Saturday, May 7

Q&A With The Weekend Pontificator: Champagne

This came up in the comments, and as always The Weekend Pontificator is happy to tell everybody just what's what.

Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wines from other regions of France and the rest of the civilized world are called "sparkling wine". In the United States, though, where anything that swims or just floats on the surface can be called "cod", and extruded vegetable oil and orange food color can legally be termed "something resembling cheese", you sometimes see "champagne" appropriated, usually for cheap, mass-produced dreck.

Sparkling wines are produced by taking advantage of the natural "secondary fermentation" that wines go through after the primary fermentation has stopped. The 17th century Benedictine monk Dom Perignon is often credited with "inventing" champagne. In fact he was a superb viticuleur who may have hit upon a combination of reinforced glass and a corking method which allowed champagne to be stored.

There are many ways to produce sparkling wines, the two major ones being méthode champenoise and the charmat, or bulk method. All true champagne and superior sparkling wines are made by the former. Secondary fermentation occurs in individual bottles which are then aged, generally for a minimum of two years. The longer the wine ages, the more CO2 is absorbed; this is why the mark of a good sparkling wine is tiny bubbles which are persistent. Good wines don't lose their sparkle in five minutes' time.

After the wine is fully aged, the bottles, which have been stored upside down to allow the sediment to fall into the neck of the bottle, are immersed in a cold brine bath, which freezes the sediment. The temporary cork is then removed, allowing the pressure in the bottle to shoot the plug of sediment out.

This is where the sweetness is determined. The bottles are topped off with a measure of still wine known as the dosage. Any sugar in the finished product comes from this topping off. Sparkling wines from the EC must be labeled according to their residual sugar. The rank, from driest to sweetest:

Extra Brut
Extra-Dry (Extra Trocken)
Sec (Trocken, Secco)
Demi-Sec (Halbtrocken, Abboccato, Semi-Seco)
Doux (Dolce, Dulce)

The sugar levels actually overlap some, so the "Extra Dry" of one house might be drier than another's "Brut". Extra-Dry champagne is basically made for the American taste. Also, some producers make a sparkling wine with zero sugar, sometimes designated "Ultra brut" or "Brut sauvage" or some such.

The reason sweet sparkling wine is labeled "sec", meaning "dry", is that when champagne was first bottled the taste was for wines considerably sweeter than what we typically drink today.

The Weekend Pontificator recommends that you try drinking a little less for once in your hedonistic life and save enough to splurge on a really good bottle sometime. Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label is our favorite among what passes for reasonably priced champagne, and is superior to a lot of supposed "luxury" brands costing twice as much. Buy Moët et Chandon Dom Perignon or Roederer Cristal only if you're trying to impress someone with the label. If you must spend an obscene amount and want the best quality, buy Krug or Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame.

Cheapo sparkling wine is just fine for making Mimosas or champagne cocktails. Asti Spumante, though sneered at by snobs like me, can be quite good for something gulpable.

More than you wanted to know? Then my work here is done.


Anonymous said...

One of our local tapas places in the DC area makes eminently sippable white sangria made from cava such as "Freixenet." It is light and fruity, but not syrupy in the least - be sure to use the driest cava you can find. One of the main ingredients, Licor 43 can also be used to make a fantastic coffee drink.

I got the recipe and it can be found here. Celebrate spring!

Anonymous said...

Idea for an advertisement following the latest trend of mixing classic rock with luxury products:

"If you want to hang out, you've got to take her out, Champagne.
If you want to get down, down on the ground, Champagne."

Think I can get a gig doing ads for the Association of French Champagne Producers? If so, would I get a case or two of samples? I wonder if J.J. Cale needs the $$.

Anonymous said...

I happen to like, at about the same level as I like Veuve Cliquot, Tattainger. Slightly different notes, at about the quality/price.

I was reading a book on Champagnes and the author had interviewed the makers of same, asking what they drank when they couldn't have their own. They split, about 50/50 on Vueve, and Tatt, with each of those, going for the other.


Anonymous said...

I don't know why the Doghouse Riley's Guide to Wine is only available at the Skid Row ABC store in town. And where's the section on fortified wines for the discerning wino?

Anonymous said...

Ah, ok. I thought I knew a little about Champagne/sparkling wine and I was right: I know little. Thanks to you, I know more now. This is like when I worked in a wine store a couple of years ago. I knew enough to get the part-time job, but very quickly realized that I had many years of study and sampling ahead of me to be considered "knowledgeable" (by my own standards, anyway). During those days, if a customer had champagne-related questions, I'd hand them off to the much more experienced employees, then stand around and listen to their answers and explanations. It was a very educational time.

Jill, thanks for the sangria recipe! I'm going to use that sucker this weekend.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention Segrams. One of the best Champagnes out there!

yeah, I'm kidding. I've only ever had real Champagne once. The rest were sparkling wines, spumantis and cavas.