Everything you need to know about choosing a bottle of bubbly.
How is Champagne different from other sparkling wines?
Sparkling wines that are labeled Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France and are made using a specific, traditional process called Méthode Champenoise. Only three grape varieties may be used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
How is Champagne made?
The Méthode Champenoise (see above), begins with making several or more still wines by pressing the grapes and adding yeast, which converts the sugar in the grape juice to alcohol. A wine maker then blends the still wines to the desired taste, using wines from different grapes, vineyards, and vintages.
Once the blend is final, they add a mixture of sugar and yeast called Liqueur de Tirage; then the still wine is put into its permanent bottles and capped with temporary caps. This causes a second fermentation inside each bottle that creates Champagne’s signature bubbles (by trapping Carbon Dioxide released by the yeast as it consumes the sugar). The wine is then aged a minimum of fifteen months for non-vintage champagnes, and three years for vintage champagnes.
Toward the end of cellar aging, bottles are placed on A-shaped racks to begin the labor intensive process called riddling. The bottles are gradually turned, tipping their necks down at a more severe angle until the yeast sediment, called lees, is entirely in the neck of the bottle. The bottle neck is then frozen and the temporary bottle cap removed so that carbon dioxide can expel the frozen plug of sediment. The winemaker then tops off each bottle with a combination of wine and sugar called a dosage, which determines how dry or sweet the Champagne will be. A real cork is added to complete the process.
What should I look for in a Champagne?
Like still wines, Champagne can range from light-bodied and delicate to full bodied and rich, and from bone dry to quite sweet, but a good balance of fruit and acidity is the mark of a fine choice. Typically, smaller bubbles are sought after in sparkling wines (read: the smaller the better). Tiny bubbles will result in a softer, more elegant drinking experience. The medium bodied Pol Roger Brut Reserve “White Foil” ($50, available at liquor stores) has crisp apple flavors and a lush, satisfying finish. (For more, see 17 Helpful Champagne Terms.)
What about sparkling wines from other places?
Sparkling wines come from all over the world, but are called different names (and follow their own rules), depending on where they are made. For an affordable sparkling wine from the United States, try Scharffenberger Brut Excellence ($20, available at liquor stores) from California. It is made in the same painstaking style as Champagne to create toasty notes of freshly baked bread that compliment its ripe fruit flavors.
Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine. It is made in the Veneto region and must be made from the Glera grape varietal. Prosecco is made using the Charmat Method, during which the second fermentation takes place in large stainless steel tanks, not in the bottle, as with Champagne. The result is a fizzy, fruity, affordable sparkler. We like the refreshing peach notes of Lunetta Prosecco, ($13, available at liquor stores).
Cava is a popular Spanish sparkling wine that, like Champagne, undergoes its second fermentation in its bottles. In Spain it is called Método Tradicional. The majority of Cava is produced in Catalonia and is predominantly made with three grape varietals: Parellada, Macabéo, and Xarel-lo. Vega Barcelona ($15, available at liquor stores) is a delicious example of a Cava with bracing citrus flavors and an elegant mouthfeel.
Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine. It can be made from a number of grape varietals including Riesling, Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer. At least 85% of the wine must be made from the varietal labeled on the bottle. Try 2011 Von Buhl Riesling Brut, ($22, available at liquor stores), as a palate-awakening aperitif.
Are there red sparkling wines?
Yes. Lambrusco is a red sparkling wine from Italy made from the Lambrusco family of grapes. Though you may remember Lambrusco as a sugary sweet soda-pop like wine popular in the 1980’s (Riunite on ice, so nice?), many modern examples are lip-smackingly dry and refreshing, with tart red fruit flavor and a spicy finish. We like Mionetto ‘Il’ Lambrusco ($10, available at liquor stores). Sparkling Shiraz is another red sparkler. Typically from Australia, it is fuller-bodied and oaky, with cherry and raspberry fruit flavors and hints of chocolate and black pepper. The Chook Sparkling Shiraz ($21, available at liquor stores) is a rich, juicy, vibrant example. Unlike still red wines, sparkling reds should be served chilled.
How should Sparkling Wine be served?
First, sparkling wines should be served well chilled. Second, be careful when taking off the cage and cork. While part of the fun may be the loud “pop” and flying cork, the tremendous pressure inside the bottle can turn a cork into a weapon when pointed in the wrong direction. As you are removing the cage, keep your hand firmly on top of the bottle. To remove the cork without losing any precious effervescence, twist the cork and the bottle in opposite directions and ease out the cork. (See How to Open a Bottle of Champagne.)