The other day I finished my “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing” workshop, and knew it was time for Champagne. Even after the intense flavors of Barolo and wild boar ragout, the bubbles danced on my tongue, and the vibrant acidity cleansed my palate. Case in point, my friend said, “no, I’ve been drinking red wine all day”, when asked if she wanted some. I bet she finished half the bottle after that first gulp had her hooked!
My family has celebrated Christmas morning for years with Champagne. There are not many days in a year where I’m drinking by 10AM, but exceptions can be made! It’s a great memory I have of my dad, along with my immediate family, opening presents and clinking glasses together. Sparkling wine has a way of turning an already festive occasion into something special, and my family knows how to do it in style.
It’s true that Champagne can be expensive, but you don’t have to drink Champagne to let the good times roll. There are so many great sparkling wines (to call it “Champagne”, the wine has to be from that particular region in France, unless you’re lowly Korbel, then you can make up your own rules!) out there that are delicious, and are reasonably priced.
But, before I let you in on some of this year’s favorites, let me explain a little bit about two common styles of making sparkling wine.
This classic style of sparkling wine has been made famous by Champagne for over 250 years. To make traditional method sparkling wine, it is first fermented in tanks or barrels, then transferred to the bottle. Then, a tirage is added (sugar and yeast) to each bottle, and a bottle cap is placed on top to trap the carbon dioxide inside the bottle. Riddling (slowly turning the bottle over time to move sediment to the top of the bottle), then discorging (freezing the dead yeast and sediment at the top of the bottle, then releasing the pressurized particulates), and a dosage (reserve wine and cane sugar) is used to top off any wine lost during discorgement. You can imagine why Champagne is so expensive. It is a process that requires dedication and years to produce. Spanish Cava is also made in the traditional method, so you tend to get a lot of value out of these Champagne counterparts. Cava doesn’t have the minerality and sophistication that Champagne has, but they can have the acidity and toastiness that help make sparkling wine delicious.
This method is commonly used to make Prosecco, patented in the late 19th century. After the initial fermentation process, the wine is placed in pressurized stainless steel tanks, then mixed with sugar and yeast. The sugars turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide, forming naturally, and gets preserved inside the tank. The resulting sparkling wine is then filtered and bottled. The Charmat method is less expensive to produce than traditional method wine, and therefore less expensive for the consumer.
My favorite sparkling wines of 2016:
- Francois Chidaine NV Brut, Montlouis Sur-Loire, France – from 100% Chenin Blanc, perhaps my favorite white wine the world has to offer. Combine Chenin with bubbles, and it will make you so, so happy.
- Domaine Rieflé Pinot Noir NV Brut, Cremant D’Alsace, France – biodynamically farmed (taking organic farming to the next level), and produced by the same family for fourteen generations. Ah, France.
- Nicolas Noble NV Brut, Champagne, France – a “grower Champagne”, coming from a single estate where the producer grows the grapes and makes the wine. Very rare, indeed, for Champagne
- Tenuta Stella Ribolla Gialla Metodo Classico NV Brut, Collio, Italy – besides Alsace, Northeast Italy (Collio, Alto Adige, Friuli) makes some of the most beautiful white wines in the world. Ribolla Gialla is native to the area, making floral whites.
- G.D. Vajra Extra Brut, Vino Spumante, N.S. Della Neve, Italy – made from equal parts Pinot Nero and Nebbiolo, this wine is DRY, yet goes so well with cheese and charcuterie.
- Raventos i Blanc Brut L’hereu 2013, Penedes, Spain – also a biodynamic producer, 18 months on the lees (dead yeast) makes this a traditional method sparkling wine. Toasty finish, and nose of minerals that lasts for days.
- Sh’Bubbles Carignane NV Brut, CA – no room for pretension on this wine! Morgan Twain Peterson picks this Carignane early, making it dry but with a lovely nose of almonds and cherry pits. Charmat method.
- Roederer Estate L’Ermitage 2009, Anderson Valley, CA – perhaps making the best sparkling wine in all of California, this vintage sparkling wine is made in the traditional method, and would be considered a top shelf Champagne in a blind tasting.
We can never know everything about wine. Let’s keep learning.
P.S. – the next “Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing” workshop with be February 12, 2017, featuring winemaker Michael Keenan of the Robert Keenan winery, up on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. You’re going to love his wines.