With New Year’s Eve right around the corner, party-goers and party-throwers across the world are trying to decide which drinks to pour at their night’s event. It comes as no surprise that champagne and sparkling wines will take center stage for midnight toasts, but it’s often difficult to distinguish between different bubbly options produced by wine makers across the globe. This Sip Tips will help you choose the right bottle to usher in the New Year with.
Introduction to Champagne
While champagne and sparkling wines usually resemble each other in body and brilliance, the real distinction between the two actually comes from the region in which they are produced, the types of grapes being used in each bottle, and the process by which each wine is given its sparkling quality.
Champagne is aptly named for the region in France (about 100 miles east of Paris) from which it is produced. This region produces hundreds of millions of bottles annually, and it is, in fact, illegal in the EU to display “champagne” anywhere on the bottle if it’s not produced in this specified French region.
Champagne is known for its toasty, yeasty flavor and is customarily made with only three grape types: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagnes and sparkling wines produced by the process known as the “traditional method” get their “bubbly” quality from a second fermentation process. A “base” wine is inoculated with sugar and yeast, and the yeast eats the sugar and produces CO2 and alcohol as a by-product.
A second layer of flavoring is added from the dead yeast cells trapped in the wine during the second fermentation process. After a set amount of time, traces of the dead yeast cells, or “lees”, are removed during a process called disgorgement. As the wine is made “sparkling,” the qualities of the base wine used in its production are amplified. The resulting wine is usually then topped off with a wine and sugar syrup known as dosage.
Champagnes and sparkling wines get their color from the types of grapes used in production of the wine. The main wine varieties include blanc de noirs (white wines produced from black grapes), blanc de blancs (white wines produced from white grapes like Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc grapes), or rosés. Rosés get their unique flavor and pinkish color from a blend of sparkling wine and either red grape skins or a red wine. The first method of this process, known as “saignée”, allows the skin of the red grape come in contact with the juice from the wine after being crushed in a step known as “bleeding the grape.” An alternative process involves the blending of sparkling and red wine. Both methods produce quality rosés and are subject to the preferences of the wine maker.
How Dry is Your Wine?
Sweetness is a key distinction for sparkling wines and champagnes. Bottles are often referenced by how dry they taste, a measure of how devoid of sweetness or fruit flavor they may be. Cava, a sparkling wine produced in six wine regions in Spain, the Italian-produced Prosecco and traditional French champagne each have a spectrum of dry quality. This spectrum includes
– brut nature(totally dry, zero dosage)
– extra brut (very dry)
– brut (dry, standard style with no sweetness)
– extra-sec (dry with a hint of sweetness)
– seco (medium sweet)
– demi-sec (sweet)
– doux (very sweet).
Prosecco, Italy’s sparkling wine option, is made with glera grapes and is a bit drier than other wine options from the same region, though still tasting slightly sweeter than traditional champagne and other Bruts. Produced as both spumante (fully sparkling) and frizzante (lightly sparkling), prosecco and Cava are both made using a different second fermentation process than that of champagnes. Known as the “Charmat” process, their second cycle of fermentation takes place in a large tank or vat rather than the bottle itself. The wine is then bottled under pressure so it can retain its natural carbonation.
When pairing your sparkling wine with food, it’s important to factor in the acidity of the wine and its level of sweetness. We recommend trying eggs, nuts, cheeses, seafood and pasta (especially with a cream or mushroom sauce) with all traditional Bruts and chicken, sushi, or empanadas with any blanc de blanc bottle. Desserts low in sweetness, such as berries, shortbread, pound cake, and angel food cake, or those that are tart and lemony pair well with a demi-sec bottle.
Levels in Quality
These days, most wine producers make three distinct wine types. These are your standard non-vintage wines, vintage wines, and a prestige cuvée. Rosés usually fall under the last category, a prestige cuvee bottle offering the wine producer’s highest standard of quality. Vintage bottles are made with grapes from one, beneficent growing season whereas non-vintage bottles are made with grapes from multiple growing seasons (lesser seasons with poorer quality harvests). Prestige cuvée wines are proprietary blended, top-of-the-range wines made to the highest standards of production. Some of the most popular examples of this champagne type include Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer’s Cristal.
The best tasting sparkling wines and champagnes will come from wine grower-producers. These “Grower” Champagnes and sparkling wines come from wine houses that grow and tend their own vineyards, in addition to the production and bottling of the wine. Look for bottles marked with a “RM”(recoltant-manipulant) to try some yourself.
Champagne or sparkling wine, which will you drink this New Year’s Eve? Which factors help you decide on a bottle of bubbly? Tell us in the comments section below.