The time between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day is dotted with various celebrations. Whether it is a family meal or a gathering of close friends, this season provides ample opportunity to drink sparkling wines. A bottle of bubbly signifies the celebratory nature of the event, and it helps bring joy and effervescence to any gathering.
However, the world of sparkling wine can be somewhat confusing. Therefore, I wanted to share a few tips for selecting an appropriate bubbly for your special occasion, even if your special occasion is Tuesday Evening and you are finished with work. Armed with a few simple facts, you can easily select a delicious bottle of sparkling wine to meet any opportunity.
First thing that causes confusion is the term “champagne”. This term is used broadly to mean any wine with bubbles. However, it really refers to specific sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France. These wines are some of the most admired and respected bubblies in the world. While they are delicious and luxurious offerings, they command prices worthy of their high quality. While a bottle of vintage champagne turns any occasion into a celebration, they may not be the right option for your budget. However, there are many options available that will please both palette and purse.
Step one in choosing a great sparkling wine is avoiding imposters. Wine is made from fermenting grape juice. As the yeast eat the sugars in the juice, they release two byproducts: alcohol (yay!) and carbon dioxide. In a still (non-bubbly) wine, the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape into the atmosphere, but in a sparkling wine the carbon dioxide is trapped in the liquid and provides the bubbles we enjoy during consumption. The imposters inject alcohol and bubbles into grape juice and skip the parts of the process that create the complex and delightful flavors of real sparkling wine. When people say, “sparkling wine gives me a headache,” more often than not, one of these imposters is the culprit. Do yourself a favor and avoid these imposters, identified by their prices hovering around the $5 region.
There are two legitimate methods for creating a sparkling wine. The first is the “tank method”. In this technique, a still wine is placed into a large tank for a secondary fermentation. This tank is sealed, and the carbon dioxide is trapped in the tank with the wine. The carbon dioxide dissolves back into the juice and creates the bubbles. When it is ready, the tank is bottled, labeled, and sold to you. This process only takes a few months, but it retains the fresh, bright, and fruity flavors of the wine. The most familiar wine that employs this method is Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine from Glera grapes. These wines are fairly low priced and make great selections for everything to sipping on the porch or mixing for mimosas at brunch.
The second method for creating sparkling wine has several names. Whether you see “champagne method”, “traditional method”, or “methode champanoise”, they mean basically the same thing. In this case, the secondary fermentation happens in each individual bottle. The bottles hang out in cellars for time spans from a few months to many years, building up the bubbles and developing more complex flavors than you will typically see from “tank method” bubbly. Of course the most famous of these wines are the aforementioned champagnes. The finest of these wines can spend a decade or more in the cellar developing complex, bready, or biscuity flavors to layer in with the delicate acidity of the fruit notes. When they are consumed these wines can become luxurious, almost magical experiences.
However, not all traditional method sparklers are out of reach for every day consumption. Other areas of the world employ these techniques on their sparkling wines, and these can be delicious, and reasonable, substitutes for champagne. Spain offers its own take known as Cava, which offers an affordable but delicious option. Many California wine makers, including many Champagne based producers with California property, make beautiful sparkling wines with notes of the old world flavors highlighted with the power of new world fruit.
Sparkling wines need not be intimidating or exclusive. They have the unique ability to turn even the most mundane moments into magical memories. Therefore, the next time you are picking up some wine remember to grab a bottle of bubbly, because anytime can be a time to sparkle.