By Mark Stuart, CWP
Accidents can sometimes result in glorious revelations. The evolution of sparkling wine is certainly a delicious example.
Centuries ago, temperature controlled environments in which to produce wines were not available. The now famous wine destination of Champagne, located about an hour-an-a-half drive north and east of Paris, experiences very cool fall and winter temperatures. Cold enough to slow down and eventually halt the fermentation process of the wines being produced. Early winemakers would see that fermentation had stopped and therefore bottled what they had.
As one could imagine, the springtime brought with it warmer temperatures allowing the yeast to come out of dormancy, creating a secondary fermentation and hence bubbles would form in the bottles. This frothy byproduct of producing wine in Champagne was originally considered a nuisance-a flaw in the wine from this region.
Dom Perignon helped change all of this in the late 1600's with his innovative winemaking techniques. He is credited with, among other things, creating a gentle basket wine press and insisting the wine be stored in flasks instead of wood to maintain its color and freshness. It was during this time that Champagne became fashionable.
The year 1818 saw another major advancement in the making of sparkling wine. The Champagne house called Veuve Cliquot created the process called "remuage", or the settling of the yeast in the neck of the bottle through riddling. Expired yeast could now be removed from the bottle in one quick step providing for a crisp and clear end product.
Wines made in these traditional processes are allowed to be labeled "methode champenoise" and produce complex, nutty, and often times age worthy selections that are mostly produced in Champagne and premium California wineries.
Modern technology has brought about other, more cost effective ways to make bubbly.
In 1907 Eugene Charmat invented the bulk process, self titled the "Charmat Method" where the wine is placed in large glass lined pressurized tanks throughout secondary fermentation and bottled under pressure.
The "Transfer Process" is another modern method where secondary fermentation, just like methode champenoise, takes place in a bottle. After the secondary fermentation is complete, the wine is then poured in to large pressurized tanks where it is filtered and bottled avoiding the costly and time consuming remuage.
Finally, there is the very simple "injection method" where carbon dioxide is injected directly into the serving bottle.
Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain, and inexpensive American sparkling wines are wines often made with these more modern methods. They are marked by a strong bubbly texture and a fruitiness that is perfect for casual occasions.
When purchasing a sparkling wine the following notations may be on the label.. Blanc de Blanc is a white wine made from the white grape chardonnay. Blanc de Noir indicates white wine made from red grapes-pinot noir or pinot meunier. Sparkling wine can also be labeled by its sweetness. The list in order of sweetest to driest is as follows: Doux, Demi-Sec, Sec, Extra Dry, and Brut.
Most sparklers are not created from a single vintage, hence the reason the majority of these wines do not display a year on the label. Producers will blend multiple vintages together each year to help maintain a consistent "house style."
However, after a special growing season, producers may declare a "vintage". In these rare years the growing conditions were exceptional allowing them to bottle a single vintage wine that typically has superior aging potential. While these wines are very special, the "Tete de Cuvee" is the most important wine that comes from a producer each year. This is the flagship product each house offers and can be a blends of all three Champagne varietals, chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier.
Recommendation: NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, $30 BEVMO. Wine Enthusiast named this as #4 on their list of the top 100 wines of 2006. It shows bolder fruit than most wines from Champagne, but still has that streak of chalky minerality typical of the region. While some Champagnes can be delicate, the ripe fruit in this wine carries a medium body style that allows it to pair exceedingly well with a variety of fresh tasting entrees. 12% alcohol, 94 points. Mark Stuart, "The San Diego Wine Guy"
Mark Stuart, "The San Diego Wine Guy," is a certified wine professional.