Champagne 101 & 7 Sparkling Picks for Ringing in the New Year!

With New Year’s Eve only a few days away, do you know your Champagne from your Crémant? If not, never fear, here’s your guide to sparkling wines from around the world along with six of our favorites available at The Wine Atelier.

First things first…
In any discussion about Champagne and sparkling wine it’s important to note only a sparkling wine from the 9,900 square mile Champagne region of France can actually be called Champagne. Even if a sparkling wine is made in the same method as Champagne but is from outside the region, it must be called something else. Other sparkling wines from around the world include Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain, Sekt from Germany, and Crémant from other regions in France (i.e. Crémant d’Alsace). So remember, while all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne.

Methods of Production
As discussed, sparkling wines are made in many winemaking regions around the world utilizing a vast number of different grape varieties. However, all sparkling wines, regardless of where they’re from, must undergo a secondary fermentation in order to get their bubbles. This process follows a primary fermentation and blending of still base wines to create a cuvée that is then ready to undergo the bubble-making process. The method by which a wine undergoes its second alcoholic fermentation is critical in determining a sparkling wine’s  flavor, quality, ageability, and ultimately its price. Here are three of the most common methods:

1.) Invented in Italy, the Charmat Method requires a wine’s secondary fermentation take place in stainless steel tanks, not in individual bottles. Grapes such as Glera, used to make Prosecco, are well suited for this method which produces wines that are light, fruity and meant to be consumed while young and fresh. This method is very cost effective and produces sparkling wines which usually represent great values, making them perfect for “everyday” enjoyment and more casual occasions. Sparkling wines like Prosecco are also great choices for making sparkling wine based drinks such as Mimosas, Bellinis and Rosemary Pomegranate Royales, a Glamorous Gourmet favorite!

2.) In the Transfer Method, sparkling wine undergoes its secondary fermentation in individual bottles much like the classic Méthode Traditionelle, however, once the secondary fermentation has completed, the wine is transferred into stainless steel tanks where it is combined with other wines to undergo filtration and dosage. Dosage is the process which determine a sparkling wine’s level of sweetness (i.e. Brut, Demi-Sec). The sparkling wine is then put into new bottles and shipped out for sale. This method allows for complexity to be achieved in the final wine and also helps to keep bottle to bottle variation in check.

3.) Last, but definitely not least, is the Méthode Champenoise, also known as the Méthode Traditionelle or Traditional Method. This method of production requires that the wine’s secondary fermentation occurs in the same bottle the wine is later served from. While the aforementioned methods allow the wine to be filtered and even undergo dosage in stainless steel tanks, sparkling wine made using the Traditional Method must undergo the process of riddling to remove the sediment, a normal byproduct of secondary fermentation, from each individual bottle.

During the riddling process, the bottles are inserted into an A-shaped rack, also known as a “pupitre“, so they are parallel to the floor. Over time, they are gradually inverted in order to coax the sediment into the neck of the bottle where it is later removed through the process of disgorgement. Riddling can be done either manually by hand, or mechanically by gyropalette. Prestige cuvées are usually done manually which takes about three months while less expensive sparklers made in this method are done mechanically which takes approximately one week. As you can see, the Méthode Champenoise is more time and labor intensive than any of the other methods discussed, which generally translates to both higher quality and price. The Traditional Method is used to make Champagne, Cava and many sparkling wines from New World wine regions as well. Sparkling wines made using this method will usually have it prominently displayed on the label.

Serving & Glassware
Which glassware you use when serving sparkling wine will depend on the type of sparkling wine involved as well as the occasion. If you’re drinking a Prosecco or other reasonably priced sparkler for a festive occasion or even brunch, by all means break out the flutes! These elongated glasses make a festive presentation and are perfect for toasting a special occasion. If you’ll be enjoying a pricier sparkler such as a nice non-vintage Brut or vintage Champagne with some age, by all means reach for your White Burgundy glasses. The tulip shape of these glasses is perfect for appreciating the complex aromas and flavors of these wines. For older sparklers and Champagnes, you may also want to serve them slightly warmer than the recommended 45 degrees for most sparkling wines. As these wines warm up (i.e. 50 degrees), the more their aromas and flavors are able to be savored and enjoyed.

7 Sparkling Recommendations
Here are 6 of our favorite sparklers perfect for ringing in the New Year and enjoying throughout 2014!

Mionetto Prosecco Brut, Treviso, Italy, NV ($14): This wine is made from 100% Glera using the aforementioned Charmat Method. It is fermented entirely in stainless steel and has fresh and fruity aromas of citrus and green apple and on the palate is very dry and light-bodied. Prosecco is the perfect bubbly to enjoy on its own as an aperitif, or as a delightful complement to appetizers such as prosciutto or mild cheeses. It is best consumed fresh and young and will not benefit from additional aging. It’s also the perfect sparkling wine to use as a base for Mimosas, Bellinis or other sparkling wine-based cocktails like Pomegranate-Rosemary Royales.

Simonnet-Febvre Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc, Burgundy, NV ($20): Like Champagne, this Crémant is made using the Méthode Traditionelle, however, since it is from France’s Burgundy wine region, it is referred to as a “Crémant,” not Champagne. This wine is a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir from 20 year old vines grown on clay and limestone soils – typical of the Chablis region. The result is a wine with fine bubbles, that is fresh on the nose with aromas of ripe yellow fruits. Drink this wine chilled as an aperitif, paired with a variety of hors d’oeuvres, or with a main course including rich seafood such as lobster and/or scallops.

Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs, North Coast, California, 2009 ($34): This domestic sparkler is made primarily from the red grape Pinot Noir, resulting in a complex, medium-bodied, brut sparkling wine. Schramsberg pioneered the Blanc de Noirs style in the US, releasing the first such American sparkler in 1967. Barrel and malolactic fermentation of particular wine lots add richness and body to this wine which is also made using the Méthode Traditionelle. The Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs is perfect for pairing with a variety of foods, including nutty cheeses, macadamia nut-crusted halibut, and roasted pork tenderloin. This wine will continue to age gracefully in the bottle for many years.

Gramona Gran Reserva Brut Nature III Lustros, Penedès, Spain, 2005 ($45): At Gramona, sparkling wines receive the longest average ageing time of any other cava and are never released until they are deemed ready. This Cava is named III Lustros because originally it was released to the market 15 years after harvest; however, currently it is aged 5 years prior to release. This wine is a blend of 70% Xarel-lo and 30% Macabeo that spends 7 years on the lees and is dosaged with 100-year-old Solera wine. This wine has aromas of oyster shell, citrus lemon, wet limestone and white flowers. The palate is well-balanced with a racy acidity on the entry, and subtle notes of apricot, lemon curd and quince that lead to a long, lingering finish. Drink now-2018 (95 points Wine Advocate)

Taittinger Nocturne Sec Rosé, France, NV ($70): While this offering easily wins the prize for most festive looking bottle, it also represents the latest release from one of Champagne’s most well-known houses. This wine is the partner to Taittinger’s existing Nocturne, a “sec” Champagne which has sweetness to it. The new Nocturne Rosé is a blend of 30% Chardonnay and 70% Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from about 30 different vineyards, aged for 4 years prior to disgorgement. With 17.5 g/l of sugar the wine is slightly sweet but pleasantly so and balanced by a cleansing acidity. Notes of ripe red berries  make this wine delightful to enjoy on its own or paired with a variety of cuisines.

Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut Champagne, NV ($75): In the 1960′s, making a non-vintage rosé Champagne was virtually unthinkable but Bernard de Nonancort, charismatic Chairman and CEO of Laurent-Perrier was just the man to make it happen! The Cuvée Rosé Brut was launched in 1968 in an elegant bottle inspired by those made in the time of French King Henri IV. On the nose are aromas of fresh strawberry, raspberry and black currant while fruit dominates the palate which is lively and well-rounded with admirable structure and a long, lingering finish. This wine pairs wonderfully with foie gras and red currants, roasted chicken with mushrooms and beef tenderloin.

Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne, NV ($180): The indisputable Chanel suit of Champagne, each bottle of Krug’s Grand Cuvée is a study in meticulous attention to detail.  The Grande Cuvée is a blend of approximately 120 wines from 10 or more different vintages, some of which may reach up to 20 years of age. Blending many vintages creates the desired symphony of aromas and flavors which exudes complexity and elegance. The full-bodied Grande Cuvée delights with enticing aromas of toasted brioche and marzipan, and complex flavors of citrus peel, hazelnuts and spice.  It coats the palate with its richness, yet remains poised and elegant through the long, luxurious finish. While delightful on its own, this wine makes an excellent pairing for dishes from an extra mature Parmesan to a dish of turbot à la truffe. (97 points Wine Spectator)

I hope this guide to Champagne and sparkling wine helps you navigate the New Year in style. The Glamorous Gourmet & The Wine Atelier would like to wish you a very Happy New Year and we look forward to sharing more food and wine fun with you in 2014!