Champagne Toast

A Champagne Toast
Everything you wanted to know about Bubbly but were afraid to ask
story AND PHOTOS by jeff stites
Let’s talk champagne. Or, more accurately, sparkling wine. The holidays are fast approaching and, aside from weddings, that’s when the corks start a-poppin’! Many of us don’t drink much bubbly aside from these sort of special occasions so maybe it will be fun to look into sparkling wine and see what is and is not champagne, how to tell how sweet or dry these wines are and even a bit about what sets the different types of sparkling wine apart.

First off, what many of us call “champagne” really isn’t. True Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wine in Europe is a regional thing with the European Union policing who can call their product what. Two countries, Spain and Italy, produce sparkling wines that have gained popularity and availability in the United States with their Cava and Proseco, respectively.
Another feature of true Champagne has to do with how the bubbly gets its bubbles. The sparkle in sparkling wine comes from the carbon dioxide bubbles that, along with alcohol, are the waste left behind when yeast eats sugar during a process called fermentation (yep, alcohol is yeast poo.) But then why isn’t all wine bubbly, you might ask, as all wine experiences fermentation. The bubbles from wine’s fermentation, even that wine used to produce sparkling wine, are allowed to escape. Bubbly’s bubbles are added during an additional step called secondary fermentation, in which a bit of wine, yeast, and sometimes sugar is added to an already fermented wine.
There are two ways to accomplish this, bottle by bottle or in one huge tank. When secondary fermentation occurs in an individual bottle of wine it is called “Methode Champenoise” if the wine is being produced in Champagne or “methode traditionelle,” “metodo tradicional,” or “classic method” if produced outside the Champagne region. Some wineries, particularly those in Italy producing prosecco, use what is called the Charmat-Martinotti method which allows them to produce as many as 100,000 bottles of sparkling wine in one steel tank. This later method is much more cost effective, leading some to see wines produced this way as inferior. But you be the judge.
Sparkling wines are rated on a scale of sweetness that can be a bit confusing. The driest are called “Brut Nature” and had no sugar added during the secondary fermentation process. Next is “Extra Brut” and then “Brut.” The very middle of the road sweetness is called “Extra Sec/Dry,” then we have “Sec/Dry,” Demi-Sec,” and finally “Doux,” which is very, very sweet. So, when choosing a sparkling wine, remember that “dry” doesn’t mean dry. If you want a dry wine go for the “Brut” designations.
There you go, a crash course on sparkling wines from an admitted beer guy.
Now let’s look at few examples.

Cook’s California Champagne, Brut 11.5% abv
The Label Says: Cook’s Brut is a medium dry Sparkling Wine. It possesses a crisp fruity aroma with notes of fresh apple and pear.
My Take: The only American sparkling wine on my list and it’s allowed to call itself “Champagne” on the label as the long arm of the European Union regulatory body doesn’t reach our shores (yet). I suppose I could imagine a bit of apple-y/pear-y taste after reading that I was supposed to, but I’m not sure I’d have picked that out on my own. This is what I grew up thinking “champagne” was—fairly dry, fairly bubbly, and fairly blah.

Segura Viudas Cava, Brut 12%abv
The Label Says: Well, not much. Just that it’s fermented using the “metodo tradicional” and it hails from Sadurni D’Anoia, Spain.
My Take: I was a bit thrown off by the fact that this bottle had a screw top instead of a cork but then I poured it in my glass and saw the bubbles. The bubbles are amazing. They start at a very specific point way down the bottom of the flute and rise in a very narrow stream, like smoke from a chimney, up to the top. I can’t stop watching them. Ok, I stopped long enough to drink a bit and though this is the same dryness rating as the Cook’s, it’s in a whole different class. It’s so much smoother, but at the same time so much more flavorful. This tastes to me like “champagne” should taste. I don’t want to finish it because then I couldn’t watch the bubbles any longer….

Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante, Sweet 7.5% abv
The Label Says: Quality Aromatic Sparkling Wine
My Take: Back to bubbles coming from all over. Sadly. I bought this entirely because of my fond memories of the jingle. If you’re of an age, you know what I’m talking about, heck, you’re probably singing it right now. The label here doesn’t lie, it IS sweet. It’s muscadine wine sweet, if you’ve ever experienced some of the fruit of North Carolina’s native vine. It isn’t my thing at all, and I wouldn’t even serve this to a sweet wine fan with a meal, but I can definitely see this complementing dessert. Before the prosecco craze hit our shores, this was Italian sparkling wine to Americans. Whatever else it is, I have to respect a classic like that. And that jingle.

Le Grand Courtage Grand Cuvee, Brut Rose 11.5% abv
The Label Says: Embrace Life. Dream Big. Accept All Invitations. (not terribly informative, but thought you should see it anyhow)
My Take: Yes indeed, I’m drinking pink champagne. And I actually like it. I wasn’t expecting much as I don’t generally care for a rose to begin with, but this is pretty tasty. It’s more dry than the Cook’s (which was pretty awful, let’s be honest) but not quite so dry as the Cava, even though they share the “Brut” designation. In the Eagle’s song Hotel California you’ll hear talk of “pink champagne on ice.” If you want to bring out your inner Don Henley, what better way than to invest in a bottle of Le Grand Cuvee?

LaMarca Prosecco 11% abv
The Label Says: Stylish and Crisp, La Marca makes every day sparkle!
Another tight stream of bubbles! This bodes well. Again, the label tells it true. Crisp is a very good description of this sparkling wine. It is as dry as the Cava but may have even more depth of flavor. The bubbles last a good long time and they tickle your mouth in a wonderful way. I think I found my New Year’s Eve bubbly. Cheers!

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