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By Liz Crowe
Oh, hello there. Sorry, I wasn’t ignoring you. I’ve been busy burning all my calendars that have the year “2020” on them, hang on a sec…
Okay, here I am! And do I have some fun info for you on this, the first day of the first month of a brand new year!
We all know about the tradition of serving and imbibing the bubbly for celebrations, like the one that helped us turn the page away from 2020 and launch ourselves headlong into 2021. But what do you know about that bubbly, hmmm? Never fear. Liz is here. And what follows is a quick, yet super useful guide to World of Sparkling Wines.
First off, as you may or may not know, the word “Champagne” has meaning. It’s a wine that is made from pinot noir, chardonnay, or pinot meunier grapes (mostly) and has undergone the Méthode Champenoise (being fermented in the bottle) to obtain that distinct bubbly-ness. It’s NOT automatically called “Champagne” unless that process occurred in the Champagne region of France. The best way to remember it is thusly: “All Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne.” Easy, non?
Bottom line is, as with many wine styles, there’s a wide variation in style, sweetness, and taste. But by golly, if it’s not made in Champagne, France, don’t go calling it Champagne. I realize this seeming-snobbishness goes against all the inclusionary-style booze imbibing that I encourage in this column, but I don’t make the rules on this one — I’m just here to explain it.
Basically, your bubbly wine options include Champagne (only made in the Champagne region of France), but also these Big Dogs: Prosecco (Italy), Cava (Spain), Sekt (Germany/Austria), and sparkling wine (America).
There are other types of sparkling wines made in France, such as Crémant de Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, or Jura. These are essentially Champagnes, but not made in Champagne. The word crémant means “creamy,” which is how really great Champagne should feel in your mouth. It’s made using the same secondary fermentation-in-the-bottle method, and in many cases the same grapes as the ones grown in Champagne. But again, it’s not made in Champagne, so…you know the rest.
Other Italian sparkling wines include Lambrusco — a red bubbly wine that was kind of the joke of the wine world for a while, but is apparently making a hipster-style comeback (sort of like Hamm’s Beer and Old Grand-Dad bourbon). Franciacorta is another Italian bubbly that’s made near Milan in the style of Champagne, but it tends to be more expensive. There are some even sweeter options from Italy like Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui, made from Moscato and Brachetto grapes respectively, that are usually served as an aperitif or for dessert.
To recap: If it’s Champagne, by definition we now know that it’s French; i.e., don’t call it “French Champagne.” That’s the equivalent of calling something American spray cheese, or British fish and chips, or Canadian poutine (yes, I know it’s from Quebec).
As with most alcohols, there’s a bit of a “craft” tradition in Champagnes. “Grower Champagne” refers to sparkling wine that is not only made in Champagne, but is also specifically crafted by families who are cultivating the grapes on their own land — a sort of “farm-to-bottle,” as it were. It’s made in much smaller volumes than what you’d find at large producers such as Moët et Chandon and Krug, and it showcases the terroir of the farm — which is craft booze fancy talk for “it tastes like the makeup of the ground it was grown in,” which can vary widely from year to year, giving grower Champagne a lot of leeway in the sort of tastes that result. No, it doesn’t taste like dirt; it takes on the various characteristics of the soil, the climate, and the topography of the area where it was grown.
Grower Champagne is best thought about this way: while Anheuser-Busch makes batch after batch (after batch after batch) of the same beer over and over (and over) again, which results in the Bud-heavy you open today tasting exactly like the one you expect to open six months (or years) from now, craft beer is allowed to vary from batch to batch in flavor and experience. Same deal with grower Champagne. As you might expect, it can sometimes — but not always — be pricier, but if you’re bored with the same old Veuve or Dom experience and you’re super into the bubbly, then check with your local wine shop expert to see if they can locate something from Bérêche et Fils, or Chartogne-Taillet, or Champagne Dhondt-Grellet for your next celebration.
“Okay Liz,” you say. “Now tell me how to read a sparkling wine label, already!”
Here’s the thing. I don’t have the column inches available to me to explain all the details of French wine labels. But there’s this one element that’s kind of cool, and I want to pass it on to you so you can show off when you’re in the Champagne aisle this year.
There are two uppercase letters on a label of Champagne at the bottom edge, usually followed by some numbers that are unimportant to you, the drinker. The letters, however, bear understanding. The letters “R-M” (Récoltant Manipulant) mean you’re holding a bottle of grower champagne. The letters “N-M” (Négociant Manipulant) mean the producer of the bottle in your hand bought the grapes instead of growing them. “C-M” (Coopérative Manipulant) is, as you might expect, from a co-op. There are apparently more cooperatively-affiliated vineyards in Champagne than in any other French wine region. Finally, if you see “M-A” (Marque d’achetuer), you’re holding a private label or a “BOB” (Buyer’s Own Brand), which represents a big chunk of Champagne production.
I could go on for days about French wine labels, but I won’t for obvious reasons. The other, more important thing to know about a sparkling wine label is understanding how sweet or dry it is. Extra brut is the driest of all the styles — brut means “unsweetened.” The producer of an extra brut sparkling wine has allowed the yeast to eat every last drop of sugar produced by the grapes. A brut option is slightly less dry than extra, so the winemaker stopped the fermentation just before the last of the sugar was consumed. The next level is called, confusingly, “extra dry,” which is in reality sweeter than both brut and extra brut. Most Proseccos are extra dry. A “demi-sec” is a sweet sparkling option best accompanied by dessert or something else that can match its sweetness. For the record, go with a mid-level dry (brut) version for your mimosas. Prosecco is also an excellent mixing option.
Finally, let’s talk about how to drink that bubbly concoction. The ideal temperature to serve it is 47-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Any colder and it will freeze your taste buds; any warmer and it’s gross (which is a technical term indicating that the wine is “too heavy” and “less bright”). Don’t chill the bottle in the freezer. Make a plan to purchase it in advance so you can let it rest in the bottom area of your fridge for at least four hours before you serve it. Hit me up off-line for a trick that involves using the freezer for about an hour (but that I’m afraid to state here, lest I be mocked).
Use a cloth napkin or towel to make sure the cork does not fly directly at someone. That sucker shoots out of there under serious pressure and will give the nearest person a black eye. It’s less an art form than something that takes a bit of practice, but shaking the bottle beforehand is ill-advised.
You get the best results bubbles-wise if you then pour it directly down the inside of non-chilled glassware, not unlike pouring a beer to allow for proper head formation. But about that glassware. While slim to skinny flutes are all the rage, you’ll have a better tasting experience if you use something closer to a white wine glass, but not something as big and bowl-like as a red wine glass. The wider brim will allow the wine to breathe a bit and will release more flavors as you drink it, but a smaller bowl keeps the bubbles fresh.
But those are not rules, pe se, merely guidelines. You know me. If you want to toss back that hundred-dollar Dom right from the mouth of the bottle, or drink it out of a coffee mug while soaking in the hot tub, I say, you do you.
Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.
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