Corks are popping all over the place this month. More bottles of Champagne and other sparkling wines are sold during the holidays than at any other time of the year. With an elegance that eludes eggnog, bubbly is definitely a December favorite.
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For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices. Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is Champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean?
Here’s a primer, with answers to these and some other frequently asked questions.
Is Champagne really the best sparkling wine?
In a word, yes. Real Champagne comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good Champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.
What makes Champagne so distinct? Many things, but the most important factor is that the area is too cold for wine grapes to ripen fully. They retain lots of acidity, and while too tart for still wine, are perfect for bubbly.
That Champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.
Why is Champagne so expensive?
Two reasons, really. First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for Champagne all over the world, the region itself is relatively small. Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method, and the wine simply can’t come cheap.
Speaking of cheap, you still can find some bottles of American bubbly for under $10 labeled as “Champagne.” Though regulations now restrict the use of the term, producers who labeled their wines with it in the past are allowed to continue to do so. These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. They bear virtually no resemblance to true Champagne.
Are there any good, affordable Champagnes?
Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent Champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abelé, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.
What does ‘brut’ mean?
It means dry, and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means very dry. Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean very dry. It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec,” a term that literally means half-dry. There’s absolutely no logic to it.
Incidentally, rosé Champagnes, which many people assume will taste sweet, are usually quite dry.
What about sparklers from elsewhere in Europe?
Spanish cava is always a popular alternative to Champagne, particularly since it carries a lower price tag. Made by the traditional method, but with different grape varieties, good cavas taste nutty rather than toasty, and rarely cost more than $15. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are reliable producers.
Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser in texture than Champagne, can be another option. For around $12, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.
Prosecco from northeastern Italy is surging in popularity these days. Rarely made by the traditional method, the wines usually taste somewhat sweet. More like Champagne in style are brut Italian sparklers from Trentino and Franciacorta. Popular with the chic set in Milan, they are priced in the same league as the French originals.
Are there any good American sparkling wines?
Yes, and more and more all the time. Let’s start in California, where the Champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Names to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. Expect to pay about $25 for a basic brut, and more for a vintage or prestige bottling.
Many other places in the United States also produce good bubbly. Westport Rivers in Massachusetts, L. Mawby in Michigan, Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank in New York, Argyle in Oregon and Thibaut-Jannison in Virginia are examples of wineries whose wines have won numerous medals and awards at international competitions and are well worth trying.
What foods go best with ‘brut’ bubblies?
Wherever it comes from, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare. It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, notably shellfish and sushi.
But what about dessert?
Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Serve extra-dry or demi-sec wine instead. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra-dry cava for about $10.
Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.
What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays?
Good bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in the bottle, becoming more complex, nuanced and intriguing. You do need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light. Whether you use a closet or a basement, don’t worry about leftover bottles. Given all the sales during the holidays, this is definitely the season to stock up!
Main photo: Pouring out the champagne. Credit: iStock
For me, holidays and sparkling wine go together. There is nothing more celebratory than welcoming guests with a glass of bubbly, like this crisp, pure, stunningly elegant non-vintage Pierre Péters Cuvée de Réserve Brut Champagne.
When I tasted it at Hong Kong‘s Cuisine Cuisine restaurant a couple of weeks ago, it perked up three unusual salty, savory and slightly sweet appetizers, and I was reminded that Champagne goes well with just about everything. It’s a blanc de blancs, meaning it’s made only from Chardonnay.
The Pierre Péters is a grower Champagne, the newly hot category also known as “farmer fizz.” While the region’s famous big brands buy most of their grapes from all over the region and make hundreds of thousands of bottles, grower Champagnes come from individual small growers who use only grapes from their own vineyards. Pierre Péters makes only 14,000 cases.
A family estate in the Côte des Blancs area, it has been making Champagne for nearly 100 years from its vineyards in four grand cru villages, all on the chalky limestone soil that’s perfect for Chardonnay. This is their delicious entry-level cuvée, a blend of vintages from the exceptional, flowery 2008 (60 percent), and reserve wines going back to 1988, which give it depth and character. It’s a wine with a strong mineral component, which is why I’ve found it’s best along with something to nibble on.
I’m going to highlight sparkling wines in my Wine of the Week picks over the next couple of weeks, and I’m starting with the expensive stuff. If you can’t indulge over the holidays, when can you? And this wine is worth the price.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”
One of my biggest surprises was the excellent quality of the sparkling wines, called Crémant du Jura, which are made by the same traditional method used in Champagne.
The best one was this vivid, floral-and-almond-scented non-vintage Domaine André et Mireille Tissot Crémant du Jura, with its crispy bubbles, polished style, creamy texture and earthy minerality. It’s much better than many basic non-vintage Champagnes, but costs a whole lot less.
The domaine in the tiny village of Montigny-les-Arsures, near the Jura’s central town, Arbois, is now run by Stephane Tissot, son of the founders. He’s one of the region’s young turks, growing grapes biodynamically, harvesting by hand, and using very little sulfur. Just about everything he makes — 35 wines, plus 15 in his négociant business, Les Caves de la Reine Jeanne — is at least interesting. This wine is much more than that.
Crémant du Jura is one of two style appellations in the Jura, and the wines account for about 16 percent of the region’s production. All are sparkling, and unless they’re rosés, contain at least 50 percent chardonnay. While some light, delicate Crémants are all-chardonnay, Tissot’s is a deeper and more complex blend.
The Jura is very much off-the-beaten-track, a small region that many wine lovers — and retailers — are only just discovering. The number of producers practicing organic or biodynamic viticulture is skyrocketing, and this year 24 of them banded together for their first local Le Nez Dans Le Vert tasting.
Tissot’s Crémant is a good way to begin exploring — and get an affordable dose of celebratory bubbles.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
NV Taittinger Prélude Brut
Region: Champagne, France
Grape: 50 percent chardonnay, 50 percent pinot noir
Serve: With caviar, salted nuts, or my favorite, popcorn laced with truffle oil
If there’s one holiday that calls for a bottle of champagne, it’s New Year’s Eve. Even if you feel like bidding good riddance to 2010, who doesn’t have hopes for 2011? That’s worth uncorking a bottle of France’s top bubbly. I’ll be opening up Taittinger’s lovely, stylish “Prélude” as I watch the ball drop and make a few toasts (and silent wishes).
Somewhere, some sourpuss of a wine lover may be thinking that popping the cork on a pricey fizz at midnight while wearing a funny paper hat is a waste of effervescence. I disagree; I want to start the New Year with a bang, a nose-tickling scent of citrus and smoke, a cascade of fine bubbles, and a tart, clean, lingering finish.
If the bottle isn’t finished by the time the revelry is over, champagne keeps remarkably well if stoppered (with a dedicated champagne stopper), and kept chilled.
There’s no better use for leftover champagne than to kick up fresh-squeezed orange juice at a New Year’s Day brunch.
Taittinger is one of the classic “houses” or producers in the Champagne district, and makes around 5 million bottles a year. Founded in the 18th century, it was family owned until it (and associated businesses) were sold off in 2005 to a private equity firm.
A year later, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger bought back the champagne house for his branch of the family. Like most of the region’s producers, Taittinger has a range of bottlings, from basic brut, vintage, and rosé to its very expensive tête de cuvée Comtes de Champagne. The house specializes in those made entirely from chardonnay, but Prélude skillfully blends recent vintages of both pinot noir and chardonnay from grand crus vineyards (many owned by the firm) to create a fizz that shows both elegance and complexity. It’s my idea of what should be in my flute on Dec. 31.
DIZY, France — This summer’s erratic weather and frequent storms have illustrated the difficulties that winegrowers often face in the Champagne region. Severe hailstorms in May took their toll on vineyards in the Marne Valley, while heavy floods wreaked havoc in July. The past few months have been warm, yet thunderstorms have constantly punctuated the periods of sunshine, keeping humidity high and creating problems with mildew in many areas.
Champagne’s location at the 49th parallel historically has been considered as the northernmost limit of viable winegrowing in this part of France. Champagne is significantly more northerly than the Loire Valley or Burgundy, and in comparison with North America, Epernay lies farther north than Québec. While Champagne’s top winegrowers are no less dedicated to high-quality viticulture than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, the region presents notable challenges in the vineyards. Its cool climate and relatively modest levels of sunshine create favorable conditions for producing wines of low alcohol and high acidity, two requisite criteria for making top-quality sparkling wine, but the cool and often wet weather can also contribute to widespread malady in the vines, particularly downy mildew.
As in other winegrowing regions, interest in a more sustainable viticulture has been growing steadily in Champagne, yet the region’s marginal climate has caused many growers to question whether it’s possible to use methods identical to those in warmer, drier areas. Many argue that these methods should be adapted to fit the specific conditions of the Champagne region, and because of this, growers have often been reluctant to pursue organic or biodynamic certification.
Nevertheless, a growing number of winegrowers is choosing to farm strictly organically or biodynamically, and their success has had a positive effect on the region. “At the moment, there is a group of about 25 organic and biodynamic growers in Champagne,” says Daniel Lorson, communications director of the Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, or CIVC, Champagne’s governing body. “It isn’t much, but their influence is immense. Many others try to adopt at least certain techniques and methods that are used by these growers. Anytime organic methods are possible, more and more growers now use them.”
Yet even those who do practice strictly organic viticulture in Champagne acknowledge the difficulties of doing so and admit that the consequences can sometimes be severe. “I think it’s the most difficult region for organic viticulture,” says winegrower Pascal Doquet, whose vineyards are currently under conversion to organic certification. “One bad storm can have a dramatic impact on your harvest.” Doquet’s vines are primarily in the southern portion of the Côte des Blancs, which he says this year has not been affected by mildew as much as some other areas of Champagne have been. In 2008, however, his harvest was markedly reduced because of problems with mildew. “Last year we averaged only about 9,500 kilograms per hectare,” he says, “while others were averaging 15,000.”
Comparatively speaking, other growers have experienced even more difficulties. Beginning in 1996, Emmanuel Fourny of Veuve Fourny & Fils attempted to convert his family’s estate to organic and biodynamic viticulture. In the wet summer of 1997, however, he lost more than 50 percent of his crop to mildew. “We were committed to organics,” says Fourny, “and we used only Bordeaux mixture [copper sulfate and lime]. It wasn’t enough.” After the 1998 vintage, the estate decided that it could no longer afford to pursue a strictly organic regime, although Fourny continues to use many organic practices today.
Fourny, like many other growers in Champagne, has opted for a modified set of viticultural practices known as lutte raisonnée, which can be loosely translated as a reasoned or reasonable approach, seeking a viticultural solution that’s sustainable in both an environmental and economical sense. At its best, lutte raisonnée intends to work as organically as possible in the vineyards, choosing natural alternatives to pesticides and embracing organic methods such as the planting of cover crops, while reserving the right to use a minimum amount of synthetic treatments when environmental conditions threaten to damage or destroy the harvest.
The CIVC has strongly embraced lutte raisonnée and is encouraging growers who are more accustomed to conventional viticulture to adopt the practice. “In such a cool region we do not expect everybody to go organic—this is impossible,” Lorson says. “But what we talk about is sustainable viticulture, an environmentally conscious compromise, using chemicals only when absolutely necessary.”
Advocates of lutte raisonnée see it as an adaptive approach that takes into account the empirical realities of the environment around them, while its detractors deride it as a half-hearted compromise that allows unscrupulous growers to falsely claim organic or semi-organic practice. In some sense, they’re both right: the main problem with lutte raisonnée is that it’s only a descriptive concept, not a regulated or strictly defined set of rules. Because of this, each grower’s idea of what constitutes acceptable practices in the vineyard is unique. “Lutte raisonnée can really mean anything,” points out winegrower Aurélien Laherte of Laherte Frères. “Everybody thinks they’re reasonable.”
One solution to this is certification outside of strictly organic or biodynamic programs. Laurent Champs, proprietor of the Vilmart & Cie. estate, is a member of a group called Ampelos, which offers certification under a system that Champs describes as lutte intégrée raisonée contrôlée. It’s the contrôlée, or regulated, aspect of this system that is most significant: The group operates according to a clear set of rules and is monitored by inspectors from the organization. In nearly all respects, their practices follow along the lines of those certified as organic, such as eschewing the use of herbicides, employing pheromones for the sexual confusion of insects rather than using pesticides and fertilizing exclusively with organic compost. It’s particularly in addressing the problem of mildew that they diverge, with Ampelos condoning the use of specified synthetic treatments in regulated and limited quantities.
So far, few Champagne winegrowers are committed to a certified program such as Ampelos. But the region is taking steps toward becoming more environmentally friendly. Virtually all of the leading growers cite significant improvements in viticulture over the past decade, and the CIVC has encouraged those who might not have taken the initiative to upgrade their viticulture on their own. In 2001, the CIVC published a guide called Référentiel Technique that it sent to 15,000 growers across the region, outlining a program of viticulture raisonnée and showing them how to work with new, more eco-friendly viticultural methods. Since 2006, every grower in Champagne has been required to plant a cover crop in at least one parcel, and the CIVC has worked with growers to reduce the use of herbicides, claiming a 40 percent reduction region-wide in the use of fungicides, pesticides and herbicides since 2001. “There are still improvements to be made, but in the past 15 years, more progress has been made than in the last two or three generations,” Lorson says. “We are progressing at a very rapid pace right now, even if there is still more work to do. I am very confident that we are now on the right track.”
At the same time, Lorson doesn’t believe that further regulation is necessarily the answer. “Sustainable viticulture in Champagne is very much a matter of education,” he says. “We prefer to educate the growers rather than make new rules. We try to speak to the conscience of the growers, telling them that you have to act with the future in mind.”
Photo: Pascal Doquet in his vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Credit: Peter Liem