Just 150 kilometers (93 miles) northeast of Paris, the twin villages of Reims and Épernay (referred to as the Champagne region) produce revered bottles of Champagne, commanding high prices upon their release and even more at auction. While their pedigrees are impeccable, tracing back many, many generations, and held tight within the same families, their skills are also well refined. This expertise has inspired a worldwide love for bubbles and encouraged other sparkling-wine regions around the world to follow suit, building bubbles into their portfolios and rubbing elbows with still wines. In many cases, the grapes for still and sparkling wines are crafted in the same vineyard. It’s the techniques that differ.
Today you’d be hard pressed to discover a wine region not making sparkling wines. The good news is that sparkling wines feature a variety of price points, from as low as $10 to several-hundred dollars (maybe even soaring into the thousands if you are snapping up Champagne bottles at auction). They also range from dry—most notably in Champagne—to sweet, like Italy’s Prosecco.
The History of Champagne
As a rule, Champagne can only be called Champagne if crafted in Champagne, France. This term is trademarked as “a place of origin.” However, there are numerous other terms to be used for sparkling wines produced elsewhere, including Cava, sparkling wine and Brut.
The first bottle of Champagne was reportedly made during the 5th century in France by the Romans. Initially, these wines were more pinkish in hue and over time evolved into the straw-like shade we associate with Champagne today. But it’s worth noting that even today and based on the composition of grapes, a wine can turn pinker, such as when it features more red-wine grapes (like Pinot Noir) in the blend.
To make Champagne, the wine undergoes two fermentations—first in the barrel; then in the bottle, incorporating yeast, nutrients and sugar—followed by a unique process called riddling. This is when the bottles, while aging in the cellar upright in racks, are turned slightly and shaken on a rotating basis. A skillful flick of the wrist ensures the lees (yeast precipitate) moves to the bottle’s neck. Finally, the lees are removed entirely during the disgorging process, and the crown cap is replaced with a Champagne-style cork.
Composition of Champagne and Sparkling Wines
Because the French government dictates which grapes can go into wines produced—according to each wine region—you won’t find a lot of variance within Champagne. Three grapes are harvested to make Champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. However, the percentage of each can be adjusted based on winemakers’ decisions and—even deeper than this—how viticultural managers and grape growers deem that vintage’s flavor profile. If the Pinot Noir is very fruit-forward for a specific harvest, or the Chardonnay especially crisp, that knowledge may shift the percentage of each of those three grapes in the final blend.
It’s also worth noting that not all Champagnes bottled in Champagne boast a vintage. This doesn’t mean the quality is terrible. It only means that a very curated technique folding in grapes from several vintages was employed, in order to provide the best flavors.
But if you do spot a vintage Champagne, you can rest assured that it’s of premium quality (culled from a stellar grape harvest) and was aged, per government requirements, a minimum of four years.
Types of Champagne and Sparkling Wines
The beauty in knowing sparkling wine is made on nearly every continent (Antarctica is not currently producing commercial wine, of course) allows even more depth when it comes to food pairing. Maybe you are looking for a Spanish cava to sip alongside a charcuterie board featuring Jamón, Spain’s artisanal ham. Or a fresh-fruit spread that includes Michigan cherries, you feel, would be best served with sparkling wine from the Mitten State. Australia and New Zealand are even producing sparkling wines, although in limited quantities not as prolific as in Europe or across the United States. Most sparkling wines stem from California, France and Italy, with some emerging regions in England, New York, South Africa and Portugal.
Where: Champagne, France
Composition: Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir
Popular Brands: Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon, Nicolas Feuillatte, Perrier Jouet, Roederer and Veuve Clicquot
Where: Franciacorta, Italy (Lombardy region)
Composition: Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero
Popular Brands: Berlucchi, Ca’ del Bosco, Ferghettina, Marchese Antinori and Villa Franciacorta
Where: Penedès, Catalonia, Spain
Composition: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo
Popular Brands: Freixenet, Juvé & Camps, Raventos, Recaredo and Segura Viudas
Where: eight appellations in France, including Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Jura and Loire
Composition: varies by region, but commonly Auxerrois, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling
Popular Brands: Bouvet-Ladubay, Domaine J. Laurens, Domaine Pignier, Gérard Bertrand, Louis Bouillot,
Where: Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy
Composition: Giera, Macabeo, Parellada, Raboso, Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo
Popular Brands: Da Luca, La Marca, Riondo, Ruffino and Zonin
Where: California, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Texas and New York’s Finger Lakes region
Popular Brands: Domaine Carneros, Gruet Winery, Mumm, Roederer and Schramsberg
How to Drink Champagne and Sparkling Wine
There’s a movement within the wine community to stop stowing away “the good stuff” (those pricey, coveted bottles of Champagne and sparkling wine) for a special occasion and instead uncork as an everyday drinking wine.
To support this trend, food personalities (such as celebrity chefs, sommeliers and wine directors, and winemakers) advocate accessible pairings like potato chips, popcorn, a no-fuss cheese platter, fried chicken or sardines in a can. Whereas before, the process of sipping sparkling wine took on a ceremonial vibe, perhaps followed by chocolate-covered strawberries or an elaborate multi-course dinner, that culinary angle has shifted.
Proper serving temperature for sparkling wines hovers around 47 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit—not ice cold but also not room temperature just yet.
Glassware here is key. Convention has taught us that bubbles should be poured in a narrow flute but in recent years wine directors are dialing it back several decades to the coupe glass. Because this design—popular in the middle of last century—flaunts a wide rim, this gives the wine more air and room to breathe, doing its best to celebrate the wine’s nuances.
Just like with any wine, the three Ss are key: swirl, sniff and sip.
Sparkling wines are also the base in several cocktails, especially a brunch favorite: mimosa. For this type of cocktail, which mixes orange juice with bubbles, a crisp, dry option is preferred. If it’s too sweet then that will crowd the juice’s flavors.
As with most wines, there’s a selection for every palate preference—whether it’s sweet or dry, full-bodied or balanced. The discovery process may seem daunting given that many wineries around the world now produce sparkling, in addition to still, wines. But it’s only by sipping picks from around the globe that you can unearth your favorite go-to sparkling wine.
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