Champagne and other delights

By - Dec 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Nathan Norfolk

Let’s get this straight. Just because it’s bubbly doesn’t mean it’s Champagne. Champagne refers to a French province northeast of Paris, the only place from where true Champagne comes. The rest, my dear readers, is just sparkling wine. Okay, moving on.

Where do the bubbles come from?

In the process of making wine, carbon dioxide is produced. In wine without bubbles the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape, but for sparkling wines the carbon dioxide is trapped, creating bubbles and fizz.

There are several ways to trap these bubbles, the most renowned of which is used in Champagne. Known as méthode champenoise (Doesn’t that sound pretentious?), the wine goes through secondary fermentation in the bottle. Any winery serious about bubbles uses this method, supposedly invented in the late 17th century by Dom Pérignon.

The name Champagne is, however, protected by law and the term méthode champenoise cannot be used for wines made outside the region. Another crazy twist is that Champagne can only be made from a combination of three grapes: Chardonnay, which is a white grape, and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are both red grapes. To keep from tainting the end-product with color, the red grapes are harvested very carefully and then cautiously crushed so that as little of the pigment from their skins interacts with the juice as possible.

Some other sparkling wines are made in a big stainless steel tank by the Charmat method. The end result is rarely as elegant as the bottle-fermented method, but it’s much cheaper to produce and therefore purchase. The lowest form of sparkling wine production is the injection method, where carbonic gas is simply injected into the base wine, the same way soda is made. Yuck.

The language of bubbles

The first thing to consider when buying sparkling wine is how sweet or dry you like it. Here are some guidelines for deciphering the labels.

Brut: Typically bone dry.
Extra Dry: Less dry than brut, often showing a little bright fruitiness.
Demi-Sec: Half-dry, which most people taste as just slightly sweet.
Spumante: Simply Italian for “sparkling wine,” many American producers make cheap, sweet styles under this term. Don’t be fooled; spumante just means the stuff has bubbles.
Dolce: Means “sweet” in Italian.
Cava: Produced in northern and central Spain, and great values for those looking for inexpensive bubbles made in a traditional manner.
Blanc de Blanc: Literally means “white of white.” This refers to any Champagne or sparkling wine made solely from white grapes.
Blanc de Noir: French for “white of black.” The grapes are actually red, though the product is white in color.
Prosecco: Made in the Venato region of northern Italy, this is the de facto before-dinner drink. Light, refreshing, slightly dry and modestly priced.

A few fabulous true Champagnes:
Joseph Perrier Non-Vintage ($30): This is the deal to end all deals when it comes to Champagne. It’s nutty, rich and crisp with aromas that mingle Granny Smith apples and fresh-baked bread.
Duval-Leroy Non-Vintage ($32): Recently given 93 points by Wine Spectator. Light and elegant with a refreshing chalky citrus zest.
Bollinger Non-Vintage ($45): If you want to know how rich and robust Champagne can be, try this; it’s yeasty, heavy and decadent.

Other great sparklers that are tremendous values:
Zardetto Prosecco ($14): [Italy] This little Italian wine is winning everyone over. Just between barely dry and almost sweet.
Marques de Gelida Cava 2002 ($13): [Spain] Super value with grapefruit and pear flavors, aged three years before release.
Black Bubbles Sparkling Shiraz ($23): [Australia] Dry yet chocolaty, with an intense fizz: a cut above other sparkling Shiraz on the market.
Jalliance Clairette de Die ($18): [France] This sparkler comes from the Rhone Valley. If you’re sick of Asti, try it. It’s a tropical fruit explosion.

Be warned; real Champagne is never cheap. By law, the grapes must be harvested by hand and most Champagne is blended from a variety of vintages, an artful skill. Many are aged for years in the bottle through their secondary fermentation, and such vintage Champagne is even more outrageously expensive. The region is at the northern extreme of the grape-growing climate and due to spring frost and autumn rains, there are few exceptionally great harvests. That’s why vintage Champagne is so scarce and costs crazy money. But if you can get your hands on a bottle, it’s truly worth it. VS

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