Whether it’s an over-priced bottle of Louis Roederer’s Cristal Champagne being held aloft in some Manhattan club, or just a humble bottle of Prosecco being mixed with peach nectar on a lazy Sunday morning, sparkling wine the world over has a special meaning. It has always signified celebration in one way or another, and rightfully so. This accidental masterpiece is the product of centuries of technology and wine making.
The two questions I field most often concerning sparkling wines are: Why isn’t all sparkling wine called Champagne, and how exactly do the bubbles get in there. The first question is the easiest. Champagne is Champagne because it is from the Champagne region of France. When a wine carries a label from most areas in France, it must comply with the laws governing how the wines from that region are made, and what can go into them. In Champagne, there are only three grapes that can be used if the label says “Champagne”: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Even though Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are red grapes, the clear (or golden) color is achieved by gently crushing the red grapes and removing the skins before they color the juice.
Which brings me to the second question: how on earth is this stuff made?
There are two main methods. The first and most popular is called Methode Traditional, or Methode Champenoise. The grapes are crushed, then the juice is placed into a tank and allowed to ferment to the desired level of dryness. Then, the fermented juice is bottled with a tiny bit of room left at the top. This area is topped off with more unfermented grape juice and yeast, then the bottle is capped. A second fermentation happens where the yeast turns the new sugars into alcohol and throws off Carbon Dioxide as a byproduct. Because the bottle is sealed, the CO2 is reabsorbed into the wine, and the wine becomes fizzy.
As the sparkling wine finishes it’s second fermentation, the bottles are stored upside down and rotated daily, allowing the yeast to collect on the cap. When the wine is ready, the neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap is removed along with the small block of frozen wine and yeast, the sparkling wine is topped off with more wine and the cork is put in place.
And you wonder why a bottle of Dom Perignon costs upwards of $200? If you want the Method Traditional experience without the price tag, try a Cava. From Spain’s Penedes region, this excellent and affordable sparkling wine is also made using the traditional Champagne method. Cristalino Cava ($6.82 @ Cabrini Wine, 831 W. 181st St. at Cabrini Blvd., 212-568-3226) is a full bodied non-vintage Cava that still has a great deal of flavor, but is affordable enough to have with or without a celebratory event.
The second method used to make sparkling wine is called the Charmat method. The basic idea is the same: let the juice ferment once in a tank, then a second time in a sealed container. With Charmat, however, the second fermentation doesn’t happen in a bottle. After the first fermentation, a large helping of unfermented juice and yeast are added directly to the tank, then it is sealed air tight. It’s the same process, on a larger scale. That is why sparkling wines made in this manner tend to have larger bubbles and lack some of the elegance and finesse that a second bottle fermentation can give a Method Traditional sparkling wine. Prosecco is made using the Charmat method. For a great example of the bright and fun flavors characteristic of this method, go no further than Ombra Prosecco ($12.99 @ Pasanella and Son, 115 South St. betw. Beekman and Peck Slip, 212-233-8383). Big juicy bubbles and hints of strawberry and lemon flavor make this a fantastic party sparkler that needs no mixer.
Whatever your budget or style you prefer, don’t wait until your next promotion to pop open a bottle of bubbly. Life is too short to wait to drink the good stuff.