Okay, first things first – how do the bubbles get in there anyway?
The traditional (and most time-consuming) process is méthode champenoise, where a second fermentation takes place in the bottle by adding yeast. It is the conversion of sugar to alcohol that produces CO2 and the effervescence we covet. This process may sound simple but it’s actually quite involved. After the second fermentation occurs, lees ageing is next, where the wine ages on the dead yeast cells (aka lees) to build character. The bottles are then inverted in racks at a 45 degree angle to allow the cells and sediment to form at the neck. Each bottle must be turned by hand, called riddling, to ensure everything settles in the neck of the bottle. Next, the vintners must get rid of all that yuck in a process called disgorgement. Here the sediment is typically frozen in the neck and easily pushed out separate from the wine. Next the finishing touches: dosage occurs where “liquer d’expeditione” (sugar mixture) is added to achieve the desired sweetness and then the bottle is re-corked and ready for your enjoyment. That’s sparkling 101 in a nutshell - hopefully you now have a better appreciation for those tiny bubbles.
Side note: As you might know, or have guessed, not all bubbly is made from méthode champenoise. There are 5 other methods that are less time consuming, such as using tanks for the second fermentation versus individual bottles. If you’d like to explore them further, Wine Folly has an excellent summary here.
Now that you know what you’re drinking, how best to select a bottle?
First order of business is to clarify ‘champagne’ versus ‘sparkling wine’. One could fill pages about the battles over designation but suffice to say only champagne comes from the Champagne region of France and ‘sparkling wine’ most notably comes from the U.S. with Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain. In general, the latter two will have more sweet profiles but it really does vary.
Speaking of sweetness, it’s one of the biggest decisions in picking the right bottle, so understand what style best fits your palate:
Extra Brut – If you don’t like your bubbles sweet, go with Extra Brut, as it is has the least residual sugar (rs). If Extra Brut isn’t an option, just Brut will also do the trick with only slightly more sweetness.
Extra Dry – The name usually fools people, as it actually has more rs than Brut and Dry even more so. While not typically cloyingly sweet, it is noticeable.
Demi Sec – The sweetest type of bubbly you can buy. To give you an idea, a flute of Demi Sec can have the rs equivalent of nearly 4 teaspoons of sugar, whereas the same amount of Extra Brut would have only ½ teaspoon.
Beyond sweetness, there are also varietals to consider:
Blanc de Blancs – Made 100% from white grapes, Chardonnay being the most popular.
Blanc de Noirs – Made 100% from red grapes, such as Pinot Noir. However, skin contact is limited, so you still have clear juice but it will be a deeper yellow, or possibly a light salmon.
Rosé – These are red varietals, like Blanc de Noirs, but skin contact is longer to give a slightly pinker complexion or longer for some close to red.
Final consideration, vintage:
No vanity in vintage – More than 80% of all sparking wine is NV (non-vintage), as producers prefer to keep a consistent profile with their bubbly by blending several vintages versus just one. If you happen to find a specific vintage bottle, then do enjoy as the producer did so with pride. Just don’t think NV is of lesser quality.
Now that you’ve scored your NYE stash, avoid the three biggest errors when enjoying it:
Chill don’t freeze - Sparking wine should be chilled but not excessively. Putting it in the freezer will suppress its effervescence and mask the palate. Plan ahead and make sure it is properly chilled versus sticking it in the freezer as a shortcut (or forgetting it there).
Turn the bottle, not the cork - Once you undo the wire cage, consider your bottle armed and dangerous. It’s quite possible for a cork to pop prematurely, so be sure to keep a thumb on top of the cage and cork while loosening the wire twist. Once the cage is loosened, grip the cage and cork while turning the bottle slowly. This will allow you to properly uncork the bottle gradually.
Hiss don’t pop - The number one FAIL in opening a bottle of bubbly is to let the cork pop from the bottle into the air, or without resistance. While the sound and overflow might be celebratory, it actually flattens the bubbles. Be sure to slowly uncork allowing the faintest hiss possible, so you can enjoy the effervescence in your glass versus the air.
Hope this helps make your New Years celebration bright and bubbly. We wish you all a healthy and prosperous 2017 from The 29 Napa.
- Mike Casey, The 29 Napa