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