Jeff’s Corner 12-27-16

With the hustle and bustle and stress of Christmas behind us, it’s time to tune in and see what’s in store for 2017. In fact, with New Year’s Eve on a Saturday night, there should be lots of “poppage” going on around the world. Since November and December account for about 70% of annual sales for Champagne and sparkling wine, this seems to be a good time to check out these most festive of wines.

Sparkling wine is produced throughout the world, but in order to be rightfully called “Champagne” it must be produced in the Champagne region of north-central France. All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.

Sparkling wine can be made one of four ways, with the best and costliest being the “Methode Champenoise”. Here, the wine is naturally fermented in the actual bottle we buy, and the carbonation in the wine is the by-product of this fermentation. This is the only legal means of production in Champagne, and the wine creates tiny bubbles (beads) which rise from the bottom of our flute for a long time. Sparklers produced by the Methode Champenoise will, in some manner, say so on the label.

Legend tells us that Dom Perignon (1638-1715), a Benedictine Monk and cellar master at the Abbey de Hautvillers, first discovered (or created) Champagne. This is indeed legend; but what he did do was refine bottle making and corkage techniques (thicker glass and tying the cork to the bottle) to withstand pressure reaching 6 pounds per square inch. Still, about 1/2 his bottles would burst apart!

Many different grape varieties are used to produce sparking wine, and different regions of the world call sparklers by different names. In Champagne, only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier can be legally used.

In the Loire Valley of France, Chenin Blanc is used to make “Cremant”, while Germany predominately uses Riesling to produce “Sekt”. In Italy, “Spumante” is made from Muscat, Prosecco, and Brachetto, while Spain’s “Cava” is from Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. In Bulgaria, sparkling wine is called “Champanski”, which always makes me laugh!

As I’ve said before, we can tell a lot about what’s in the bottle by what’s on the label. A lot of the quality of a sparkler is determined by how it is made. Again, the Methode Champenoise produces the best wines, and we may also see this worded by something like “naturally fermented in this bottle”. Lower quality wines will say on the label “Charmat Process” or “Transfer Method”.

Labeling will also tell us how dry or sweet a sparkler is in terms of residual sugar. “Extra Brut” is less than .6 %, “Brut” less than 1.5%, “Extra Dry” 1.2-2%, “Sec” 1.7-3.5%, “Demi-Sec” 3.3-5%, and “Doux” over 5%. The last two are very sweet and considered dessert wines.

Finally, a little bit about style. Great Champagnes and sparkling wines are made from both white and red grapes. A wine labeled “Blanc de Blanc” is from a white grape, shows little color, and is very crisp with high acidity. If we see “Blanc de Noir” or “Brut Rose” we have a more fruity wine, with color ranging from light copper to salmon.

Purists say not to pop the cork because it wastes carbonation. They’re right, but there is something very celebratory and beckoning about that loud POP! (That’s for you, Miguel!) Happy New Year, everyone…