SPOILER ALERT: I decided to post this a couple of days after New Year’s Day to avoid you losing friends with such an intellectual take on sparkling wines.
No celebration calls for sparkly alcohol more than the New Year. At the risk of sounding academic, let us look closer into these bubbly sensations.
First of all, not everything that sparkles is Champagne. Champagne is a region in France, and it’s quite sacrilegious to call the Spanish Cava and the Italian Prosecco as Champagne. They simply do not come from the same geographical location, and insisting that an Asti is Champagne will absolutely blow the circuits off your GPS device.
Most Champagne is sparkling… But did you know that there is a still (still = non-sparkling) red wine produced in Bouzy (how apt), Champagne? Appropriately named the Bouzy Rouge, these delicate Pinot Noir wonders do exist and is worth taking a trip to Champagne for.
Champagne is made in the Methode Traditionelle way. Once upon a time, it was called the Methode Champenoise. However, since Spanish Cavas and other sparkling wines NOT COMING FROM CHAMPAGNE are made in a similar method, they have adopted the term Methode Traditionelle. Call it a copyright issue or a point of pride… But by and large, if it’s not from Champagne, it shouldn’t even be hinted as Champagne.
Meanwhile, Methode Traditionelle involves a SECONDARY FERMENTATION done in the same bottle. Literally, you put yeast into a bottle of still wine and produce sparkles. The step by step procedure is quite tedious and involves a few steps, including riddling. Riddling means that the bottle gets turned a fraction of a time, ending at a point where the yeast will settle at the neck of the bottle. The bottle at this point would be almost upside down.
I know, I know… This sounds incredulously boring (I have lost many a student’s attention by this time), but do think about it: Riddling is done manually. If you are not careful and accidentally twist the bottle too much at a time, the yeast will disperse, and you would have to repeat the process all over again. If done correctly, the process can take from 4-6 weeks at 25 turns per bottle.
Nothing, however, beats imagining your parents’ faces should you decide to do this for a living and tell them, “Mom, Dad, I want to be a riddler!” If your parents are cool enough, they might come back at you with an equally nice zinger: “What, you want to be Batman’s nemesis?”
Are all Champagne bottles manually riddled? Nope. There are gigantic Nebuchadnezzar bottles and teeny weeny Split bottles that would be virtually impossible for even the best riddlers to riddle.
In Methode Traditionelle, at the final point of riddling, you freeze the neck of the bottle and then disgorge it. Disgorging is a process that involves releasing the frozen yeast by simply removing the cork. The yeast flies out with such speed and force enough to kill someone (getting more and more tempted to work in Champagne, huh?). The force is coming from the air pressure after the secondary fermentation (them burpy yeasts, tsk tsk). The lost liquid is replaced by topping it up, some with sugar. Cap it off again and voila! Sparkling wine.
An easier alternative is to do this via the transfer method (secondary fermentation is done in a different bottle, eliminating the need for a riddler). Even easier is the Tank (or Charmat) method (secondary fermentation is done in a tank), and the easiest is by adding Carbon Dioxide to still wine (similar to the way soda is made).
Rule of thumb in wine is that the harder it took to get made, the more expensive it is. Let me give you a couple of neat party tricks to be able to tell good quality sparkling wine without having to read the label and googling it:
First, look at the mousse (in the interest of making you sound smart, try to use mousse to refer to bubbles in a sparkling wine *wink wink*). If the mousse is relatively small in nature and goes up in a straight, uniform manner, then you must be looking at good stuff. Second, if after a nice long conversation with your date the bubbles are still there, it must be a stupendous bottle of bubbly. Compare this with soda bubbles (larger in size, not uniform at all, and disappears before you get to fully bask in your date’s compliments).
We have figured out quality, now let’s talk about taste. If you do decide to purchase a bottle of bubblly, most likely, you will encounter the word “Brut”, which means “Dry”. Dry in wine lingo does not mean the lack of liquid, but the absence of sweetness. You will encounter a bready taste with a proper Brut… Which makes sense because the secondary fermentation will make yeast more pronounced on the palate.
You know, just like bread uses yeast to become bread…? Yeah yeah, my sense of humor is just so Brut (har har). But if you like ’em sweet, try to look for stuff that say “Doux”.
Best Sparklies? Cristal holds such prestige in terms of price and quality that rappers like Jay-Z and Diddy devote songs on these babies. You got your Dom Perignon, named after the monk who discovered the best bottle to use for Champagne and the three grapes used. You have your Moet & Chandon, a staple on most prestigious Hollywood and fashion events. There’s the Veuve Cliquot, named after the widow (Veuve is French for widow) Madame Cliquot Ponsardin, who invented the riddling method and revolutionized the Champagne industry. If you are feeling the whole James Bond vibe, Bollinger is associated with him.
Of course, Champagne can be on the pricey side. What if you want decent sparkling wine and are lacking in funds?
You have your Cava (check out Barcino’s, which specializes in these Catalan creations) or Prosecco. For those with a sweet tooth, the Asti is a nice, reliably sweet wine that always seems to make an appearance in weddings and debuts.
Let me leave you with one last trivia: Do you know that no matter what the sparkling wine or brand it is, the metal cage that holds the cork in place needs to have its tab turned exactly 6 times to the left for it to open? I often sing Beyonce’s Irreplaceable in my head while opening one up (“To the left, to the left…”).
On a personal note, I like enjoying my sparkling wines as part of a good brunch, in the form of Mimosas. Grab a champagne flute, put in one part orange juice and one part sparkling wine. For my friends with a sweet tooth, go for an Asti. Personally, I’m not a big fan of sweet, so I go for Fontana and Prosecco. That, a cup of black coffee, Eric Kayser’s Croissant and Danish… Mmmmm.
Let me know about your amazing sparkling discoveries. Have a Sparkling 2014 and Cheers!!!