Good drinks tell a story... and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
Lesson 3: Sparkling Wines and Champagne
“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” is something the French Benedictine Monk Dom Pérignon probably never said about Champagne, which he also did not invent.
Instead, during Pérignon's lifetime (1638-1715) he made important contributions to sparkling wine including the replacement of wood with cork. Thanks, Dom.
Sparkling wine actually made its first appearance in the mid-1500s, its bubbly effects originally and perhaps accidentally achieved by bottling wines before an initial fermentation had concluded. That meant further fermentation occurred in bottles, producing the carbon dioxide we've come to love for its mouthfeel and signature "pop." Eventually the technique was refined and became known as the méthode Champenoise. Following primary fermentation and bottling, sugar and yeast are added in a second fermentation within the bottle, and voila!
Yes, there are long associations of Champagne and celebration, with many of them marketing campaigns. But you can't write better copy than the sound of a cork popping... which is really the sound of a bottle being improperly opened. When you hear that sound, though, this New Year's Eve, more often than not it won't be "Champagne" that's poppin' off.
As your pedantic friends are likely to point out to you once again this year: Champagne is an appellation controlled by a French trade commission which has developed a comprehensive set of rules and regulations for all wine produced in the region, not least in order to protect its economic interests.
That's where Liz Rubin, a cheese and wine specialist at San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market, begins with her customers who go in for bubbly. "I would ask do you want a proper Champagne, or are you just interested in sparkling wine?" But that's not just for stylistic reasons: "Since proper Champagne can only be certain grapes — only seven are possible, — proper Champagne is usually more musky, more masculine. It's different: It has some texture to it, some people say its toasty."
That said, many of Rubin's favorite sparkling wines are made elsewhere. "My personal favorite is a Vin de Savoie, which is in Northeastern France." The bottle reads "Ayse Brut, Domaine Belluard et Fils." Says Rubin: "With this one the grape is actually endangered, the producer, Belluard, is keeping it alive. Its just so delicious, it has some nice body to it, it's not completely dry. It has wildflowers and herb flavors, and it's just amazing." Reader: I bought it and can corroborate. Brut, by the way, refers to the driest of the dry sparkling wines. The other terms are, in ascending order of sweetness, extra dry (or extra sec), sec, demi-sec, and doux.
How else to select your bubbly? "It's about tasting notes, how you want the body to be," says Rubin. "If you want it to be texturally different, then there are a lot of sparkling wines that still have the lees, or some of the yeast, in the bottle." The results? "Thats going to give you more of a cidery or a saison sort of feel. It wont be as clean but it will be really cool and interesting. There's also the concept of 'dosage' to pay attention to. That's the little bit of sugar that's added in the secondary fermentation. You've got wines that are no dosage or low dosage, for example." For dosage, check the bottle because they're often labeled.
The biggest question this season, according to Rubin, is also the easiest: Magnum, or no magnum. Yep, that just means it's in a big 'ol bottle. And the answer is magnum.
How to store and open Champagne and sparkling wine:
Refrigerate about an hour before serving. Storing Champagne or sparkling wine on ice, according to some experts, isn't necessary (but it sure looks good). And many say not to worry about flutes or glasses designed for Champagne. Instead, ordinary white wine glasses will do.
Opening: Says Rubin, "you may have heard of a nun sighing, referring to the ideal sound you want when you uncork the bottle." Since that's not a nun clucking and vomiting, be careful.
Begin by untwisting the wire cage, keeping a finger or your whole hand firmly over the cork. Next, drape a towel over the bottle's cork and neck, adding protection and looking professional. No need to twist the cork at all: instead, keeping a good grip on the cork and the bottle at a 45-degree angle, twist the bottom of the bottle as you pull the bottle down.
Then, say Happy New Year! And try to drink some more Champagne or sparkling wine this year, because it's great with food and doesn't need a special occasion.