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The Wine Exchange

Allen Balik, The Wine Exchange: Sparkling treats for the holidays

Sparklers photo 11-19-21.jpg

Sparklers from around the globe.

Balik, Allen

Allen Balik

It’s hard to believe that we’re already midway through November and Thanksgiving will usher in the holiday season in less than a week. Hopefully, the holidays will look a bit different than last year as we begin the road back to more traditional family celebrations while still exercising the necessary precautions we’ve become so accustomed to.

Despite expensive and targeted measures taken by sparkling wine producers around the world, Champagne and its many “cousins” are commonly thought of only for the holidays, launching ships, sealing a business deal, toasting the bride, and other meaningful celebrations. I’m not sure why that is, because for me a good sparkler has its place at the dinner table throughout the year.

Today, sparkling wine is produced in four different ways. Champagne (note the capital "C"), by international agreement, is the sparkling wine made by Méthode Champenoise in the French appellation of Champagne. Only approved grape varietals — usually Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier — are grown and produced under strict appellation regulations.

In this time-honored method, the still wines are first fermented and aged separately as is done with dry table wines. Often as many as 100 or more individual lots (a tribute to the master blender) are blended and bottled. Bubbles are then created by a secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle by the addition of predetermined amounts of sugar and yeast before sealing with a bottle cap similar to those you’d find on a bottle of Coke.

The bottles are then left to lay peacefully in the cellar on the lees (expired yeast cells) while acquiring additional levels of complexity, flavor, and texture. The lees are then “coaxed” into the neck of the bottle by the skilled hands of the Remeuer using the “riddling” process. The neck of the bottle is quickly frozen and then disgorged (dégorgement), corked and sealed for additional bottle aging before release.

The same production method is also seen in other countries including the U.S. but is now referred to as Méthode Traditionelle to protect the origin of Champagne. Crémant is another term you will see for sparkling wines made in this traditional method in France but outside of Champagne (e.g. Burgundy, Loire, and Alsace).

The U.S. ignored this internationally understood nomenclature for many years until reaching an agreement with the European Union in 2006 to end the use of terms such as Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, and others. A grandfather clause was part of the agreement that permitted those using these terms in the past to continue. However, when used, you will see champagne spelled with a lower-case ”c” while Champagne from the appellation of Champagne continues with the capital letter.

Charmat (aka Metodo Italiano in Italy) is used for Prosecco and many other sparklers worldwide. Here, the secondary fermentation of the still wine occurs in the tank, and bottling is done under pressure to retain the bubbles. This is far less expensive than the Méthode Traditionelle and retail prices reflect the difference.

Pét-nat is an abbreviation for “pétillant naturel” that is a French term roughly translating to “naturally sparkling.” This is a relatively new addition to the market and very popular among younger fans and millennials. Although new to us, Pét-nat’s historical significance was known in France as “Méthode Ancestral” and is said to predate Méthode Champenoise and Metodo Italiano.

With Pét-nat, the primary fermentation occurs in the tank. Then the fermenting juice is transferred unfiltered and under pressure to the bottle where the bubbles are formed by the continuation of the primary fermentation. The final product may be cloudy (from the suspended lees) and a bit unstable with considerable bottle variation. It may also show some sweetness if fermentation does not complete to dryness and residual sugar remains. Fans of Pét-nat do not consider these variations as flaws but only as a natural result of the process.

A fourth method involves the injection of carbon dioxide directly into the tank (aka carbonation) as seen with soft drinks and other carbonated beverages. This method is only used in very commercial low priced versions and does not add any of the desired aromatic and flavor characteristics derived from secondary fermentation or the continuing primary fermentation in bottle as with Pét-nat.

Early harvesting (usually from mid-July to early August) serves to preserve freshness, acidity, and lower sugar levels. Champagne and other quality sparklers require higher levels of acidity to maximize the production process and enhance their ability to pair with a wide range of cuisine. The lower sugar levels allow a little space to accommodate for small amounts of additional alcohol resulting from the secondary fermentation.

From the Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing and the customary side dishes to a Christmas ham with all the trimmings and a buffet of never-ending tasty treats for New Year's day, you can enjoy a variety of sparkling choices at virtually every price point imaginable.

If there ever was a “one size fits all” in wine, sparklers may be the answer.

Legend has it (though other facts dispute the timing) that in 1697, Benedictine Monk Dom Pierre Pérignon on first tasting his Méthode Champenoise discovery called out to his fellow monks at the abbey of Hautvilliers: “Come quickly, I’m tasting stars!” Noted “Champagneophile” and longtime namesake of Pol Roger’s prestige Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill once exclaimed: “Champagne; in victory I deserve it and in defeat I need it!”

So, whatever your motivation is to “taste the stars,” just grab a glass and enjoy some bubbles to celebrate the moment. And if you think sparklers are only for special occasions, make yourself the special occasion and enjoy the magic they bring!

My November 5 column — “Should any wine be called great” — elicited many comments with some on a very personal level. Here are just two representative examples.

Aaron Pott- Another “Great” column Allen. I have found in my winemaking career over the years that I prefer the French idea of typicité over greatness.

Randy - Great wines for me are not always about the wine itself (although that’s obviously an important factor), but sometimes about the company sharing the wine as well. As you say, great wines should leave a lasting memory, and those memories are often tied to the overall experience. Any wine I drink with my Dad is a great wine…because, you know, I’m drinking it with my Dad.

Thanks, Randy, and it’s “Great” being your Dad!

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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