By Ron James
There are few simple things in this life as enjoyable as gazing at heavenly stars slowly weaving their way up my wine glass and anticipating the pleasure to come from the first sip of a great sparkling wine. No wonder they are symbolic of celebration. And today, with the prices of very good sparkling wines comparable to everyday whites and reds, there is no excuse to wait for a special celebration to enjoy some delicious bubbles.
Whether it’s an evening out or a nice dinner at home, sparkling wine always creates a festive atmosphere perfect for sharing with family and friends. Although very good and affordable sparkling wines are a fairly recent phenomenon, the history of effervescent wine goes back to the Roman Empire and beyond.
In medieval Europe, bubbles in wine were thought to be a nasty by-product — a fault in the wine, and even dangerous. Winemakers in the French Champagne region were most agitated, because much of their wine just kept fizzing. The gas would cause bottles to explode, taking out good wine and sometime even winemakers. It wasn’t until the 1700s that winemakers finally wised up to the fact that bubbles were a good thing and they began to produce sparkling wine on purpose.
Although the French are credited with the first mass-produced sparkling wines, it was the Brits who actually developed wine bottles that would hold up to the pressure. And they were the first to add a bit of sugar to the wine bottle before it was corked in order to produce bubbles. The bubbles in wine are carbon dioxide, simply caused by carbonation produced in the secondary fermentation process.
Today the French still make great sparkling wine and Champagne-region winemakers are the only ones who can legally label their variety as Champagne. In France, sparkling wine made in areas outside of the Champagne region is called Mousseux or Crémant . Practically every wine-making country in the world makes some form of sparkly. In Spain it’s called Cava, in Italy it’s called Spumante, in Germany and Austria it’s Sekt and in South Africa there’s a newcomer called Cap Classique. In America, it’s mostly just called sparkling wine.
Sparkling wine comes in colors ranging from sparkling clear white to deep red. They range from Doux (very sweet dessert wine) to Extra-Brut (very dry with no sweetness). The dryness or sweetness depends on the quantity of sugar added after the second fermentation. When shopping for sparkling wines you’ll see the following on the label to indicate dryness or sweetness:
Extra-Brut or Brut-Naturale — the driest, with no discernible sugar
Brut — dry, with a bit sweetness
Extra-Dry — medium dry with a bit of sweetness
Sec — medium sweet
Demi-Sec — sweet
Doux — sweetest, most of the time dessert wine
When drinking sparkling wine, use the right glass. It makes a big difference in the experience of seeing and savoring those tiny bubbles. The flute should be totally clean and clear, relatively thin, around 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, with tall sides and a pointed bottom. Hold the wine glass by the stem and bottom so that your fat fingers don’t leave prints on the glass and warm the wine.
For best results, always serve sparkling wine chilled to 43 to 48 degrees. You can chill it in the coldest part of the fridge for about 45 minutes to an hour. But it’s best not to store sparkling wine there for more than a couple of days; it can pick up the flavors of the food in the box and has a tendency to flatten over time. The best way to chill it is in a bucket filled with ice and water.
One little caution when opening sparkling wine — a projectile cork can be a dangerous thing. And even if launching a cork across the room doesn’t bonk Cousin Fred, it will cause an immediate release of excess carbon dioxide making the wine quickly go flat — and flat is no fun.
The best way to open a bottle is to point the cork away from close friends, remove the foil and slowly take off the wire cage, and firmly hold onto the cork with one hand, (some prefer to place a clean white towel over the cork). Then turn the bottle slowly with your other hand loosening the cork so that it will come out slowly with as little pop as possible.
If you’re in the mood for fun on a warm summer evening, get a bunch of friends together and have a sparkling wine tasting. Try a wide range of styles from several wine regions and find the sparkling wine that puts the biggest smile on your face. Now that’s a special occasion. Cheers.
ROEDERER ESTATE BRUT ROSÉ NV ($26)
A wonderful sparkling rosé great for any occasion, with food or sans. It is made in the Anderson Valley in northern Sonoma by famed French Champagne producer Louis Roederer. For one of America’s top brut non-vintage sparkling wines it is still a great bargain.
2005 SCHRAMSBERG BLANC DE BLANCS ($27.99)
From one of America’s premier sparkling wine producers. It’s made from chardonnay grapes picked from top Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino vineyards. It’s a dry, delicious, crisp, brilliantly clear sparkler, which makes perfect sense considering it is a blanc de blancs, which means white wine made from white grapes. The grapes are left on the vine for an extended time to concentrate the fruit to give the wine pineapple, apricot and citrus overtones. It’s best known as the wine that President Nixon served at the historic “Toast to Peace” in Beijing in 1972.
GLORIA FERRER ($20)
Last but by no means least, Gloria Ferrer is for my money one of the best sparkling wines in the business. Blanc de Noirs, means white wine made from black grapes, in this case Carneros region pinot noir grapes that are lightly crushed and the juice is removed from the skins immediately so that the wine remains rosy white. It’s wonderfully crisp with creamy stone fruit flavors, with a very clean finish and perfect tiny bubbles.