John JuergensBring on the Bubbly

It's hard to believe it is time for the bubbly again. Where did this year go?

The last couple of years have been very good for the sparkling wine industry, mainly because of the year 2000 and moving into the new millennium, even though many people thought they were one in the same. But that's okay, it was nice to have a little something extra to celebrate two years running.

I suppose this year will be one of mixed emotions for a lot of people. The country certainly needs a big party to shake off some of the residual effects of our national trauma. But, on the other hand, the song Auld Lang Syne will take on special meaning this year.

It has long been my philosophy that the more serious the situation or the topic of conversation, the greater the need for humor to maintain perspective. And the greater the trauma, the greater the need for a counter balancing uplifting event.

In 1994 our area suffered a terrific ice storm that destroyed majestic 100-year-old oak trees, toppled major power transmission towers, and pretty much brought life to a halt for about a week. After the initial novelty of the situation wore off, most of us found life to be a bit uncomfortable, to say the least. So what I and many other people did was to give myself a bit of a treat to compensate for the discomfort and inconvenience associated with the lack of electricity, heat, and water. Since the food in the freezer was thawing and the wines in the cellar were chilling, why not bring out the good stuff?

This served two functions: First, it helped to take my mind off the situation and it gave me a nice, warm glow. Second, it provided a sense of satisfaction in that I were not going to be beaten by the elements and that I could still live well through the crisis rather than just enduring it.

I think this is the approach we need to take this New Year's. We can remember, but we can also heal with merriment and celebration. This is where Champagne and sparkling wines do their best work.

There is something about carbonated beverages in general that seems to fascinate us humans. Stick a glass of bubbling, fizzing liquid under the nose of any animal and the critter will leave its fur behind trying to get away from it (this must be the way they make Chihuahuas). But put it in front of a human and watch their eyes light up. Snapple is good, but it will never beat out soda pop in popularity.

There is nothing like a sparkling wine to set a party mood in any situation. If I owned a funeral home, I would always have Champagne flowing for guests during the visitation to help celebrate the deceased's life on earth and to brighten the spirits of the living. I sure hope this is done when I go to that big vineyard in the sky.

You will notice that I have been using the terms Champagne and sparkling wine. To the majority of people they are interchangeable; however, I must remain pure. Technically, and emotionally for the French, true Champagne comes only from the small Champagne region in northeast France. Everything else is just sparkling wine. To give you some perspective on its size, Champagne comprises only about 85,000 acres, which is less than one-half the size of New York City.

Every country that makes wine also produces some amount of sparkling wine. In addition, many of the great French Champagne producers have set up shop in new world countries to apply their expertise to the fruit of the local terroir. This produces wines that have tastes unique to that area, but with a certain genealogical connection to the old world.

There are two primary ways of making sparkling wines: Through natural fermentation processes, and by mechanical carbonation similar to the way carbonated soft drinks are made. True Champagne is always made through the natural process, which is called methode champenoise. This process is very labor intensive, hence the higher price for Champagne and other sparkling wines made by this method. The mechanical method is called the Charmat process, named after its French inventor, Eugene Charmat. Also called "bulk process," this is the least expensive way of making a sparkling wine, and about three-fourths of the sparkling wine produced in the U.S. is made this way. By law, the method of production must appear somewhere on the label.

Only with sparkling wine do price and quality approach a linear relationship, i.e. you get what you pay for. If you think about it, there are some pretty hefty fixed costs associated with producing sparkling wine: The heavy bottle, metal closure, state and federal taxes, shipping, and wholesaler and retailer markups. All of these must be added on top of the cost of the fruit and production costs.

If you assume these fixed costs are about the same for both a $10 wine and a $30 wine, you can do the math to see how much of the price is devoted to the most important components - the fruit and the method of production.

I have developed some rules of thumb for approximate price points and quality. These days, just about any sparkling wine under $10 will have been made with the bulk process. Although this sort of wine might be good for quaffing, toasting, and spraying around locker rooms, the quality and fruit flavors will be mediocre. It will get the job done, but it will be as memorable as a kiss on the forehead.

When you go above $10 you start to find wines made with the methode champenoise process, which gives the wine much more complexity and depth of flavor. One of my favorites in this category is Domaine Ste. Michelle from Washington State. Another is Freixenet from Spain.

When you get up to around $20 you will start finding some excellent American sparkling wines. Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger (now Pacific Echo) are very high quality wines. Other good wines made here by French Champagne houses include Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa Valley, and Piper Sonoma.

You can start finding some pretty good French Champagnes once you move into the $25 range, but my reference wine for true Champagne in the middle price tier is non-vintage yellow label Veuve Cliquot, which you can find for $32 to $38. For my taste, this wine is as good or better than many wines at twice the price, and I believe it is better than the legendary Dom Perignon at about $100.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of sparkling wines is the confusing nomenclature that connotes the degree of sweetness. I say connote because none of these terms are linked directly to a specific amount of sugar in the wine. Therefore, you will find variability among wine makers in the degree of sweetness even though they have the same label. The following are the most commonly seen descriptors:

  • Brut or Natural - Bone dry
  • Extra Dry - Just a hint to a touch of sweetness
  • Dry - Similar to a White Zinfandel in sweetness.

Another rule of thumb is the sweeter the wine the cooler it needs to be. Conversely, if you are drinking a Brut or Extra Dry sparkler, you don't want to make it ice cold; this will hide the majority of the flavors and aromas. The ideal temperature for a good sparkling wine is 50 - 55 degrees, which you can achieve with about two hours in the refrigerator. Whatever you do, avoid putting the wine in the freezer for a quick chill. This can actually kill some of the flavors, and if it gets too cold the bottle can shatter. And as a friend once told me, sorting the wine crystals from the glass shards is a bitch.

A couple of final notes on how to serve and handle your glass of Champagne or sparkling wine. If at all possible, serve the wine in a tall flute. This shape helps concentrate the aromas. And, as opposed to still wine, do not swirl the wine in your glass to release the aromas. This is the job of the bubbles, and you will only succeed in driving them out prematurely. It has been estimated that there are about 49 million bubbles in the standard bottle of Champagne. And since a large part of the price you pay for the wine is specifically to get those bubbles, you certainly don't want to waste a single one of them.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Dec. 21, 2001

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