The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes the increased consumption of the wonderful wine known as “bubbly.” Although sparkling wines are not just for holidays and celebrations, this is a great time to learn more about them so you can impress your friends and family with your knowledge when that cork pops at your next holiday gathering.
The first thing to know is that not all sparkling wines are created equally! Many places around the world make wonderful sparkling wines in many varied tastes and price points. However, when shopping for your holiday party, you can simplify your search by focusing on three regions that are well known for producing quality sparkling wines:
• Champagne, France
Long regarded as the gold standard in sparkling wines, the term “Champagne” is protected by law in many countries, and refers to sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France and produced according to a specific technique known as “Méthode Champenoise,” or Champagne method, where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. Grapes must be the white Chardonnay, or the black Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.
Contrary to popular belief, Champagne was not invented by Dom Pérignon, the famed Benedictine monk and cellar master. The first documented production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine occurred more than a century before his birth, in 1531, at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, another Benedictine property in the Limoux area of southern France. Nevertheless, as we shall see, Dom Pérignon contributed in other significant ways to the development of Champagne as we know it today.
Because of Champagne’s cold climate and short growing season, there is not enough time for the yeasts contained in the grape skins to fully convert the sugars in the grape juice to alcohol during the initial fermentation process. This was a vexing problem for winemakers of the Dom’s era because if the wine was bottled in this condition, it literally became a time bomb. When the weather warmed up again in the spring, dormant yeast in the bottle would begin generating carbon dioxide. This carbon dioxide is what gives sparkling wines their sparkle, but absent a proper containment method, it would then push the cork out of the bottle, or even worse, cause it to explode.
Dom Pérignon’s superiors at Abbey of Hautvillers near Champagne charged him with getting rid of the bubbles that were endangering the cellar workers and causing significant loss of inventory. Dom Pérignon worked diligently to prevent the bubbles by blending grape juice from other vineyards and experimenting with other wine making techniques. However, unable to prevent this secondary fermentation from occurring in the bottle, he finally gave in and started bottling the sparkling wine for consumption by using reinforced glass bottles and wire-collared corks.
Therefore, as you can see, although he did not technically “invent” Champagne, Dom Pérignon set the standards for making sparkling wine in this region, and these practices are still in place today, albeit with a little help from technology.
• Penedès, Spain
Sparkling wine has been made in this region since the late 19th century and is known as “Cava,” derived from the Catalan word for cellar. A Cava is created in the same manner as Champagne, but because it is not from Champagne, the technique becomes known as “Méthode Traditionnelle,” or traditional method.
The grapes traditionally used for Cava - Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada - make Cava a light, white, fruity, perfumed wine.
A true Cava can always be spotted by the four-pointed star on the top of the cork.
• Veneto, Italy
Italy's answer to refreshing, well-made, sparkling wine, Prosecco is created from the eponymous grape of the northern Veneto region, hard by the foothills of the Alps. It is a light, affordable, and fun sparkling wine.
Traditionally, Prosecco was made as a soft, somewhat sweet wine with just a little fizz (frizzante), but today's Proseccos are dry and very bubbly (spumante).
Sometimes combined with small amounts of Pinot Blanc or Pinot Grigio grapes, Prosecco is made using the Charmat method. This method differs from the traditional method in that the wine goes through the second fermentation in pressurized tanks instead of individual bottles. The shorter tank fermentation is preferable for Prosecco because it preserves the freshness and the flavor of the grapes.
Now that you are armed with some information about the world of sparkling wines, dare to be different this year and throw a Champagne and Sparkling Tasting party. It’s almost as much fun shopping and selecting your bubbles as it is sharing them with your friends.
Here are a few things to consider for your party:
1) Make sure your guests know that you are having a Champagne and Sparkling Tasting and I guarantee your attendance will go up dramatically.
2) Choose 5-6 different sparklings from around the world (including at least one or two Champagnes).
3) Match foods that go with the sparklings.
4) Set a budget for your sparkling wines.
5) Proctor your tastings, i.e., assign someone to pour the sparklings to your guests. These little wonders can go to your head quickly (1-2 ounce pours per selected bottle).
6) Start your tasting from the lightest sparkling and finish with the true Champagnes.
7) Have a great time and bask in the glory as your friends and family rave about your party!
Trust me, your party will be the talk of the town and just might become an annual event for you and your friends as ours has at Wines by Jennifer®. And as always, if you are ever in doubt, consult your trusted local wine retailer for guidance.