“As grape juice ferments to become wine, carbon dioxide gas is formed as a by-product and released into the atmosphere. The end result is a still, or nonsparkling wine. If the wine maker, at some stage of the process, prevents the carbon dioxide gas from escaping, the end result is a sparkling wine.” -Exploring Wine, by Steven Kolpan et al.
The art of producing sparkling wines was standardized and recorded by a French monk named Dom Perignon (1639-1715). Since then, they have been produced according to a highly specific and exacting recipe and method in the region of France known as Champagne. These sparkling wines are the most famous and have garnered the most respect in the wine world over the last three centuries.
Because of the time and labor required to produce the finest Champagne wines, they tended to be more expensive, and therefore reserved for the most special and celebratory occasions. (Except for the wealthy nobility, who were able to drink it on a regular basis.)
That being said, today a wide variety of sparkling wines, many of very high quality, are available to the average consumer. Unless you’re looking to buy a top-notch Dom Pérignon or Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, it is possible to enjoy these sparklers whenever you feel like it.
In fact, in France, it is customary to serve sparkling wine as an apéritif, to stimulate the appetite before a meal. Bubbly wine is also a great option to serve during a meal, and pairs extremely well with: pretty much any cheese; creamy foods or sauces; seafood; charcuterie; fruit-based desserts; and shortbread cookies. Or, just drink it after a long day of work, while relaxing in front of the fire or television, or in the bathtub, because it’s Tuesday.
Here’s another occasion: December 31 is National Champagne Day. So in honor of the association between New Year’s Eve and sparkling wine, here are a few options to learn about.
What makes champagne the king of sparkling wines has to do partly with its pedigree: the winemakers of Champagne, in the northeast of France, have been perfecting the formula for centuries. And part of it has to do with the traditions and regulations of Champagne production that ensure only the most exquisite and pristine creations are released to the public and earn the name “Champagne” wine, which is a protected term under European law.
The requirements include: only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, & Pinot Meunier grapes may be used; they must be grown on the most selective soils and sites within the designated Champagne region; and they must be carbonated (via secondary fermentation), aged, and sold in the original bottle. The entire process can last anywhere from 18 to 40 months.
Now, there are plenty of true Champagne wines available in your local market, ranging from moderately priced to insanely expensive. But a great place to start for the Texas consumer is right here at home. There is, in fact, a Texas winemaker who produces true, and high-quality, Champagne in France under his own direction, and then imports it for exclusive sale here in the Texas Hill Country. His name is Claude Alexander, and you can select from a variety of excellent Champagnes at Alexander Vineyards.
Sparkling wine in Italy (known as spumante) has been made for almost as long as Champagne has in France. However, it was a strictly local product, only known to the folks buying wine in the areas between Venice and Trieste. It was primarily a sweet dessert wine, and was eventually popularized in America by the introduction of a not-quite traditional product called Asti Spumante (which is actually the names of two different Italian wine styles). But true Prosecco was brought into the ever-more-sophisticated wine market of the United States in 2000, and has become increasingly popular as a less-expensive alternative to Champagne.
Like Champagne, the term “Prosecco” is protected by European law and applies only to wine made in the designated Prosecco region from certain permitted grape varieties. There are substantial differences between the two wine types, though: Champagne typically improves with age, and is characterized by yeasty, toasty (or “biscuity”) flavors. Prosecco is a younger wine, with a fruitier, more acidic bite to it. It also tends to be lower in alcohol.
There are plenty of Prosecco wines available for the American consumer. A good place to start if you’re not familiar with it, is with those produced by La Marca, or by Cupcake Vineyards, which makes an excellent low-price entry point to Italian sparkling wines.
Cava is a relative newcomer to the world of sparkling wines. It was developed specifically to provide a Spanish alternative to Champagne, starting in the 1850s. It was originally (and to a large extent still is) aged in caves, thus the name. All Cava is made in the Spanish province of Catalunya, with 90% being made in the wine region of Penedès, just south along the coast from Barcelona.
In order to be labeled Cava, it must be produced in the traditional French method from grapes grown in Catalunya. Although Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Malvasia may be used, most Cava is made from the Spanish grapes Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello.
The flavor profile of Cava is more similar to Champagne than that of Prosecco. But more Cava is produced than any other sparkling wine, so it is far easier to find affordable options in Spanish bubbly than French or Italian. The two largest producers of Cava, which both export to America, are Frexeinet (pronounced fresh-a-net), and Cordiniú. You can’t go wrong with either.
American sparkling wine
American producers of sparkling wine have a lot of catching up to do with their European counterparts. And they have been. Nonetheless, I recommend to you three American wines that are produced by winemakers with long European pedigrees.
Louis Roederer took over a Champagne producer in 1833, and his company has been making some of the world’s finest sparkling wine since then. In the 1980s, they discovered that the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, California, has the right climate, soil characteristics, and precipitation pattern to produce excellent sparkling wines in the same method as in France. The Roederer Estate makes four different sparkling wines at a lower price point than their French releases.
Gilbert Gruet was a first-generation Champagne maker in France, and is recognized for making some first-class wines since 1952. In 1983, he discovered the 300-year-old winemaking tradition in New Mexico, and successfully planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir there as an experiment. In 1984, his children relocated to Albuquerque and began Gruet Winery. Although they produce quite good still wines, including Chardonnay, they are best known for their sparkling wines. For a special occasion, try the Rosé.
Finally, Paul Bonarrigo is the fifth generation of wine maker in his family, who are from Sicily. He relocated to Bryan, Texas in the 1970s, and founded Messina Hof Winery, which is the fourth-oldest winery in the state. It is now one of the largest, with tasting room locations in the Texas Hill Country and in Grapevine. Messina Hof produces at least four different sparkling wines each year, and the almond-flavored one is their best selling wine. Because of its semi-sweet flavor, it’s excellent for toasting to a sweet New Year. For other occasions, their Brut is a fantastic all-purpose sparkling wine made in the traditional style at an affordable price.
However you enjoy sparkling wine this week, and throughout 2019, make sure you don’t wait for a “special occasion.” Enjoying wine is always a special occasion.
And all of us at Texas Wine Tours wish you a good, healthy, joyous, and prosperous New Year full of special occasions.