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Champagne and Sparkling Wines

If you’re a wine connoisseur, you probably know all about champagne and what makes it one of the most expensive alcoholic beverages available. If you’re not familiar with the wine making process and the wine-producing regions of the world, you may be unfamiliar with why champagne is called as such and how it differs from other sparkling wines (wines with bubbles).

Only one kind of sparkling wine can be referred to as champagne. These are the bubbly wines that are produced in the Champagne region of France. Others may use the same wine-making methods, but their labels are not permitted to carry the “champagne” name.

These French champagnes, of course, have always been highly regarded and the French are credited with perfecting the technique that produces this kind of wine. However, many domestic sparkling wines are equal in quality and many are owned by the famous champagne houses of French, including several in California.

Champagne Production

The French employ what is called the “traditional method” of making champagne, known in France as the “method champenoise”. There are two musts associated with this champagne-making method: 1) three types of grapes must be used – pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier (the latter is a rich-bodied black wine grape that is similar to pinot noir); and 2) the second fermentation must occur in the bottle.

To begin, all three varieties of grapes are pressed to release juice but no color from the black grapes is permitted to flow into the juice. The juice is then gathered and set aside for fermenting. When it is sufficiently aged, the second fermentation begins. After the base wine is blended, champagne makers add more yeast and sugar and the wine is bottled and sealed off. The yeast proceeds to consume the sugars and alcohol, producing carbon dioxide and, hence, bubbles. A settlement called “lees” forms at the bottom, prompting the need for the bottles to be turned over a period of time (usually at least 3 months) so that the lees settle in the neck. Bottles are then flash frozen and the sediment is removed. More sugar is added, a cork is inserted, and the champagne is ready to be sold (or aged further).

This traditional method is the only acceptable method for producing wines from the Champagne region. It is complicated and tedious but when performed by skilled hands produces the best champagnes in the world, like the famous Dom Perignon and Cristal.

Kinds of Champagne

When shopping for champagne, consumers will find these terms listed on the labels:
o Brut – This is a dry champagne with no sweetness. It is the most popular variety of champagne.
o Extra Brut – Even drier than brut!
o Sec – Still dry but with a touch of sweetness that makes it a bit more refreshing.
o Demi-sec – This champagne is “half dry” or “half sweet”, depending on your view. It is refreshing and nice when served with dessert.
o Doux – A very rare form of champagne and hard to find in the U.S., this variety is super sweet, containing about 5 percent sugar.

Other Sparkling Wines

Most sparkling wines don’t fall into the category of “vintage”. That means producers combine grapes from different years to make these concoctions. That makes them “cuvees” instead. They are categorized as either blanc de blanc (all white grapes) or blanc de noir (made of dark grapes without their skins). Some popular varieties include:

o Asti Spumante – This well-known Italian wine is made of the moscato bianco (white) grape. It is delicately sweet and a good complement for foods like particularly heavy cakes and other rich desserts. It has a low alcohol content.

o Cava – This Spanish sparkling wine is made in the traditional style and is light, fruity, and normally quite affordable. Usually available in sweet, medium, or dry, it pairs well with some spicy Spanish/Mexican foods and, like champagne, is often used for celebratory occasions.

o Prosecco – Made from the grape of the same name, Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine that is very dry and should be served at a very cold temperature. It tastes good on its own – it’s also light and fruity – or can be mixed with fruit purees and is a popular ingredient in the Bellini (peach puree and prosecco).