You guessed it! A bottle of bubbly, of course. But which bottle should you pop this year? Here’s a little inside scoop about the different sparkling wines and what you should expect from your bottle tonight.
Overview of the Bubbling Process
Ever wondered how they put the bubbles in the bottle? It actually comes from a second fermentation process, traditionally called the Champagne Method. After the first fermentation and bottling, the winemaker adds yeast and sugar, which produces carbon dioxide and additional alcohol. The bottle is stored in a cool place for 9 months or more and turned occasionally (by hand in some wineries) then placed upside down to allow the sediment to settle near the cap. When the wine is ready, the bottle neck is frozen and the cap removed. The pressure from the carbon dioxide causes the icy sediment to explode from the bottle. The cap is then quickly replaced to preserve the bubbles in the wine. It’s a can be a dangerous process if done by hand, so most winemakers opt for machines to complete this process in modern times. Furthermore, not all sparkling wine is produced in the bottle, so if you see “Champagne Method” or simply “Method” on the label, this means that the wine was produced in this traditional fashion (although this method may be described differently for different varieties of sparkling wine).
Types of Bubbly
There are many different types of sparkling wine with a variety of qualities and methods of production. Though many parts of the world such as Portugal, South Africa and Australia produce amazing bubbly wine, the most popular varieties in the U.S. are champagne, prosecco, cava and California sparkling wine.
There’s a major misconception about the term “champagne.” Not every bubbly wine can be called this, even though a few farcical California vineyards throw this wine law to the wind. The only true champagne comes from the Champagne region of France, which lies about an hour and a half northeast of Paris. This region of France claims to have originally invented the traditional method of making bubbly wine (though some Spanish monks may disagree) so it’s considered very prestigious. It must be made from three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Typically, champagne is dry with great acidity, though a few sweeter versions exist.
Italian bubbly wine, known as prosecco, is produced in the hills of Veneto in northeast Italy. Instead of using the elegant Champagne Method, Italian winemakers generally use a stainless steel tank for the second fermentation process, known as the Charmat Method. Prosecco is known for its light, fruity freshness, sometimes with a subtle floral nature, and generally yields lower alcohol levels than many of its still wine counterparts. It is best consumed young, within 2 years of release.
Spanish sparkling wine is named “cava” because of the cool cellars in which it is produced. It is generally made with the Champagne method and called “champán” colloquially – though they are not allowed to use that name on the label due to EU law. Produced mainly in the Penedès region in Catalonia, southwest of Barcelona, the Spanish winemakers also use different grape varieties than what is required for champagne. In general, the more expensive cava is drier, and the less expensive cava is much sweeter.
California Sparkling Wine
Current US regulations ban the use of the term “champagne” on any wines not produced in Champagne, except if the label was in use before 2006. Sparkling wines produced in the United States are made with both the champagne method (for more expensive) and the charmat method (for less expensive). Most often produced in California with chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, American sparkling wine tends to steer towards fresh fruit aromatics and less toward the mineral-driven, chalky character of classic Champagne. This is because of the great amount of sunlight the grapes are exposed to in California compared to France.
Classifications of Bubbly
Sparkling wines are generally categorized as Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec and Demi-sec, depending on their sugar levels. These classifications can be somewhat confusing, but keep in mind, that in wine terms “dry” is the opposite of “sweet.” Brut is the most common style of bubbly offering a typically crisp, dry palate appeal.
- Extra Brut – “extra” dry
- Brut – dry (most popular style and very food-friendly)
- Extra Dry – middle of the road dry, not as dry as Brut (great as an aperitif)
- Sec – more sweet than dry
- Demi-sec – pretty sweet (pair with fruit and dessert)
Champagne and sparkling wines are also categorized as “vintage” or “non-vintage” (NV on the label) meaning they either come from a single year or are a blend of several different years. Typically, the makers of sparkling wine aim to make their wine taste exactly the same every year, to the point that they test the taste scientifically. They are allowed to mix a certain number of grapes from different years to make the taste exactly right. However, if the year yields an amazing grape, they are allowed to make a vintage sparkling wine with the grapes from only that year. The vintage champagnes are generally pricier (and supposedly tastier), as the non-vintage champagnes and sparkling wines make up the majority of the market.
Suggestions from Blue Plate’s List
So, now that you know a bit more about the bubbles, allow me to suggest a few bottles from Blue Plate’s wine list:
NV, Champagne, $125
If you’re looking for a beautifully classic, top-of-the-line champagne, this bottle is for you. It will deliver exactly what a champagne should be: full mouthed, robust dry flavor with a lot of tiny beautiful bubbles. Toasting with Heidsieck will bring the New Year in with class and style.
2016, Cava Brut Rose, $49
This vintage cava was produced with only grapes from 2016 because the yield was considered to be so tasty. Because the red skins of the grapes were left longer than normal in the fermentation process, the wine has a light pink color. It’s more dry than sweet with slight floral notes. It also has a beautiful label (always counts for something right? 😉 ).
NV, Prosecco Superiore, $45
If you’re looking for a middle-of-the-line bubbly with a similar taste to that of classic champagne, this is the way to go. Made with the traditional Champagne method, this walks the middle line between dry champagne and sweeter prosecco perfectly. It pairs well with any dish, but can also be tasty on its own.
Well, I hope this blog post will help you clink your way to a fantastic New Year. Many thanks to Blue Plate’s owner Elli Roustom for her generous offering of wine tastings & teachings this winter. If you have any further questions, anyone on our serving staff will be happy to help. If I don’t see you tonight, I’ll see you in 2019! HAPPY NEW YEAR!