After telling you about a wine-of-the-week for the past six weeks, I’m back for an encore presentation on Champagne and sparkling wine. (Side Bar/Wine Bar – just as not all that glitters is gold, not all that bubbles is Champagne. Just like facial tissue vs. Kleenex, “sparkling wine” is the product category, while “Champagne” – i.e., sparkling wine from France’s Champagne region – is a brand name.) Building some Champagne knowledge will do more to project an image of sophistication than donning a black tux/black tie combo. Champagne symbolizes finesse, elegance and a connection to the finer things life has to offer. So educating yourself on the basics will get you closer to the 007 zone than anything else you were going to do for the next five minutes. Read on, gentlemen….
Méthode champenoise is the name of the preferred process for getting bubbles into wine, and is required by law to be followed in the Champagne region. As with many other aspects of life in Europe, the production of wine is strictly regulated, highly bureaucratic, and often politicized. Good houses elsewhere in the world follow the Champagne region’s prescribed techniques – which include a secondary fermentation of the wines in the individual bottles in which they age – by choice. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the three grape varietals used to produce Champagne, although the production techniques can be applied to make sparkling wine from any grape(s). Today, sparkling wines are made in numerous wine regions, including Italy, Spain, Australia and the U.S.
Flavor Profile. Most people prefer sparkling wines that are light-bodied and vibrant. These types of bubblies are ideal for toasts and special occasions, where they may be served without food. However, depending on the specific wines blended together for a given sparkling wine; on the aging of the bubbly; and on whether or not oak barrels were used in the production process; sparkling wines also can be full-bodied, powerful, rich and creamy.
Food Pairings. Lighter sparkling wines are great as apéritifs, especially when served with milder and softer cheeses, appetizers and salads. A nice dry rosé bubbly goes perfectly with finger foods, salmon or mild, oven-roasted chicken. A rich, full-bodied blanc de blancs Champagne (made entirely from Chardonnay grapes) complements rich shellfish dishes like lobster, crab or scallops in a cream sauce.
Price. Low-cost cavas, proseccos and domestic sparkling wines can be found in the $10 range, although not many of these are very good. Most Champagne houses make an entry level non-vintage (“NV”) offering, one or more vintage-dated bottles and a prestige cuvée, i.e., top of the line. A good NV domestic bubbly will be around $20, while NV Champagnes range from about $30-$75. The highest-end Champagnes cost hundreds of dollars and in great vintage years, may cost even more. Most restaurants, wine bars, etc., offer sparkling wine by the glass, although I always prefer to order a bottle and allow it to chill properly in an ice bucket before popping the cork. (Side Bar/Wine Bar – When ordering in a restaurant, it helps to be aware of some of the best recent vintages in the Champagne region. These include 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2012.)
Bring on the Bubbles!
Photos used under Creative Commons from @sage_solar, Sam Howzit, Werner Bayer