A Sparkling World: Fabulous Champagnes and Bubbles to Toast to 2017
There is nothing quite like a fluted glass of wine shimmering with moving strands of tiny pearly bubbles beneath a snowy collar of foam to lift a mood and glamorise any occasion. Here are some fascinating fizz facts about how the bubble gets into the bottle with a selection tasted from France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand and Australia.
The most famous sparkling wine in the world is produced in France’s most northerly and coolest wine region bearing the same name. In the vineyards it is common to harvest the grapes early when their acidity is pronounced and assertive. However, at the expense of lower sugar ripeness levels. During fermentation, a little sugar may be added (chaptalisation) for the yeast to convert into a dry wine with a boost to the alcohol by a tiny margin. Then, to reduce the acidity, a non-alcoholic malolactic fermentation may be encouraged. This is where the harsh malic acidity (green apple-like) is converted and reduced into a milder milk-like acidity, resulting in characteristics of butter and cream.
Champagne is made in the Traditional Method, the most complex, labour intensive and costly process. The majority of Champagne produced is non-vintage i.e. a blend of several years. The Master Blender has an assembly of older vintage wines and often with access to over one hundred different wines. The Assemblage allows the Master Blender to maintain a Champagne House style over years.
At the heart of the Traditional Method is the second alcoholic fermentation that takes place in the very bottle the Champagne is poured from when opened. This second alcoholic fermentation is created in the bottle by adding sugar and yeast (Liqueur de Tirage) to generate and retain the carbon dioxide/CO2 gas. The wines must be aged for at least fifteen months on its lees (spent yeast cells) to give a bready/toasty (autolytic) character. Whereas, a single Vintage Champagne, in the absence of having older wines to blend in for added complexity, must spend a minimum of three years resting on its lees for added richness and a creamy texture as the resting wine is nourished by the lees.
Three grape varieties, two black and one green are grown in Champagne’s vineyards. The region’s vineyards are subdivided into 4 main areas: the Montagne de Reims (planted mostly with Pinot Noir because the slopes are south facing for maximum sun exposure), the Côte de Blanc (Chardonnay dominant), the Vallée de la Marne (favoured by Meunier because it buds late and avoids the valley’s spring frost) and a satellite zone 110km south of Epernay, in the relatively warmer vineyards of the Aube’s Côte des Bar (mostly planted with Pinot Noir).
The grapes’ black skins are removed after crushing so only the pure colourless juice is used. Each grape varietal makes its own special contribution to the finished wine. Pinot Noir gives a savoury richness while Chardonnay adds a feminine apple delicacy and elegance. Meunier plays a supporting role and provides fruitiness.
Understanding the label
Relating to flavour, Brut is a unique term used in sparkling wines globally to describe a very dry style. Even drier is Extra Brut and the absolute driest, Brut Nature. Confusingly, the term Extra Dry in the world of sparkling wines is less dry than Brut and Dry is actually off-dry. The less familiar Demi-Sec and Doux styles are sweeter and have a very attractive sugared almond character, ideal for a decadent Afternoon Tea.
Blanc de Noirs means a white sparkling wine made from one or both of the black skinned varietals, Pinot Noir and Meunier. These wines are more masculine and have a savoury meaty richness. Useful with food pairings. Blanc de Blanc refers to a white sparkling wine made from Chardonnay only. These wines are more delicate and feminine in style. Very versatile as an aperitif.
Trivial Fizz Facts
– There are 250 million bubbles in the average bottle of Champagne.
– It takes 1.2 kg of grapes to make one bottle of Champagne.
– The pressure in a bottle of Champagne is six atmospheres and equivalent to that in the tyre of a double-decker bus.
– Thirty-seven Kings, Queens and Regents of France were crowned in the Champagne region’s city of Reims.
– There are over 160 km of underground cellars hewn from chalk to store the Champagne produced in the region.
After several years, still on a plateau of popularity is Italy’s Prosecco. Long regarded as a fun fizz at a fair price. Prosecco’s homeland is just an hour’s drive north of Venice and nestled among the steep slopes of the foothills of the Alps in the Trevisio Hills, where the valley of the Valdobbiadene with its roller-coaster roads through the vineyards is home of some of the most expensive farmland in Italy.
Made with Glera, a white grape variety that gives a floral and a ripe peach and pear character. Prosecco’s style statement is fragrant and fruity, light in alcohol at around 11% ABV and dry in taste, ranging from the driest Brut to the fruitier off-dryish Extra Dry, a style that really suits the fruity wine.
The wine is made sparkling in the Tank Method (Charmat Method) a much simpler and less costly process. The second alcoholic fermentation takes place in a large steel tank and the yeast is filtered out after it has created the CO2 gas to make the wine sparkle.
Prosecco is very food-friendly especially with fried fish, pasta in creamy sauces, wild mushroom risotto, sushi and spicy Asian dishes. Locally, Venetians enjoy Prosecco before lunch or dinner as an apperitivo or between meals as an ombrette (pick-me-up). Always serve well-chilled or follow Harry’s Bar in Venice and create a Bellini party punch by adding one bottle of Prosecco to a litre of peach juice. Saluté!
Spain is a major producer of sparkling wine. In its warmer climate, the wines have a riper fruit and softer acidity. Most sparkling wine is made in Catalonia in the north-east of Spain particularly in the Penedès region near Barcelona.
Cava wines are made in the Traditional Method. In Spain, the wines must be aged for at least nine months on its lees (spent yeast cells) to give the bready/toasty (autolytic) character. Whereas, a Reserva must spend a minimum of 18 months resting on its lees and a Gran Reserva, 30 months for added richness and character.
Native grape varietals are used to highlight the local accent. Parelleda, Macabeo and Xarel-lo are blended to produce wines with gentle acidity and soft red apple flavours. Parellada gives a creamy element, Macabeo (white Rioja’s Viura and the Languedoc’s Mauzac) gives fresh acidity while Xarel-lo adds weight and structure. Increasingly, more internationally recognisable varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are added to give a more international personality and to introduce new markets to Cava. A little red wine is added to make the pink/rosado versions using either natives Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvedre) or non-native, Pinot Noir.
Sparkling wines are made in most wine producing countries outside Europe and employ the Traditional Method and Tank Method and another process called the Transfer Method which takes the best of both and labels the bottle with the term “Bottle Fermented”.
The luminous medium golden hue highlights a wine with many years aging to a mature complexity. The bouquet is of hazelnut and marzipan richness and promises pleasure to follow on the palate. Mellow yellow fruits seamlessly integrated with the refreshing lemony acidity.
Food friend: this substantial Champagne is made for food. Pan fry your favourite white fish and serve with a creamy onion sauce.
€66 at Manning’s Emporium Ballylickey, Bradley’s Cork; Red Nose Wine Clonmel; Vanilla Grape Kenmare and O’Briens nationwide. In Dublin: Redmond’s Ranelagh; Baggot Street Wines; Mitchell & Son IFSC and Glasthule; Blackrock Cellar; Donnybrook Fair; Terroir’s, Donnybrook; Thomas’s Foxrock; Grapevine Dalkey; Clontarf Wines; Sweeney’s Glasnevin; Londis Malahide and Wineonline.ie
Made with a classic and even blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Grand Cru village vineyards and each aged for five years on the lees for richer aromas and flavours. Unusual for a Champagne producer, no malolactic fermentation is carried out. The Number 1 seller in the UK for value and volume.
Food friend: savour with a seafood risotto of squid, prawn and mussels with saffron.
€49.95 reduced from €65 until 2nd January 2017 at O’Brien’s nationwide
The gleaming pale gold is emphasised by the steady stream of shooting star-like silver bubbles. A savoury bouquet of unbaked bread is enhanced by a palate of brioche and a hint of apricot jam.
Food friend: match with lightly sautéed chicken livers served on slices of lightly toasted brioche rubbed with a halved garlic clove.
€65 or less in most off-licences including in Dublin: Mitchell’s, IFSC and Glasthule; Wines on the Green, Dawson Street and O’Brien’s, nationwide
Made in a rarer style of Brut Nature where there is no dosage of sweetness added (non dosé), and yet there is none of the stark austerity that can accompany the style all too often. At a recent meeting, Pierre, seventh generation in the Chardonnay dominant Côte de Blanc, explained he made the decision twenty years ago to go organic in his 16ha. vineyards and he reduces yield to achieve riper grapes for his Chardonnay. This avoids any need for chaptalisation and the resulting wines have more balanced acidity which in turn means malolactic fermentation is not required. Aged for one year in barrel and then six years on its lees in bottle, double the minimum requirement for a single Vintage Champagne, delivers a remarkably fine quality Champagne with a superb long and saline finish.
Food friend: substantial enough to handle a blue cheese on toast, preferably more creamy than crumbly – a Crozier Blue or Roquefort from ewe’s milk.
€69.50 at Terroirs, Morehampton Road, Dublin 4
A classically pretty Prosecco from the region’s most exclusive vineyard address, Valdobbiadene. Fragrant with floral white blossom scents. Light-bodied and delicate with delicious flavours of ripe pears and golden peaches.
Food friend: try with Thai crab cakes flecked with chili.
€11.99 at Aldi’s 128 stores nationwide
A little Chardonnay is added to the native white grapes for a more international accent. Aromas of lemon drizzle cake are followed on the very dry palate with a richness and depth. Distinct yeasty autolytic palate that supports the citrus flavours.
Food friend: partner with a platter of Iberico ham and Manchego cheese.
€13 at Tesco nationwide
A pretty pink bubbly. Very tasty with refreshing and crunchy redcurrant fruit. The Pinot Noir’s richness underpins the persistent red fruit flavours and Chardonnay dominates the blend with a fresh green apple character.
Food friend: serve with ribbons of smoked salmon tossed in tagliatelle coated in a cream and chive sauce.
€16.00-€18.49 on special promotion for Christmas and New Year at Tesco, Dunnes Stores and SuperValu nationwide
Inspired by the style of Prosecco, this Aussie has a gentle fizz with aromas of ripe orchard fruits – apple and pear and a tangy and fruity pear sorbet palate.
Food friend: ideal with aubergine paté or garlicky humous.
€12 at SuperValu nationwide and online: winesoftheworld.ie
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.