Sparkling wine 101 for all your holiday celebrations

2021-12-25 08:37:13 By : Ms. Kate Wu

What better way to celebrate the holidays, the New Year, a wedding, or a special day than a bottle of bubbly? Here’s my primer on sparkling wines for every celebration that comes your way.

Champagne is a sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines come from the Champagne region of France.

Most sparkling wines made in the tradition of Champagne have “Méthode Champenoise” on the label. It’s your clue the traditional method was used to attain those tiny bubbles. 

Basically, the traditional method uses two fermentations, the first for alcohol and the second for bubbles. The second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The yeast consumes the sugars but without an escape hatch, the carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle. The confined bubbles dance around with no place to go.

Another process for making bubblies is the Charmat method. Carbon dioxide is pumped into a large sealed tank. Charmat is the simplest and least expensive way to carbonate a boatload of wine.

Charmat is used to make some inexpensive Italian Prosecco and Asti Spumante slung with some Spanish Cavas and some New World wines. California’s Andre and Cook’s California Champagne (grandfathered in) have “carbonated wine” on the label.  

Other domestic Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines that are great for celebrations include Domaine Michelle and Treveri from Washington. Argyle, Elk Cove and Ponzi from Oregon are all wonderful producers of sparkling wines.

In California, several Old World Champagne and sparkling wine producers have expanded into the New World. Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa and Freixenet’s Gloria Ferrer.

Champagne and some sparkling wines cost more because of the complicated winemaking processes, intensive labor and expensive equipment. During the secondary fermentation process, there are hundreds of hours riddling thousands of bottles, which is done by hand or by machines. Maintenance and movement in the miles of caves where the bottles are riddled and aged before release is another big investment.

The first fermentation, as with any wine, beer or cider, is where the yeast eats the grape sugars and expels alcohol. The more sugars the little yeasty beasties eat, the drier the wine or beer or cider will be. Higher is drier.

Next, the fermented batches are blended together. Blending is used for a consistent “house style” that doesn’t change much no matter what Mother Nature throws at the vineyards.

Blending could be of types of grapes, vintages and/or regions. A Rosé is traditionally a blend of Chardonnay with a small amount of Pinot Noir to make that pretty pink color. A non-vintage sparkling wine is a blend of several vintages.

Secondary Fermentation: Still wine, sugar and yeast are then bottled and then capped for up to eight weeks to finish fermentation. The yeast converts the sugar and trapped by the crown cap, creates those tiny bubbles.

Riddling: Bottles are then placed on special racks in the caves. These riddling racks hold the bottles at an inverted angle. The bottles are turned a quarter turn about four times a day – some by hand, some mechanically. This shakes the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle.

Disgorgement: The really fun part begins when the temporary crown cap is removed to allow for the extraction of the dead yeast and sediment. The neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap is removed and the plug flies out. The bottle is then topped up with another dosage, which determines the wine’s final sweetness level. The bottle is finished with a cork and wire cage.  

Aging: After disgorgement, the wine is aged again.  A non-vintage Champagne must age in the bottle for a minimum of 15 months while a vintage Champagne must age for a minimum of 36 months. Aging time for sparkling wines is not regulated as it is in Champagne.

Despite the urge to start the celebration with a loud explosive "POP!" sparkling wine corks should not fly across the dinner table or locker rooms.

After removing the foil, most have tabs to peel it off, loosen the wire cage. Keep your thumb on the cork to prevent it from flying off and doing damage. Be aware of the pressure point. If the bottle is standing on the table, all the pressure is pushing on the cork. So with one hand on the cork and the other hand holding the bottom (punt) of the bottle, tilt it so the pressure is now on the side of the bottle, not the cork.

The experts say to slowly turn the bottle while holding the cork with the other hand but I have yet to master that technique. If you do this “properly” the cork will come out with a soft hiss or as they use to say in the olden days, the sigh of a nun.

Sparkling wines are produced in a range of sweetness levels, most are dry with high acidity. This higher acidity makes sparkling wines the go-to wine, especially with fried foods, like potato chips!

The most common style is Brut, a non-vintage dry house blend made from the three most common varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

The different sweetness or dryness are the result of the amount of sugar added during dosage. This is advertised on the label.

Brut Nature: Little or no sugar is added.

Brut: The most prevalent type of sparkling wine; fairly dry.

Extra Dry: The misleading one; it’s actually a little bit sweeter than Brut.

Doux: The sweetest and hardest to find.

Wishing you many special occasions to celebrate. Cheers!

Mary Earl has been educating Kitsap wine lovers for a couple of decades, is a longtime member of the West Sound Brew Club and can pair a beer or wine dinner in a flash. She volunteers for the Clear Creek Trail, is a member of the Central Kitsap Community Council and a longtime supporter of Silverdale.