Wine Education

Wine Education 101: Celebrating the Holidays with Sparkling Wine

The holidays are the perfect time of year to celebrate with a glass of bubbling sparkling wine. Those little bubbles in your glass give rise to an explosion of festivities, sparkles, and celebrations – maybe even a few giggles! Sparkling wine is a holiday favorite because it can be found in many different styles, which is what makes it so versatile and easy to enjoy with hors d’oeuvres, dessert, and yes, even with your main course. With so many sparkling styles to choose from, how do you select the best bottle for your celebrations? To start with, we should understand what sparkling wine is and answer the most common questions surrounding it, such as:  1) What is the difference between Sparkling Wine and Champagne?; and 2) Which is dryer, “Extra Dry” or “Brut”?

While all bubbling wine may be considered sparkling wine – not all sparkling wine is Champagne.  If a sparkling wine is labeled as “Champagne” it likely has been made in the region of Champagne, France using the “method champenoise” (also known as “traditional method”).  This method starts with a dry base wine in a bottle, followed by the addition of a solution of sugar and yeast.  This causes a secondary fermentation in the bottle to occur with carbon dioxide bubbles as a by-product.  As the bottle is aging, it is manipulated and angled (a process called “riddling”) such that the “lees” (dead yeast cells) move down into the neck of the bottle. When the aging process is complete (about 1.5 years), the lees are frozen in the neck, and then later expelled by the bottle pressure when the bottle is uncapped.  The Champagne may then be quickly adjusted for sweetness (“dosage”), and blended with small amounts of previous vintages (for consistency) before it receives its final cork.  Most Champagne is non-vintage, unless an exceptional harvest is declared.

Some quality sparkling wines are also made with the above “traditional method”, while less expensive sparkling wines may be made by the Charmat (Tank) method.  This method puts the base wine into a pressurized tank and adds yeast and sugar so that the secondary fermentation takes place in the pressurized tank and is later bottled using a counter pressure filler.

Which sparkling wine is driest?  Here is a guide to the sweetness level of sparkling wine (from Dry to Sweet):

  • Brut Zero or Brut Natural: no sugar (dosage) has been added – typically < 3 g/L residual sugar
  • Extra Brut: < 6 g/L residual sugar
  • Brut: < 12 g/L residual sugar
  • Extra Dry: between 12 to 17 g/L residual sugar
  • Dry (Sec): between 17 to 32 g/L residual sugar
  • Semi-Dry (Demi-Sec): between 32 to 50 g/L residual sugar
  • Sweet (Doux): 50+ g/L residual sugar

Typically, French Champagne is produced using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  You might notice bottles with these labels that indicate which grapes were used:

Blanc de Blanc:  A French term meaning “white from whites” – this is white Champagne made exclusively from the white Chardonnay grape.

Blanc de Noir:  A French term meaning “white from blacks” – this is white Champagne made from black grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier).

Cuvee de Prestige A French term meaning “Prestige Cuvee” – this is typically a proprietary blend of premium quality Champagne, usually made from the vintner’s finest grapes in their best vineyard.  These Cuvees are usually designated with a vintage, and carry a premium price-tag.

Here are some other types of sparkling wine that you might find from around the world:

Cremant – this is sparkling wine made in France (outside of Champagne region) using the method champenoise (traditional) method.

Asti (Spumante) – This is a sweet sparkling wine made from the Moscato grape in the Piedmont (NW) region of Italy.

Proseco – This is an aromatic and fruity sparkling wine made from the Glera grape in the Veneto (NE) region of Italy, usually with the cheaper tank method.

Cava – This is sparkling wine made in Spain from a variety of regional grapes with varying levels of sweetness.

Sekt – German sparkling wine has a variety of quality levels with Winzersekt being at the top of the list.  This bubbly is usually made from the Riesling grape using the traditional method.

Now that you have picked out your favorite bubbly, how should you serve it?  Champagne and sparkling wine should always be served cold; its ideal drinking temperature is 45 to 48 °F.

So, let’s raise a glass of our favorite sparkling wine and toast to the coming Holidays and New Year!

Irene Scott, WSET-3

Wine Education Chair

Wine Education 101 – Holiday Food and Wine Pairing

The Holiday Season is almost here and we know what that means – lots of delicious food to be enjoyed with our favorite wines in the company of our dearest friends and family. But choosing the right wine to complement our holiday meals can sometimes be confusing. We have all heard that we should drink red wine with red meat, and white wine with fish, but why? To understand food and wine pairing, we first need to know the five basic tastes we detect in food that are the basis for pairing with wine: 1) sweetness, 2) saltiness, 3) bitterness, 4) acidity, and 5) umami (savory). So, how do these five flavor components impact your holiday wine pairing?

Sweetness in food can increase the perception of bitterness, astringency, and acidity in wine. Sweetness can also decrease the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in wine. A good general rule with sweet food is to pair it with an even sweeter wine.  Think of that holiday apple pie paired with a late-harvest Riesling, an ice wine, or a Sauternes.

Saltiness in food is very friendly in pairing with wine. Salt in food can increase the perception of body and fruitiness in wine while also decreasing the perception of astringency, bitterness, and acidity. Salty food should be paired with wines that are acidic, fruity, and crisp. Classic pairings are briny oysters with Sauvignon Blanc, or popcorn with Chardonnay (one of my favorites). Another holiday favorite is ham which is often a combination of sweet-and-salty flavors.  Pair this meal with a crisp Rose, off-dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or a soft fruit-forward Zinfandel, Grenache or Pinot Noir.

Bitterness in food on its own may be tasty, but it can increase the perception of bitterness in wine. Bitter food paired with a tannic red wine will increase the sensation of those tannins in the wine. It is best to pair bitter food with red wines that are low in tannins (such as Pinot Noir) or consider white or rose wines. Consider pairing those holiday Brussel sprouts or arugula salad with a Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.

Acidity in food is good for pairing with wine. Foods high in acidity will increase the perception of body, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine. Acidic foods will also decrease the perception of acidity in the wine; therefore, you must pair your acidic food with an equally acidic wine or else your wine will be perceived as “flat” and “flabby.” Acidic wines are also great for pairing with rich and creamy foods which coat the tongue and prevent other flavors from being released. The acidity in the wine cuts through creams, cheeses and rich foods to balance out flavors. A rich and cheesy holiday lasagna with its acidic red sauce pairs lovely with the high acidity of Sangiovese or Chianti.

Umami is a taste that is difficult to isolate and is often described as “savory.” Some examples of umami would be something meaty, mushrooms, corn, cooked tomatoes, seaweed, miso, soy sauce – fermented foods and those high in glutamate (yes, MSG). Umami in food increases the perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity, and the warming sensation of alcohol in the wine. Umami also decreases the perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in wine. Umami without accompanying saltiness in food is difficult to pair with wine. However, the combination of umami and salt in food such as cured meats, smoked seafood and parmesan cheese will have less of a harsh effect on the accompanying wine. So, when your holiday meals contain “umami” dishes, make sure to prepare them in a way that adds some salt to the flavors. Good wine choices for foods high in umami are low in alcohol, crisply acidic, fruit-forward and even slightly sweet. Consider a crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, a fruit-forward Pinot Noir or Zinfandel, or even a sparkling Rose with your holiday turkey.

So how does this support the “red wine with red meat” and “white wine with fish” common practice? We all love our hearty Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot along with our aged prime rib of beef served during the holidays. These big reds are softened as the tannins in red wine bind to the proteins in meat, which is often high in salt content as well.  Fish can also be high in umami which is why it is often paired with a white wine, being lower in tannin. A tannic red wine with fish would have increased perception of bitterness and astringency.

Serving holiday tamales? Be aware that spicy “chili” heat can increase the perception of bitterness, astringency and acidity, as well as the increase the burning sensation of alcohol in the wine. Foods high in spicy heat will also decrease the perception of body, richness, sweetness, and fruitiness in the wine. It is best to serve those holiday tamales with a lower alcohol white wine that has some sweetness and fruitiness while avoiding tannic red wines. Tamales might pair with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, or a Riesling.

I hope you have gained some insight on how the different tastes in food pair well, or not, with some of your favorite holiday meals. Keep in mind, however, that food and wine pairing can be very subjective and a matter of personal preference.  During the coming holiday season, I hope you enjoy delicious meals with your favorite wines amongst your dearest friends and family.

Irene Scott – OCWS Wine Education Chair

Wine Education 101 – Harvest Timing

In California, Fall is an exciting time of year for winemakers as it is grape harvest season and a time for new beginnings.  Most harvests in the Northern Hemisphere occur in the months of August, September, and October – while harvests in the Southern Hemisphere typically occur in February, March, and April.  In California, some early-ripening varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat, and Pinot Noir, may be harvested in late August.  On the other hand, some late-ripening varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, and Syrah, may be harvested in early November. Year to year climate variations will also affect timing of the harvest season, possibly causing a later than usual, or earlier than usual harvest.

The timing of the grape harvest is one of the most important viticulture decisions affecting the winemaking process.  The quality of the grapes at harvest establishes the potential quality of the wine early in the winemaking process.  Good winemaking practices may help offset some deficiencies in grape quality but cannot fully make up for deficiencies in grape flavor when the harvesting is done too early or too late.  As the saying goes, “You can make bad wine from good grapes, but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes”.

So, how is this important harvest timing determined?  Viticulturists, or grape growers, will often work with the winemaker and establish their targets for grape sugar, acid, and pH levels, along with goals for different flavor and phenolic components.  Grape color, berry size and texture can also be taken into consideration for harvest timing. These targets may vary from varietal to varietal as well as vary to each winemakers’ stylistic choice.

As grapes reach maturity, their sugar level rises, and this sugar has long been the standard for determining harvest timing.  Grape sugar measurements are done using a refractometer and are recorded in “Brix” (Bx), with a typical Brix measurement falling between 21oBx and 25oBx at harvest.  Warmer climates, such as in California, will obtain higher Brix levels, while cooler climates in Europe may struggle to obtain the minimum ripeness and Brix level.  Since during fermentation yeast convert sugar into alcohol, a higher grape or juice Brix level has potential for higher alcohol in the finished wine.

At the same time that sugar levels are rising closer to harvest, acid levels begin to fall.  Acid levels in wine are very important as they are the “backbone” of wine, giving it balance and structure, as well as being the key component in food and wine pairing.  The major acids in wine are tartaric and malic acids, with minor amounts of citric and succinic acids. Tartaric acid is nearly unique to grapes and has the most impact on wine flavor, so measuring of tartaric acid, known as “TA” (titratable acidity) is a key measurement in grape ripeness.  White wines typically have a TA level between 7 g/L to 9 g/L, while red wines typically have a TA level between 6 g/L to 8 g/L.

The pH level in the grapes is also measured, and has somewhat of an inverse relationship to the “TA”.  Low pH numbers indicate that there is a high concentration of acids in the grape juice (or wine).  So, as the grapes are ripening, sugar levels are rising with acid levels falling, resulting in an increase in the pH level.  If the pH level is too high, that may be a sign that the grapes are overripe and may impact the quality of the wine.  Most wines will have a pH reading between 3 and 4 on the pH scale.  White wines typically have a lower pH and a higher TA, giving it “crispness”, while red wines typically display “roundness” with a higher pH and a lower TA.

Measuring for the targeted grape properties begins with systematic berry sampling as the harvest season approaches – this is a collection of about 100-200 berries from different grape clusters within the varietal block to be harvested.  Care must be taken to obtain a truly representative sample from the entire harvest block.  Berries should be selected from different rows in the vineyard, sun exposure, location on the vine, and from different areas within the cluster.  Sampling usually begins about 3-4 weeks before the anticipated maturity date.  As harvest approaches, Brix levels often rise about 2o Bx per week so sampling at regular intervals is important.  After also evaluating berry color, size and flavor, the sample is processed so that sugar, acid and pH tests can be performed on the juice.  Often, seed ripeness is also evaluated as an indicator of grape maturity.  Brown seeds are considered mature while green, un-ripe seeds may impart undesired bitterness in the wine.

Once the targeted grape properties have been reached, the harvest is done quickly and usually during the cool evenings or early mornings so that heat does not encourage the start of early fermentation.  Harvesting can be done by hand or mechanical harvesters, both having their pros and cons but both serving to get those ripe grapes from the vineyard into the winery for the winemaking process to begin.

Making the decision to harvest grapes is a critical decision in the winemaking process and is dependent on many factors requiring precise timing.  So much more can be written on the process of winemaking after the grape harvest.  I encourage you to visit the OCWS Winemaker group at: https://ocws.org/winemakers-activities/  to learn more about winemaking.

  • Irene Scott

Wine Education Chair