This holiday season may seem more like Charles Dickens' Bleak House than The Christmas Carol with little money for frivolity. And while Tiny Tim's blessing may have given way to humbugs, New Year's Eve hangs in the balance. Dec. 31 is the only day a specific wine is the traditional requisite. That wine, of course, is Champagne, which evokes images of wealth, celebration, and, um, fun. Remember fun?
A fizzy wine seems out of step with lean and mean, bail-me-out times. But you don't have to buy an expensive archetypal Champagne to toast. In fact, there are some bargains out there on the wine shelves -- some are even cheaper than a six-pack of beer. Where are these bargains, and how do you know them?
First of all, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. In fact, only wine made in France's Champagne region can bear the word Champagne on the label. Even sparkling wines made in France, but not in the Champagne region, cannot use the word Champagne (you'll see Crémant on the label).
Sparkling wines are made in many other regions of the world. Some of the best deals on sparkling wines this December are on Spanish Cavas. Most of these are produced in Cataluña, the province/country where Barcelona is located. Cavas are the traditional wines to drink with tapas.
In Italy, the town of Asti, though often maligned, is renowned for its inexpensive sparkler. More recently Prosecco, a slightly sweet wine, became more popular in the United States. "Sekt" is the word to denote sparklers in German-speaking countries while "Deutscher Sekt" indicates a wine made solely in Germany.
In the New World, French Champagne houses were quick to invest in California vineyards where good quality sparkling wines have been made for 25 years. The French have also established vineyards in Australia.
The best clue about the quality of a sparkler, though, is the method of production. The classic French style is called the Traditional Method (Méthode Traditionnelle, Méthode Classique or Méthode Traditionnelle Classique). Before 1994 this was known as Méthode Champenoise. Many wineries outside of Champagne, and the best sparklers, use this method.
The other primary production method is known as Charmant. Without getting too technical, the difference between these two methods is as great as comparing a Harley to a tricycle. During the Traditional Method, the second fermentation occurs in the bottle. During Charmant, the second fermentation occurs in a tank. Some companies even pump carbon dioxide into these tanks -- like soda. These sparklers produce larger bubbles that dissipate quickly. Méthode Traditionnelle sparklers have smaller bubbles, which rise in steady streams from the bottom of the flute. If you're wondering why some bottles of sparkling wine sell for $5, you can bet it's made in a tank.
The method of production is published on the label, often small and located near the bottom or on the neck. The words "naturally fermented" or "Second fermentation before bottling" means it was made in a tank, the Charmant process. There are a few other methods of production, but these are the main two.
Method is only one factor: The quality of the wine is determined by the excellence of the blended base wines. Wineries that produce exceptional wines use exceptional grapes. It's that simple.
Some sparklers are sweet; the best are dry. The label will indicate sweetness. "Extra Brut" is bone-dry, followed by "Brut," "Demi Sec," "Sec," and "Doux," the sweetest with 5 percent sugar. The European Union has a standard for the level of sweetness, but not all countries do. Many wineries in the United States follow the European standards.
Typically to the right of the sugar description may be a description of the grape varietals used. Champagne is made with the blending of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. But a Blanc de Blanc (white from white) is made exclusively from Chardonnay while a Blanc de Noir (white from black) is made with the black grapes. Spanish Cava is made from the blending of three grapes: Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. Italian Prosecco, on the other hand, is a singular grape varietal.
If you see a year on the neck, the wine is a vintage sparkler. While some wineries only produce vintage sparklers, more produce a combination of vintage and non-vintage wines, or non-vintage exclusively. The most common Champagne bottles are non-vintage Brut. If you see the words "Première Cuvée" this indicates the wine contains the first and best juice.
Sparkling wines may be any wine color, from the deep purple of a sparkling Aussie Shiraz to a pale gold. Pink Champagne is made by either adding some red wine to the blend or allowing the grapes to have contact with the skins for a brief time.
Prices for sparklers range from Dom Perignon Vintage 1995 White Gold, a Jeroboam (a three-liter bottle) sheathed in white gold, costing $17,000 (a record price) to $10 for a quality Spanish cava.
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