What contains approximately 55 million bubbles, is under 7 atmospheres of pressure, can shoot its unrestrained cork at a speed of 40 mph (careful!), and is inseparable from celebrating? Why, a bottle of Champagne of course! Along with its Cremant cousins from around France, and various other sparkling styles around the world, nothing makes a good time better than bubbles. It’s the quintessential Valentine’s Day beverage! Let’s take a quick look at sparkling, the wine style that screams FUN!!!
Sparkling wine has its origins in mystery and magic!
The mechanics of fermentation have been enjoyed since ancient times, but not really understood until Pasteur explained fermentation in 1857. Simply put, yeast is introduced to grape juice and begins changing its sugar into alcohol and the gas carbon dioxide. The cold, northern climate in France originally fooled the vintners into thinking the wine was finished fermenting, so the wine was bottled. But, in the spring, the warm weather, reactived the fermentation and the excess carbon dioxide burst the bottles. That problem led to the development of better bottles that could contain the pressure, and a method for controlling it.
Champagne is synonymous with a famous monk named Monseigneur Dom Perignon. He was born in 1638 into a family who owned several vineyards, and became a Benedictine Monk at age 17. While Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne, Dom Grossard, his successor at the abbey after his death in 1715, embellished his legend and made the beverage and their Abbey famous. They improved and standardized the methods for producing Champagne. Of course, he has been immortalized by Moet & Chandon’s top cuvée named for him, Dom Perignon. Dom Perignon is always a vintage Champagne (grapes all from the same year), and the first was produced in 1921, released for sale in 1936. The White has only been made 44 times, as it’s not made in poor years. A Rosé style was introduced in 1959 (also vintage) and that has only been made 26 times.
To be called “Champagne,” the wine must be made from only certain grapes, from a specific region of France, the Champagne region, and must be produced in a certain way, called the Champagne Method. Simply put, a finished base wine, which has been blended for various characteristics of style and age suitable for champagne, is put into a bottle strong enough to withstand a controlled refermentation. A carefully measured amount of wine, yeast, and sugar is added (the liqueur de tirage), and a crown cap, as goes on top of a soda bottle, is used to seal the thicker bottle tightly. The yeast ferments the sugar, and the gas has nowhere to go except into the wine. This bottle rests in a cool cave for 3 to 5+ years. At the end, the bottle is physically manipulated to remove the yeast, opened (disgorged), and topped off with a small amount of prepared wine (called the dosage) which determines how sweet the finished product is, and then it is recorked and packaged. The disgorgement process used to be done by hand, resulting in uneven bottle filling – that is why the foil completely wraps around the neck of a champagne bottle, so you couldn’t tell how full or not full the bottle was!
Other French variations on Champagne use this method, but come from different regions of France. Since 1975 they have been called “Cremants” from their respective areas, such as Cremant d’Alsace, and Cremant d’Loire. These can be fabulous wines, and many cost less than their more famous cousins from Champagne. Another popular sparkling wine created using the Champagne method is Cava from Spain.
Other less expensive sparkling methods referment a wine blend in a temperature-controlled tank under pressure. At the appropriate time, the tank is chilled, stopping fermentation, and the wine is bottled. Prosecco, Brachetto, and Moscato d’Asti, all from Italy, are made in this fashion. These are much younger, fresher styles, and they are very popular.
Sparkling wines and Champagne are excellent for celebrating any occasion. Champagne is an elegant aperitif, and the wine’s crisp acidity allows it to pair beautifully with nearly every food style! In fact, with appropriate choices, a seven-course meal could be entirely paired with Champagne. Champagne is a perfect pairing for foods from fried chicken to dessert!
ROSES AND ROSÉ!!!
Love is always in the air but especially on Valentine’s Day! It’s an ideal celebration for Champagne, but especially for a Rosé Champagne! Because of the color, many people have a misconception that these Champagnes are sweet, but that is not the case! These wines have hints of strawberry or raspberry, along with the traditional flavors of pear and apple normally attributed to Champagne, but they are dry wines. Of course, if you prefer, there are an abundance of sweeter styles of sparkling wine like Brachetto and Moscato d’Asti to pair with all the Valentine’s candies and confections.
Sparkling wines can also be great mediums for cocktails. One of the most elegant Champagne cocktails is the Kir Royale, which is a created by adding a dash of Chambord to Champagne. Other delicious cordials like Amaretto, St. Germaine, and Midori are splashed into the Champagne creating delightful, beautiful, colorful drinks! Mimosas, the most popular of Champagne cocktails are a combination of sparkling wine and orange juice. Pineapple or cranberry juice can also be substituted for orange juice. Adding peach juice to sparkling wine creates a Bellini! The combinations are endless and fascinating! As always, drink what you enjoy!! Cheers!