Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Nothing really captures the idea of "celebration," in most people's minds, like sparkling wine.

Note that I didn't say "Champagne," but "sparkling wine."  Champagne is the best-known sparkling wine, but it's only one of many, and only a small proportion of all sparkling wines are Champagnes (to make an analogy, all Ferraris are cars, but not every car is a Ferrari).  Sparkling wines come in generally two familes, "traditional," and "Charmat" method wines.  The former is summed up as taking wine, adding yeast and sugar, capping it off (with a crown cap, like might be found on a beer!), letting it rest for months or years in a rack that is slowly elevated until the bottles are upright, eventually freezing the neck of the bottle and opening it to remove the yeast, then adding a little sugar ("Dosage"), and corking it for sale.  It's called "secondary fermentation in bottle."

The Charmat method is a bit simpler, in that the sugar and yeast and wine go into a big tank that is sealed, the secondary fermentation happens, then the liquid is physically strained and pumped into bottles, where it's corked and sold.  Much less expensive.

A quick guide to the bulk of the sparkling wines you'll see:
  • Cava.  Spanish sparkling wine, generally inexpensive, light, and easy to drink.  Most cost around $10, and very few are more than $20.  Made using the traditional Champagne fermentation method, but with different grapes (traditionally, Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are now allowed.). 
  • Prosecco.  Both the descriptor of, and the name of the grape that make a light, clean Italian sparkling wine.  Often just a hint of sweetness in it.  From around $10 for the inexpensive stuff to about $20-$30 for the upper end (Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOC). Made using the less expensive Charmat method. 
  • Cap Classique.  South African sparkling wine, traditionally made with Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, although many producers now use two of the "traditional"Champagne grapes -- Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Traditional method wine.  Not too common in the US, but the ones I've seen run $15-$20. 
  • Cremant.  French sparkling wine from regions other than Champagne.  Alsace and Burgundy make the best examples, Cremant d'Alsace and Cremant de Burgogne, with the Loire right behind.  Grapes vary from place to place, but the quality of the traditional fermentation is generally reasonably high.  $15-$30, depending on the producer and the wine.
  • Californian sparkling wine.  Sometimes labeled "California Champagne," quality can vary from the very bad (Cooks, Andre, and Coppola's Sofia come to mind) to the quite good (Schramsberg), and everywhere in between.  Can be made with any method, from Charmat (Cooks and Andre do this), to traditional method (Schramsberg and most of the French-owned houses do this), to literally injecting carbon dioxide into white wine like it was soda (Coppola's Sofia does this)!  Quality varies widely, as does price, from $5 to $50.
  • Washington/Oregon sparkling wine.  Surprisingly high quality, often affordable (even Domaine Ste Michelle, at under $15, is quite good, if a bit heavy-handed with the dosage).  Can be either method, but most seem to stick with traditional.
  • Champagne.  The sine qua non of bubbles; the one that others want to be (although, that's partly due to good marketing).  Traditional method, only 3 grapes allowed to be planted in the region (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, although Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc are allowed for use, but not planting).  Prices start around $30 and go up into "How much do you want to spend?" territory.
That's just a starter -- sparkling wines come in a dizzying variety of types.  Taking it in turns:
  • Blanc de Blancs means the wine is made from white grapes only -- Chardonnay in Champagne.
  • Blanc de Noirs means there's no white grapes in the blend -- in Champagne, that'd be Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier only.
  • Brut means there's very little sugar added during dosage -- officially, in Champagne, that'd be 6-15 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Extra Dry means there's a bit more sugar -- 12-20 grams per liter in Champagne.
  • Demi Sec means even sweeter wine -- 33-50 grams per liter.
  • Nonvintage means the wine is made from a blend of "mother wines," to match a consistant house style -- this is often done in Champagne (indeed, most producers view their nonvintage wine as their bread and butter), as well as in Porto (a post for another day...).  Nonvintage sparkling wine is meant to be consumed rather soon after purchase; within a year or so at most.
  • Vintage means all the wine was harvested in a declared vintage year -- recent years that show promise for vintage-dated Champagne include 2002, 1999, 1998, and 1996, although different producers decide to make vintage-dated wines on their own.  Vintage sparkling wine can be cellar-worthy, lasting 5-10 years.
So what is the best?  Ultimately, there is no magic formula to determine it.  However, the Champagne producers (well, all wine producers, but the Champagne houses have done it best) would like to convince you that their wine is the best, hands-down.  They spend tons of money on advertising, paying celebreties to publically endorse their products (something they've done since the 1800's!).

Personally, I'd advocate voting with your tastebuds; blind-tasting sparkling wines can be fun.  However, I'll note something interesting; in the recent book, The Wine Trials, a number of sparkling wines were blind-tasted.  The "winner," was Domaine Ste Michelle Brut.  My tasting note on the wine (tasted non-blind):

A nose of green apple and lemon, with a bit of toast. Flavors to match, with addition of pear. Not quite a true brut, more between a brut and extra-dry, slightly sweet. Not the most complex wine in the world, but quite nice overall.  84 points.

In other words, it was pleasant and a little sweet.  Which is good -- the American palate tends to like sweet wine, even though we're told we should like drier stuff (we're raised on soda, after all).

Oh, and what finished near the bottom of the list of bubblies from The Wine Trials?  Dom Perignon -- Moet's "tete de cuvee," their best (vintage, blanc de blancs) wine.  For what it's worth, I preferred Domane Ste Michelle to Dom as well (alas, I last had Dom several years ago, and have no tasting note for it).  Proof that $15 wine can be better than $150 wine, when the labels are hidden.

So is any one better than the other?  The long and short of it is... none is.

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