, and the wines therefore benefit from additions of wines from other, riper harvests.
Now the tradition is carried on around the world, as the technique also allows winemakers to effectively create layers of flavors using wines of different ripeness levels and maturity. Nonvintage champagnes are also ready to drink as soon as they are released to the market.
Sparkling wines bearing a vintage on the label must be made from the grapes of that year's harvest. In places like Champagne, only particularly good vintages are chosen to make vintage wines. Because the wine is made from the grapes of only one harvest, without the ameliorating effects of older wines, vintage sparkling wines often need years in the bottle to mellow out before they show their best. So, if you're looking for a wine to drink now, stick with non-vintage wines, unless you're able to find some 1995s or older.
Where to get great bubbly
Just about every country that makes wine makes a sparkling version. Here's a rundown of where to find the best:
France. France claims the most famous sparkling wine of all: Champagne. The wine is made in the region of the same name, a large and cold area northeast of Paris. It's so cold here, actually, that Champagne is about the only wine the Champenoise can make. See, the grapes in Champagne rarely get ripe enough to make decent still wine; the juice, before it's made into sparkling wine, is mighty puckering. But sparkling wine needs lots of acidity to balance the extra sugar that goes into it to make it sparkle. The end result is a bit like turning lemons into lemonade, except on a grander scale; it's Champagne, after all, the wine that set the formula for sparkling wines all around the world.
That formula? Chardonnay on its own or in combination with red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier (ratio left up to the winemaker), made according to the excruciatingly time- and energy-consuming tenets of what's referred to as the methode traditionelle.
Why? Because the end result will be at once bright and refreshing, fruity and toasty, mineral-studded and creamy. Oh, and it will have the finest bubbles you'll ever feel.
Sometimes, you'll pay dearly for the pleasure. Top bottlings can run well more than $100. But there are some good buys for $40 to $50, too. Look for wines from Françoise Bedel, Chartogne-Taillet, Diebolt-Vallois, Nicolas Feuillatte, Marc Hebrart, and Leclaire-Gaspard, just to name a few.
Champagne isn't the only place in France that offers sparkling wine. There are also soft, fruity sparklers called Blanquette de Limoux from the southwestern corner of the country; crisp cremants from Alsace and the Loire; and delicately floral Clairette de Die from the Southern Rhône. They tend to run $12 to $35.
United States. California's cooler valleys have attracted champagne producers like Mumm (Mumm Napa Valley), Chandon (Domaine Chandon), Roederer (Roederer Estate), and Deutz (Maison Deutz, now Laetitia), joining Americans like Iron Horse, J Vineyards and Winery, and Schramsberg. The Spanish also have come over, with Gloria Ferrer and Codorníu (Artesa).
Most sparkling wine producers have gone to cool places like Sonoma's Green Valley, Anderson Valley, the bay-cooled reaches of Carneros and Monterey, and way up north to Mendocino. Here they grow crisp, tangy, acid-laden chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, like the Champenoise. The wines, however, taste a little bit different; a little fruitier, riper and sunnier, perhaps. Most of the best examples run $18 to $35; the few that cost more than that can be exceptional.
Outside of California, check out Argyle in Oregon, Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington and Gruet in New Mexico (all about $14 to $30).
Spain. Cava is the sparkling wine lover's best friend. It's affordable ($10 buys excellent examples, $20 extraordinary bottles), it's widely available, and it's delicious. Check out Castillo Perrelada, Freixenet, and Segura Viudas.
Italy. In addition to the popular, sweet Moscato d'Asti, Italy offers a variety of dry sparkling wines, from soft, peach-scented prosecco and lean, crisp Franciacorta. Great prosecco from producers such as Nino Franco, Mionetto, and Zardetto cost only $10 to $20; well-regarded Franciacorta brands like Bellavista and Ca' del Bosco are priced in line with Champagne.
The rest of the world. Tasmania's cool temperatures are excellent for sparkling wine-growing. Check out Taltarni's rose-hued Brut Tache or Jansz, which top out at $20.
Most German sparkling wines (sekt) is quickly produced, bulk wine for the bubble-loving domestic market, but a few producers like Lingenfelder, Georg Breuer and Reichstrat von Buhl make crisp, lively versions from Riesling. Plan to spend $30 or more.
In Austria, Schloss Gobelsburg and Willi Brundlmayer make terrific sparkling rieslings that run $30 to $40.
Opening bubbly: Don't point that thing at me!
You really can take out an eye with a flying champagne cork. Follow these steps and no one will get hurt. And you won't lose any of your precious wine.
1. Chill the wine. If it's warm, the pressure will be higher and the wine may foam out the top.
2. Hold the bottle with your thumb over the capsule and the bottle pointing away from your body and away from everyone else.
3. Remove the foil covering the cork, removing your thumb briefly.
4. While holding the capsule down, use the other hand to untwist the wire cage holding the cork. As soon as it's loose, the cork could fly, so hold on!
5. Slip the cage off the bottle (carefully).
6. If the cork isn't trying to come out on its own accord, hold the cork firmly and turn the bottle, pulling it gently away from the cork, until the pressure begins to push the cork out.
Rather than letting the cork shoot off, let the air out slowly. It should make a soft sigh, not a loud pop. A pop might sound celebratory, but the fast exit of air will make the wine foam up and use up its bubbles far faster than it will when opened slowly.
7. Done! Now pour the wine — but again, slowly. If you pour it quickly, it'll foam and spill over the side of the glass. Prime the glass by filling it one quarter full and letting the bubbles subside. Then finish filling the glass.
Note: Those tall, thin flutes aren't necessary, but they do have advantages: The long, narrow shape shows off the wine to its best effect as the bubbles rise up in a steady stream. It also conserves bubbles so that they last a long time.
This story appeared in the Denver Post ; it was adapted from the Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics by Tara Q. Thomas.