Champagne in the Winter, and for the Super Bowl

01/13/2009 00:01

Champagnes Make Winter Sparkle

By Marian Jansen op de Haar


A Champagne toast is synonymous with celebration and no party this winter would be complete without it. Don’t let the search for that perfect bubbly – one that suits the occasion, your tastes and your budget – spoil the celebration, though. Armed with a little knowledge, you’ll be ready to pop the cork at midnight.

The difference between Champagne and sparkling wine is simply a matter of location. To be called Champagne, the wine must be made exclusively with grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and must be made using the traditional Champagne method of fermentation. This method involves a second fermentation that occurs in the bottle in which the wine is sold. Sparkling wines may also use this method, but if they are produced outside of Champagne, France, they cannot bear the Champagne moniker. This does not mean that they are inferior as there are many exceptional sparkling wines.

Bubbles reveal a lot about the quality of a sparkling wine and are a reflection of the way the wine is fermented. The least expensive sparkling wines get their bubbles from an influx of carbon dioxide, much the same way soft drinks get their fizz. This creates large, short-lived bubbles that are aggressive on the palate. Exceptional sparkling wines and Champagnes have an even stream of tiny bubbles not much bigger than the head of a pin. The smaller the bubbles, the smoother and longer-lasting the stream will be, both of which denotes a higher the quality of the wine. After the wine has undergone its first fermentation, which produces a still, dry wine much like any white table wine, more yeast and concentrated grape sugar is added and the bottle is sealed. Bubbles are produced during this second fermentation and won’t escape until they are released. To determine the style of a Champagne a dosage or a small amount of grape sugar is then added to the sparkling wine. This determines the sweetness of the Champagne.

Once a Champagne or sparkling wine has been selected, it’s important to open it appropriately. While “popping” the bottle may be exciting, it is not recommended. That method releases too many bubbles too quickly, and ultimately results in a flat wine—not what you just spent that money on!

Use caution when uncorking a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine as the contents are under high pressure. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, point it away from your guests or anything precious. Cover the cork with your thumb, hand or napkin, loosen the wire cage and slowly twist the bottle rather than the cork for more control. Slowly pour into a Champagne flute, and delight in the explosion of tiny bubbles.

When selecting sparkling wines for your holiday parties, consider these tips: 

- Sample different brands to establish a preference for a light or full bodied or sweet or dry style, and determine a favorite. Sparkling wines made with a larger amount of Pinot Noir tend to be fuller bodied and sparkling wines labeled Brut are the driest. Extra dry has just a touch of sugar, and demi-secs are sweet.

- Taste from various price ranges. An expensive Champagne doesn’t necessarily guarantee satisfaction (and sparkling wines from other countries or regions such as Cavas from Spain or Sparkling wine from California made in the traditional style may be lower priced). Be sure to taste a Champagne house’s non-vintage style (NV on the label), since this is their signature style that tastes very similar every year it’s produced.

In addition to ringing in the New Year, consider Champagne for your upcoming Super Bowl party. Sparkling wines are not only food-friendly, they're party-friendly!

Some Recommendations

An excellent sparkling wine to try is Gloria Ferrer, Blanc de Noirs Sonoma County NV. The rich, bright strawberry, raspberry and black cherry aromas are enhanced by a lush palate, small, lively bubbles and a persistent finish. The light pink hue, rich texture and cherry fruit flavors are the result of whole cluster pressing which extracts a hint of color and character from the hand-harvested Pinot Noir grapes.

For a French Champagne, select the Piper Heidsieck, Brut Champagne NV. This Champagne has elegance, vivacity and style--A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it is bright and spring-fresh, with blossoms, fruit and toast on the nose--and pineapple, nutmeg, white pepper and zest on the palate. Another excellent Champagne is Moët & Chandon White Star France NV. This extra-dry, bright, fruity wine is balanced, with mellow, well-developed flavors and just a hint of sweetness. It’s golden yellow and displays delicate aromas of flowers, hazelnuts and biscuits. Soft on the palate, White Star has a fruity finish evocative of white peaches.

Marian Jansen op de Haar is the Director of Wine for Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

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