Toasting the holidays with sparkling wine
By: Ted McIntyre
Just as you can only call scotch “scotch” if it’s from Scotland, so too is it the case for champagne. Except the rules are even tighter in France, where bubbly can only bear the famous name if it specifically hails from the region of Champagne, a chalky 86,000 acres of vineyards located around the city of Reims, about 130 km northeast of Paris.
But whether or not it’s called champagne and crafted from the traditional blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes, or goes by Crémant (as it does in other regions of France), or Cava in Spain, or Prosecco in Italy, or sparkling in Canada, these bubbly beverages remain underappreciated by many. Although primarily reserved for special occasions, sparkling might be the most flexible of all wines when it comes to food pairings.
Of course, such disrespect goes back a long way. In fact, the first recorded mention of effervescence in wine—discovered in an Egyptian papyrus document dated 23 October 522 AD—is noted among the characteristics that made wines unfit for sale. In other words, sparkling wines were considered flawed! Blasphemy!
Today they can set you back thousands of dollars—or in the case of Dom Perignon’s 1996 six-litre Rose Gold Mathusalem, $69,000, to be precise. Last year, France honoured the 300th anniversary of the passing of Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk who made key contributions to the production and quality of champagne at a time when the region’s wines were predominantly red.
When it comes to making the fantastic fizz these days, there are two main methods, each of which involves a pair of fermentations. In both cases, the first fermentation turns the grape juice into varying qualities of wine. The second turns that still wine into sparkling wine through the addition of yeast and sugar. The yeast converts the added sugar into alcohol, a natural byproduct of which is the creation of carbon dioxide bubbles.
But it’s in this second fermentation where those two paths diverge. The quickest and easiest method is to conduct the latter fermentation in a huge pressurized tank, a process called cuve close (“closed tank” in French), or the Charmat method, after the gentleman who pioneered it, Eugene Charmat. This is where you get most of your inexpensive sparklings, since producers can have the batch ready in a matter of weeks.
But it has always been hard for me to turn down traditionally made sparkling, despite the added production costs. In fact, almost two-thirds of all sparkling in Ontario is made with the “classic method,” in which the second fermentation is conducted in individual bottles. Dating back more than 300 years, this traditional method is the only way true champagne can legally be made. Requiring a minimum of 15 months (but usually more than three years), this process often involves aging the wine “on the lees” (sur lie), in reference to the decaying yeast particles that drop when a wine is fermenting. Keeping the wine in contact with these particles adds an entirely new level of flavours, aromas and complexity.
During the second fermentation, the champagne bottle is sealed with a crown cap similar to that on a beer bottle. At the end of the aging process, in a three-week process called “riddling,” bottles receive a series of delicate one-eighth turns, gradually tipping them upside down to help the lees settle in the bottle’s neck. Among the final steps is to freeze the neck of the upturned bottle in a brine bath, before removing the cap. The pressure inside forces out the ice that contains the lee remnants. The contents are quickly topped off with wine from previous vintages, with the sweetness of the final product adjusted by the winemaker. The bottle is then quickly corked and wired down to maintain its CO2 concentration.
What’s the difference between the two bubbly versions? Sparkling that is made with Chardonnay and left on the lees often yields notes of bread, toast, caramel and hazelnuts, and can often age for decades. This traditional method is also defined by finer bubbles, leading to a smoother and creamier texture in the mouth.
Sparkling that was tank-fermented will tend to be more fruit-forward, less complex and should be drunk young.
Here’s a selection of some sparkling samples in advance of the holiday season—all of which are inexpensive ways to impress your guests or hosts. Just remember—they’re not just for ceremony!
|Trius Brut ($27.95) Extra dry (as the term “Brut” indicates), this remains one of the gold standards for Ontario sparkling wine. Crafted in the classic method, this Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend was aged sur lie for up to 2 1/2 years, with tiny bubbles, crisp flavours of citrus and apple and yeasty notes dancing on your palate, giving way to a lingering, refreshing finish. Trius suggests you serve it at a cool 8°-10°C, and pair it with a fresh catch of perch, chicken in a light lemon cream sauces, or with strawberries, cheese fondue…oh hell, the list goes on! 90|
| Trius Brut Rosé ($29.95) A delicate Salmon pink colour with wild strawberry, blood orange and yeast notes gently rising from the glass. Refreshing flavours of white currants and white cranberry flavours dance on the elegant framework with cherry, white currant, wild strawberry and yeast notes lingering on the finish. Serve at a cool 8 to 10°C.
Serve with oven roasted tomatoes with goat cheese on toasted baguette; Gruyere and Emmenthal cheese fondue with light rye bread; creamy cheeses with baguette; roasted beet risotto; simply prepared seafood and shell fish; roast chicken.
Critical acclaim includes its selected as the Best Sparkling Wine of the Year at the 2013 All Canadian Wine Championships. 91
|Pierre Sparr Brut Rosé Crémant d’Alsace ($18.95) Great bang for the buck, this 100% Pinot Noir sparkling from ever-reliable Pierre Sparr is made in the traditional method with a aromatic collection of strawberries and raspberries on the nose and similar flavours on the tongue, with little a creamy peach thrown in for good measure. Zero malolactic fermentation at Pierre Sparr’s Alsace winery assures the fruit-forward nature of its Crémants. It’s mouthwatering stuff. If you don’t find an occasion for it this holiday season, it’ll pair just fine with a spring tray of cheese and strawberries. 90|
|Wolfberger Crémant D’Alsace Brut ($18.95) A new release in Canadian stores, this is not a flashy, impactful offering by any means, but the fine, weightless bubbles and elegant nose of mild orange peel, baked bread and candied peppermint of the delicate Pinot Blanc grapes make this an easy-drinking and very flexible creation, easily manoeuvring from aperitif to dessert and all points in between. Also available through Sylvestre Wines & Spirits. 88|
|Veuve Ambal Crémant de Bourgogne Grand Cuvee Brut ($17.95) Another exceptionally valued sparkling—this one from the leading producer of Crémant de Bourgogne. Hand-harvested and only using the first presses for a richer and more complex wine, this sparkling’s level of residual sugar is 10g/L, which edges it into the semi-dry category, making for an expressive wine with aromas of toast, apple and orange skin. 89|
|Villa Maria Lightly Sparkling 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($17.95) The grapes were crushed, chilled, pressed and quickly clarified to retain their citrus and grapefruit aromatics and flavours, all of which breathe even better in the fine bubbles of this Italian frizzante-style creation. Light and refreshing with some slightly vegetal notes, try it a white wine glass, as opposed to champagne flute. 88|
| Villa Maria 2014 Single Vineyard Taylors Pass Chardonnay ($31.95) OK, let’s make a departure from our bubbly offerings in favour of a winning white for the holiday main course. With a minerality owing to the vineyard’s site of an old river bed, adjacent to the Awatere River in Malborough, the nose shouts soft, elegant, smoky, oaky Chardonnay, but there’s a zesty backbone to this complex concoction, with a touch of acid and lots of fruit, primarily lemon rind—almost as though it received a splash of classic NZ Sauvignon Blanc at its christening.
Among its many accolades, this beauty picked up the Champion Wine of the Show award at the 2015 New Zealand International Wine Show. Available in limited release in the LCBO in May. For now you can order by emailing RodH@villamaria.co.nz. 94