Bring on the Bubbles!
© by April Eichmeier

In 2005, Americans consumed 185,400,000 million cases of regular wine, but only 12,045,000 cases of that was Champagne or other sparkline wine.

We can do better than that!

Contrary to popular opinion, Champagne and sparkling wine are not just for celebrations. Many fine bubblies are affordable - check my recommendations below - and quite amenable to food. Plus, it's fun.

The Basics

Here's the first thing you should know about Champagne and sparkling wine. "Champagne" is from the Champagne region, in northeastern France. Anything else should be called sparkling wine.

Particular countries have different words for their bubbles: In Spain it's cava. In Italy it's spumante or frizzante, and it bears regional labels like Asti, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Trento and others. Even sparkling wine made in other areas of France than Champagne must use a different name - most often "Cremant" with a regional adjective like Cremant d'Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne or Cremant de la Loire. In the United States we call it plain old sparkling wine, although a few producers - mostly makers of cheaper wines - still abuse the French word under a "grandfathered" exception to the rule that's gradually going away.

True French Champagne by regulation may be made only from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes or a combination of these. The rest of the world is wide open: The grapes used depend on local regulations and custom. Spanish Cava is made from local Spanish grapes with names like Macabeo; Italian Prosecco takes its name from its grape. Many sparkling wines (including Italian Trento) use the same grapes as Champagne in flattering imitation.

The Bubbles

Sparkling wine is produced in several ways.

Methode Champenoise: This is the traditional Champagne process. The wine is first bottled as still (non-sparkling) wine, with yeast added to induce a second fermentation in the bottle, which creates the bubbles. A bit of sugar may be added in the so-called "dosage" when the yeast sediment is removed and the wine corked for further aging and delivery.

Charmat: In this process, the secondary fermentation occurs not in individual bottles but in large vats. This process - common in Prosecco and in lower-price American sparkling wines - is said to create larger, less delicate bubbles, but it makes a more affordable wine.

Carbonation: Carbon dioxide gas is pumped into still wine much like the manufacturing process for soft drinks. Not to be too judgmental, but this method is generally limited to cheap, forgettable wines perhaps best left for dorm-room consumption.

Speaking of bubbles, one of the primary barriers to enjoying a glass of bubbly on a weekday evening is concern that the leftovers will lose their fizz in the fridge. You can buy air-tight stoppers to hold the carbonation, though. I found one at Sur La Table that works quite well. Or look for half-bottles or the mini-bottles called splits. I like to keep one in the fridge at all times. (WineLoversPage.com publisher Robin Garr suggests a simpler process: Simply plaster a square of plastic cling wrap over the bottle neck and, if you're super-cautious, hold it on with a rubber band. Or throw caution to the wind and simply put the open bottle in the fridge. Because CO2 is heavier than air, a protective blanket of gas will quickly form in the bottle and do a surprisingly good job of holding the sparkle for a day or two.)

It's best to drink your sparkling wine out of the tall, slender glass called a "flute," not the broad, bird-bath-shaped bowl often seen at wedding receptions. The tall glass enhances the stream of bubbles and keeps the gas in the wine from escaping.

Sparkling wine styles

Like most still wines, Champagne and sparkling wines are made in a range of styles from sugar-sweet to bone-dry. The dryness factor depends on a variety of variables, such as the amount of sugar in the dosage. These are the standard terms for true Champagne; they're also sometimes adopted for other sparkling wines:

Brut Nature: Bone-dry
Brut: Dry
Extra Dry: Semi-sweet
Sec: Sweet
Demi-sec: Very sweet

It's counterintuitive that "Extra Dry" actually means semi-sweet. This may appear to be one of those items that falls in the "parking in a driveway, driving in a parkway" category. Actually, it goes back to the 19th Century, when most people preferred their bubbly on the sweet side, and "Sec" ("dry") was the least sugary style available. As dry wines became more popular in modern times, the industry had to invent new terms to describe them.

With Food

During cooler weather, reach for a sparkling wine with eggs or, for that matter, with just about any food match. If you're prone to eat heavier foods during the fall and winter, you may find that sparkling wine cuts the richness of a hearty roast chicken and potato dish. And around the holidays, it's hard to beat sparkling wine with a cheese course.

In warmer weather, reach for bubbly every day. Okay, maybe not for informal barbecues (although Prosecco is great with BBQ), but bubbles work great with salads, grilled chicken and white fish, just to name a few.

I make these recommendations with dry sparkling wine in mind, but one could easily pair some Extra Dry wines.

Recommendations

I've tried to limit these to more widely available brands - most should be available at larger wine stores. Don't worry about vintage - sparkling wines tend to be blends of several years rather than vintage-dated. The major French producers make very high-end vintage sparklers of great quality, but these run up into the three-figure range and, for some, represent an acquired taste. Non-vintage bubbly is fine for everyday enjoyment.

Prosecco - Rotari, Rustico and Zardetto. Zardetto bubbles go fast - consume it at one sitting.

Cava - I enjoy Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut and Cristalino.

Sparkling wine. Sofia in a can is not bad (and it keeps well)! I also enjoy Korbel and Gloria Ferrer wines, and for a splurge, Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blanc.

Champagne (the real stuff). In general, real Champagne is going to cost a little more. But in many cases, nothing beats the real thing. For reasonably-priced wines (as in, less than $50), I recommend Egly-Ouriet and Michel Turgy. Even though you have heard of Dom Perignon, there are much better wines for the price. I like Bollinger. Trivia: James Bond drinks 1961 Bollinger.

This only touches the surface of sparkling wine - I've barely touched on its heritage, its production and age-worthiness. But I hope this quick overview gives you more confidence to try a few. You will enjoy it. Cheers!

December 2006

To contact April Eichmeier, write her at aeichmeier@hotmail.com.

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