By Patrick Evans-Hylton
Elongated flutes of gold-hued elixir, sparkling with the slightest hint of light and thousands of tiny bubbles that ride the length of the glass; this is champagne, and it is magic.
An imbibe often reserved for the most special of occasions, champagne shines during the holidays, rightfully taking its place at the head of the celebratory table. What event isn’t more special when the air is pierced with the loud pop of the cork announcing the presence of sparkling wine?
The sparkle comes from the bubbles – a result of adding additional yeast and sugar to wine, creating a second alcoholic fermentation in the bottle, then turning the resting bottle in timely intervals. This method from the Benedictine monks, was first recorded in 1531 in southern France. Not all sparkling wines use this traditional method, Méthode Champenoise, of a second fermentation in the bottle; some wines get their sparkle by having carbon dioxide injected into the quaff.
For a wine to be called Champagne (notice the capital “C”), it must be produced in the Champagne region of France, and typically follows traditional production methods. Most Champagne is made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes and is also non-vintage, meaning that the juice from a number of harvests are blended together to create the wine. Non-vintage is usually indicated with the letters “NV” on the label.
Like other white and rosé wines, sparkling wines are best enjoyed chilled - around 45 degrees F. Place the champagne in the refrigerator about three hours before you need it, or in a bucket of ice water for about a half-hour. The bottle should never be placed in a freezer. Once opened, keep in an ice bucket to maintain temperature while enjoying. The best glass for serving sparkling wine is a champagne flute, which is tall and elongated, designed to facilitate the flow of bubbles and concentrate the flavors and aromas of the quaff.
Other popular sparklings you may encounter
Cava – a sparkling Spanish wine crafted in a traditional champenoise method using Spanish grapes like Macabeo, Parellada, and/or Xarel-lo. Styles range from dry to sweet. The differences in Cava and Champagne are often subtle, coming from grape varietals and terroir.
Prosecco – typically a brut (pronounced broot – meaning “dry”) or extra-dry sparkling that’s made with Glera (also known as Prosecco) grapes. It is often lighter and more crisp than traditional Champagne. Secondary fermentation is done either in stainless tanks, or in the bottle.
Spumante/Asti – a light, sweeter sparkling from Italy typically made with the Moscato grape. Secondary fermentation is done either in stainless tanks, or in the bottle.
Many times sparkling wines are designated according to how dry or how sweet they are (determined by the sugar content) with this terminology:
Brut – a dry sparkling, perhaps the most common - great to pair with food
Extra Brut – a very dry sparkling often enjoyed on its own, such as at a cocktail party
Extra Dry – a moderately dry sparkling good to enjoy on its own, such as an aperitif
Demi-Sec – a moderately sweet sparkling, a good finish to a meal or paired with sweets
Blanc de blancs – translates to “white of white” and indicates a white fleshed/white skinned grape, like Chardonnay, was used in the Champagne
Blanc de noirs – translates to “white of black” and indicates a white fleshed/black skinned grape, like Pinot Noir, was used in the Champagne
A CLASSIC CHAMPAGNE COCKTAIL
- Sugar Cube
- Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters
- Lemon Twist
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute and sprinkle 2-3 dashes of bitters on the cube; do not crush sugar cube. Fill the flute with sparkling wine, squeeze a lemon twist on top, and drop in as a garnish.
Optional: Add 1 teaspoon Cognac to flute before adding champagne.
Patrick Evans-Hylton is TASTE’s resident foodie, hosting a number of delicious events throughout the year. The Johnson & Wales-trained chef and wine and cheese expert is an award-winning food journalist, covering tasty trends since 1995 in print, broadcast and electronic media. He is publisher of Virginia Eats + Drinks Magazine; subscribe free at www.facebook.com/VirginiaEatsDrinksMag