The sound of the popping cork. Foam sliding down the shaft of the glass bottle. Champagne knows how to make quite an entrance. It is always in fashion, goes well with most everything and is the life of the party. Sparkling wine can be white, red, pink, sweet, dry. Its various disguises share one common trait… Bubbles.
Champagne refers to sparkling wine made from grapes from the Champagne region in France, a fertile valley about 100 miles from Paris. Outside of France, your sparkling wine may go by the name of Cava (Spain), Prosecco (Italy), Spumante (also Italy). Sparkling wine actually begins life as a still wine, the bubbles appear later during a second fermentation process. The two most common grapes used to make sparkling wine are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although winemakers may add other varietals following the first alcoholic fermentation to achieve the perfect balance of color, smell and taste.
The first alcoholic fermentation generally takes place in stainless steel tanks and then the secondary fermentation, where the bubbles are added, occurs either in the bottle or in a special tank designed for this purpose.
The traditional method of making sparkling wine, used in Champagne, is referred to as Méthode Champenoise. These wines command a premium due to the time and expense involved and they produce a lighter, smaller and more delicate bubble. A mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the blended wine which is then divided into individual bottles. These bottles are then sealed and a second alcoholic fermentation occurs, generating carbon dioxide that causes the sparkling bubbles.
There are less expensive and quicker methods to produce sparkling wine, although these wines generally lack the character and complexity of the traditional method. They can still be very enjoyable for everyday and festive drinking. It is a shame that so many people only consider sparkling wine for celebrations. Sparkling wine is a perfect aperitif before a meal, a remarkable match with cheese, fish, fruit, pasta, poultry, rice, sushi, and pairs very nicely with pastries and light desserts.
The most common style of sparkling wine is a blend of several grape varietals and sometimes to create a non-vintage sparkling wine that reflects the style of the winemaker. Sparkling wine made with grapes from one single year will have that year identified on the bottle and is considered a vintage.
The sweetness of sparkling wine is determined by the amount of sugar added after the second fermentation. You can determine the level of sweetness by the description on the label: extra-brut or brut will be dry, sec will be semi-sweet, demi-sec and doux will share a similar level of sweetness as a dessert wine.
You may also discover single varietal bottlings of sparkling wine from the Chardonnay grape, referred to as blanc de blancs and occasionally, single varietal bottlings of sparkling wine from the Pinot Noir grape, known as Blanc de Noirs.
If you find yourself hosting or an invited guest at a holiday party this year or are looking for something different to serve at the Shabbat table, try a sparkling wine or Champagne. In a recent tasting, our tasting team recommended the following wines:
Bartenura Prosecco (Italy); $16. This is a dry sparkling wine produced in the Veneto region of Italy. It is easy to drink and fruit-forward with soft bubbles.
Herzog Selection Reserve Brut (France); $15. This sparkling wine from has noticeable toast and apple aromas and a hint of sweetness.
Bellenda Prosecco (Italy); $20. This dry sparkler is made from Prosecco grapes grown on the hillsides of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. It has very pleasing toast and nut flavors and apple flavors.
Castell d’Olerdola Brut Cava (Spain); $12. This is an elegant and well-structured semi-dry sparkling wine. A blendof three classic grape varieties: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. On the palate, the wine is elegant and well-balanced with lemon and cream.
En Fuego Cava Reserva (Spain); $13. This Spanish sparkler is also a blend of three classic grape varieties: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. It has noticeable citrus flavors and delicate bubbles.
Laurent Perrier Brut Champagne (France); $70. The legendary Champagne house produces a well-balanced kosher bubbly that is pale gold with tiny bubbles and a bouquet of subtle spice and hints of citrus. Warm toasty notes balance the freshness of fruit. This Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay (45%), Pinot Noir (40%), Pinot Meunier (15%).