In honor of the Champagne flowing freely in Die Fledermaus and the upcoming holidays, today's post on sparkling wines comes from award-winning food journalist Patrick Evans-Hylton.
Elongated flutes of gold-hued elixir sparkle with the slightest hint of light caught by thousands of tiny bubbles that ride the length of the glass; this is Champagne, and it is magic.
An imbibe often reserved for the most special of occasions, champagne shines during the holidays, rightfully taking its place at the head of the celebratory table at gatherings large and small. What event isn’t more special when the air is pierced with the loud pop! of the cork announcing the presence of sparkling wine?
The sparkle comes from those bubbles – a result of adding additional yeast and sugar to wine, creating a second alcoholic fermentation in the bottle and turning the resting bottle in timely intervals.
The oldest recorded incident of this method comes in 1531 from Benedictine monks in southern France. Champagne is often associated with another French monk who did pioneering work on the production of the sparkling wine, Dom Perignon, in the late 17th/early 18th century.
But all that sparkles is not necessarily Champagne. And not all sparking wines use the traditional Méthode Champenoise process of a second fermentation in the bottle; some wines get their sparkle by having carbon dioxide injected into the quaff.
For a wine to be called Champagne (notice the capital “C”), it must be produced in the Champagne region of France, and typically follows traditional production methods.
Most Champagne are made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes. Most are also non-vintage, meaning that juice from a number of harvests are blended to create the wine; non-vintage is usually indicated with the letters “NV” on the label. Most Champagne are white; some are rosé.
Cava – a sparkling Spanish wine crafted in a traditional champenoise method using Spanish grapes like Macabeo, Parellada, and/or Xarel-lo. Styles range from dry to sweet. The differences in Cava and Champagne are often subtle, coming from grape varietals and terroir.
Prosecco – a typically brut (pronounced broot – meaning “dry”) or extra-dry sparkling typically made with Glera (also known as Prosecco) grapes. It’s often lighter and more crisp than traditional Champagne. Secondary fermentation is done either in stainless tanks, or in the bottle.
Spumante/Asti – a light, sweeter sparkling from Italy typically made with the Moscato grape. Secondary fermentation is done either in stainless tanks, or in the bottle.
From the website: “A classic blend of carefully selected Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Refreshing and intriguing with vibrant fruit flavors leading to ripe pear that lingers on the finish. The moderate acidity integrates well with fine bubbles and a soft structure. A delightfully dry yet rounded apertif, this wine is also a versatile accompaniment to the early courses of a meal.”
From the website: “Claude Thibaut and Manuel Janisson bring to this sparking wine generations of tradition from the Champagne region of France. They have captured the flavors and essence of the Virginia terroir. The cuvee, made of 100 percent Chardonnay from the Monticello appellation, has vibrant aromas of pear and ripe apples; the taste is perfectly balanced, crisp, and refreshing.”
From the website: “The 2008 Tete’ de Cuvee is a blend of estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and is bottled aged on lees for two years. Made in the traditional Méthode Champenoise, this sparkling wine has nice toasty notes and good citrus flavor.”
Brut – this is a dry sparkling, and perhaps the most common. It’s a good sparkling to pair with food.
Extra Brut – this is a very dry sparkling and often enjoyed on its own, such as at a cocktail party.
Extra Dry – this is a moderately dry sparkling, and is good to enjoy on its on, such as an aperitif.
Demi-Sec – this is a moderately sweet sparkling, and is a good finish to a meal or paired with sweets.
Blanc de blancs – which translates to “white of white” and indicates a white fleshed/white skinned grape, like Chardonnay, was used in the Champagne.
Blanc de noirs – which translates to “white of black” and indicates a white fleshed/black skinned grape, like Pinot Noir, was used in the Champagne.
Like other white and rosé wines, sparking wines are best enjoyed chilled, with around 45-degrees (F) being a good medium temperature.
Chill the champagne in the refrigerator about three hours before you need it or in a bucket of ice water for about a half-hour. The bottle should never be placed in a freezer. Once opened, keep in an ice bucket to maintain temperature while enjoying.
The best glass for serving sparkling wine is a champagne flute, which is a tall, elongated glass designed to facilitate the flow of bubbles and concentrate the flavors and aromas of the quaff.
Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute and sprinkle 2-3 dashes of bitters on the cube; do not crush sugar cube. Fill the flute with sparkling wine, squeeze a lemon twist on top, and drop in as a garnish. Optional: add 1 teaspoon Cognac to flute before adding champagne.
PATRICK EVANS-HYLTON is an award-winning food journalist based in Hampton Roads. Trained as a chef at Johnson & Wales University, Evans-Hylton has covered food and foodways through print, radio, and television since 1995. He is author of two food history books, two cookbooks, and the upcoming “Dishing Up Virginia” to be released in early 2013. Find more of his adventures in food at www.PatrickEvansHylton.com.