CHAMPAGNE & PROSECCO & CAVA, OH MY! - A Guide to Sparkling Wine
We’ve all tasted sparkling wine, at the very least around the holidays or when celebrating a special occasion: Champagne has become the drink of special occasions and Christmas, a status symbol in a delicate flute, yet Americans still don’t know much about it, which means we don’t really know how to drink it either. The French still consume more than half of the Champagne produced. And though the U.S. is the second biggest export market behind the United Kingdom, according to the U.S.-based Champagne Bureau, Americans tend to reserve Champagne for special occasions, when we really should be having it year-round, if for no other reason than it is perhaps the most versatile and foolproof food pairing wine out there.
Furthermore, most people have no idea what the difference is between wines such as Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco—or how they even get the bubbles into the wine in the first place. Let us explain. Time for a history lesson.
“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”—Dom Pierre Pérignon, O.S.B.
Sorry folks, but the famous monk never said that upon first tasting champagne. In fact, he considered the bubbles a mistake and spent years trying to get rid of them. When the weather cooled off in the autumn, fermentation would sometimes stop before all the fermentable sugars had been converted to alcohol. If the wine was bottled in this state, it became a literal time bomb. When the weather warmed in the spring, the dormant yeast roused themselves and began generating carbon dioxide that would at best push the cork out of the bottle, and at worst explode, starting a chain reaction. Nearby bottles, also under pressure, would break from the shock of the first breakage, and so on, which was a hazard to winemakers and to that year’s production. Dom Pérignon thus tried to avoid refermentation.
It was actually the British who first saw the tendency of Champagne to sparkle as a desirable trait, and tried to understand why it did bubble. As a wealthy and powerful nation with limited winemaking resources, England had a marked influence on the development of sparkling Champagne. Non-sparkling Champagne became popular in London society following the arrival of epicurean Charles de Saint-Évremond in 1661. At parties and banquets, Saint-Évremond feverishly promoted the wines of the Champagne region. Soon some of the most powerful and fashionable men of London, such as William Russell, 1st Duke of Bedford, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington were making regular orders of cases of Champagne. The wine was non-sparkling, or at least it was intended to be. Wine was often transported to England in wooden wine barrels and merchant houses would then bottle the wine for sale. During the 17th century, English glassmakers used coal-fueled ovens and produced stronger, more durable glass bottles than wood-fired French glass. The English also rediscovered the use of cork stoppers, once used by the Romans but forgotten for centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. When the wine was shipped to and bottled in England, if the fermentation process restarted when the weather warmed, instead of exploding, the cork-stoppered wine in heavy glass bottles would begin to build pressure from carbon dioxide gas. As a result, when the bottle was opened, the magnificent sparkling wine would be able to be enjoyed.
Other Types of Sparkling Wine
Unlike Champagne, its Italian cousin Prosecco is produced using the Charmat-Martinotti method, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, making the wine less expensive to produce.
Catalan sparkling wine was first made as early as 1851, although the roots of the cava industry can be traced back to Josep Raventós’s travels through Europe in the 1860s, where he was promoting the still wines of the Codorníu Winery. His visits to Champagne sparked an interest in the potential of a Spanish wine made using the same traditional method. He created his first sparkling wine in 1872, after the vineyards of Penedès were devastated by the phylloxera plague, and the predominantly red vines were being replaced by large numbers of vines producing white grapes.
How to Open a Bottle of Champagne (or any Sparkling Wine) Properly
Do you know what the result is of opening a bottle of Champagne like they do in the movies? You waste roughly a third of the wine and are left with a sticky floor. A Champagne bottle has three times a car tire’s pressure, so that wire cage on the top has a real purpose. Don’t take it off until you’re ready to drink the Champagne, and always twist the bottle, not the cork, for a smooth opening. As the cork begins to release, you’ll start to feel pressure on the cork from inside the bottle. Don’t just let it pop out but keep applying pressure and ease it out gently. The Champagne should “whisper” a satisfied sigh of effervescence as the cork releases.
Now that you have your bottle open, it’s time to choose a glass.
Contrary to popular belief, Champagne flutes are not the best glasses for properly enjoying the wine’s aromas.
Ah, the coupe, that classic modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breasts, that’s the correct choice, yes? Sorry, wrong again. The wide glass will open up the wine’s bouquet, but it will also release the bubbles too quickly, leaving you with flat wine before you have a chance to finish the glass. Oh, and that story about Marie Antoinette? Never happened.
The White Wine Glass
Yes, dear reader, the humble white wine glass is actually the perfect choice for enjoying a glass of sparkling wine. Halfway between a flute and a coupe, it allows the wine to breathe, without releasing the bubbles too quickly. The flute and coupe were created for rich people with more money than taste.
And There You Have It
You are now a sparkling wine expert. Stop by any of our six locations and our knowledgeable staff will help you stock up on these spectacular wines. And do remember to drink it responsibly: