Champagne and Sparkling Wines

Posted by on Dec 21, 2011 in Culinary 101, Food Journal, Holidays

Champagne and Sparkling Wines

It’s that time of year again everyone, Yay!!! Time to break out the Champagne and Sparkling wines (not that I wait until this time of year)! :D ! I’m super excited anyway though! I just love how happy and fuzzy everyone is right now! Is it all the drinking :)?I have a very deep love and passion for wines too. I know they can be a little intimidating or confusing for a beginner though (I was there once too). So, here’s a quick Champagne/Sparkling Wines 101!

What is the difference between Champagne and a Sparkling Wine?
Champagne is both a province and a wine. To be called “Champagne”, the wine must come from the Champagne region of France. Yes, I realize that you have seen a wine with the word Champagne on it that wasn’t French. This happens for two reasons. The most common is that there are French Champagne houses in California – ones that began in France or are owned by one in France. The other is that the producer doesn’t care that Champagne is a province where Champagne comes from and they put it on their label anyway probably in hopes of getting a higher price for their product. I’ve read that there is an international treaty that prevents places other then Champagne from using the name Champagne, I don’t think this is entirely accurate though. However, within the European Union, only wines from the Champagne region can use the name.

Where do the bubbles come from?
So, in really simple terms. Winemakers take grape juice and add yeast (or use the natural yeast that is already there). They put it in a barrel. The yeast “eats” the sugar in the juice. The yeast then “poos” alcohol, bubbles, and heat – but in a good way. This is the easiest way for me to look at it. This is the first fermentation. This is how a still wine (wine without bubbles) is created. The still wine then goes through a second fermentation to add the bubbles. Generally the winemaker will add more sugar and yeast to start the second fermentation. This second fermentation will have one of three fancy names.

1. Methode Champenoise (method Shahm-pen-WAHZ)- this is the traditional French method. The first fermentation takes place in the barrel, the second in the bottle. During the second fermentation the bottles are kept on a rack that keeps them angled down. They are turned 1/4 turn or so daily. This process is called riddling in English or remuage (pronounce reh-moo AHJ) in French. Riddling helps the sediment (little dead yeast corpses) find their way to the neck of the bottle. When the fermentation is done, they freeze the neck and pop off the bottle cap that is there for the second fermentation. The ice cube pops out (there is a lot of pressure there), they top it off and they put a cork in it. They then put that pretty foil wrapper around the top (to hide inconsistent liquid levels) and label it. Pretty simple right?

2. Methode Traditionale – this is the same as Methode Champenoise, only we use this term in America.

3. Charmat (pronounce shar mah) Process (also called Cuve Close, bulk method, tank method)- in this process, the bubbles are added basically the same as they are in soda. The fermentation is done in bulk in big steel tanks. This results in bigger bubbles and is usually used for less expensive wines. These wine are generally good choices for mimosa, Bellini and punches. If you’re going to cover the flavor anyway, why spend a ton of money?

If your bubbles are small and flow upward in a continuous stream you probably have a wine produced by  Methode Champenoise. If your bubbles are large and float more random, they were probably made via the Charmat Process. Small scratches in your glassware can also effect the bubbles. We used to scratch a small x at the bottom or our wine glasses in the restaurant because it makes the bubbles flow from the bottom and kind of spiral up. It’s prettier ;).

How do I know if it’s going to be sweet or not?
Read the label silly :). This is a list from driest to sweetest.
Brut (rhymes with root) – driest
Extra Dry – a little less dry then Brut (I don’t know why, and yes, it doesn’t make sense)
Sec – dry
Demi Sec – off dry
Doux – Sweet

By the way, I think I should mention here that the wine term dry means there is no sweetness or sugar. I think a lot of people confuse this with tannic. Tannic is when it dries your mouth out, like if you put a tea bag in your mouth (try it) it makes your mouth feel dry like it’s sticking to itself. Also fruity does not equal sweet. A wine can be totally dry and still be fruity. Again this has nothing to do with the sugar level and everything to do with the other acids present in the wine. We’ll save all that for another day though. So just to be ultra super clear, a wine cannot be dry and sweet at the same time. OK :) .

What do Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noir mean?
Blanc de Blanc – This means white wine from white grapes. In other words, it’s likely made from Chardonnay grapes. These are very versatile and good with lots of foods.
Blanc de Noir – This is white wine made from black (red) grapes. Most likely from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes.
If you come across a sparkling rose, it is most likely a blanc de blancs with an addition of still pinot noir just before corking.

What is NV or MV?
NV stands for non-vintage, and MV stands for multi-vintage. They are the same thing. If you are drinking a non-vintage wine, this means it is a mix of different harvest years. Champagne is almost always blended both of harvest years and of grapes to maximize complexity and consistency. Each component brings a unique character to the finished wine. The non-vintage is usually the “calling card” of a producer. Non-vintage also usually makes up the bulk of their production. If there is no date on the label, you’re drinking non-vintage.

What is Vintage?
When a growing season makes beautiful grapes, producers like to bottle them as a vintage. A vintage comes from one growing season and is not blended from multiple seasons of grapes. It shows off the characteristics of a specific year. They are more rare and more expensive. I wouldn’t say that they are always better though, just different. If you are drinking a vintage, there will be a date on the label.

What should I use to make mimosas, Bellini and punches?
I have had people tell me that if you wouldn’t drink it alone, don’t use it as a mixer or to cook. I have to disagree very strongly with this. I recommend using a less expensive sparkling wine as a mixer somewhere in the five dollar range. I might even go as high as seven dollars. If you are pouring a 40 dollar bottle into a punch bowl, you are wasting it! Sorry, but you are. The taste is hidden behind all the juice and whatever else you have in there. You lose the flavors that you paid extra for. The same goes for cooking, please don’t use a beautiful 40 dollar bottle of wine in a sauce, it is going to cook and you are going to lose all the subtle flavors that made it worth 40 dollars in the first place! Save your nice wine to drink by itself or with some delicious food that compliments it!

This should be enough info to get you through the wine store and past the snobby sales person. So, get out there and pop those corks, and next time don’t wait all year!

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