Bubbles are the trademark of sparkling wines. Champagnes bring to mind celebrations and raising fluted glasses amid glowing candles. Before toasting the new year with an old stand-by, consider trying something different.
Champagne is a sparkling wine, but sparkling wines are not always Champagnes. The most common sparkling wines are prosecco from Italy and cava from Spain. French sparkling wines also include Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs and Crement. Legally, wines labeled "Champagne" can only come from that region in France. There are a few American "champagnes," but they are additionally labeled with their own region of origin (i.e. Napa.)
Though the creation of Champagne, or sparkling wine, has been attributed to that infamous Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, ancient Greeks and Romans described effervescence in wines, and other Benedictine monks wrote of drinking a sparkling wine over 100 years before Dom Perignon. A British scientist named Christopher Merret recorded the process of creating bubbles through a second fermentation, which he called methode champenoise, years before Dom Perignon arrived at the Abbey. The British were actually the first to see the bubbles in the wine as a desirable trait rather than a detriment.
Originally bubbles were thought to be a flaw in wine, but good marketing sold the wine to royalty then to a growing middle class as a luxury item.
In fact, Dom Perignon was given the task of trying to remove the bubbles from the wine because bottles were exploding and injuring workers in the cellars. Carbon dioxide would develop from the combination of residual sugar and yeast laying dormant over the winter and fermenting again with warming spring temperatures. Today the process is controlled through a series of steps and several bottling and fermentation methods.
Champagnes are traditionally made only from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, and can be blends of different vintages. If a bottle is marked "vintage," or displays a specific year, at least 85% of the grapes are from that year. "Non-vintage" champagnes will be a blend of a single year's grapes and 10 to 40 percent of older vintages. Blanc de Blancs are made with only white grapes (usually Chardonnay,) while Blanc de Noirs are made with predominantly red grapes (usually Pinot Noir) and sometimes have a slightly pink tinge.
Prosecco is becoming more popular as a reasonably priced alternative to Champagne. Produced from the Glera grape in the Veneto region of Italy, it isn't as quite as complex but is light, fresh and should be enjoyed right away rather than cellared.
Cava is Spain's favorite sparkler. It can be produced by various grapes, but the predominant region is Penedes in Catalonia. The word "cava" is derived from the Latin word for cave and the Greek term for special table wines. This sparkling wine dates back to 1872 when Josep Raventos experimented with methode champenoise. He liked the results, and his estate, Cordoniu, still produces cava today.
The degree of sweetness of the wine generally depends on the amount of sugar added during the second fermentation process. Look for the following terms on the labels to find your preference.
Brut Natural or Brut Zero is considered the driest of Champagnes with less than three grams of sugar per liter. Extra Brut contains less than six grams of sugar per liter. Brut is the most common level of sweetness, still somewhat dry at less than 12 grams of sugar per liter. Extra dry, Extra Sec or Extra Seco wines contain 12 to 17 grams of sugar per liter, followed by Dry, Sec or Seco at 17 to 32 grams. Demi-Sec or Semi-Seco (32 to 50 grams of sugar per liter) and Sweet, Doux or Dulce (over 50 grams) wines are the sweetest designations.
Locally, Champagne and sparkling wine selections vary. True French Champagnes will be more expensive, the costs of history, House names and consistency. Moet et Chandon wines are readily available. Look also for Tattinger and Veuve Cliquot de Ponsardin. Gloria Ferrer produces an excellent California Blanc de Noirs.
Friexenet and Cristalino are two popular cavas. Priced under $10 per bottle, they are both mainstream choices for bubbly wine.
Proseccos are similar to Champagne where differences in fruit and floral notes are noticeable from winery to winery. It's a less expensive alternative and still very interesting. Talk to a local purveyor such as Casa di Vino, which has several choices, to find the right fit for your tastes.
To your health and a safe and happy new year.
Glynis Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.