Love is in the air this month. For those of you looking for a way to dress up your Valentine’s Day, consider the object of your affection —the one with the sparkling personality— as your inspiration.
Accordingly, pop open the sparkling wines and celebrate.
If Valentine’s Day is not your thing, there are plenty of other reasons to celebrate with bubbly this month, from Presidents’ Day to any other day of the week, which ends in “y.” Why? Because sparkling wines add a touch of festivity to any occasion and they taste too good to wait for a special event. And, even though you may not have a fondness for this Hallmark holiday, you always have your love of wines to keep you warm.
Sparkling wines, of which Champagne is most well-known, capitalize on harnessing the CO2 created during the fermentation process to provide the fizz we all know and love. This capture takes place during a secondary fermentation, which is coupled with allowing the spent yeasts to remain in the bottle throughout the ageing period. The yeasts impart the bready/toasty aromas and flavors that are characteristic of sparkling wines.
There are several ways to make a wine sparkle, the simplest, cheapest and short-lived being the injection method (aka pompe bicyclette), which injects CO2 into the wine. These man-made bubbles tend to be large and coarse on the palate.
Conversely, the traditional method, based upon Methode Champagnoise, provides a longer-lasting, smaller bead, which has more finesse in its mouthfeel. These traits stem from the labor-intensive process which includes an initial blending of still wines (assemblage) that is then bottled and capped, along with a yeast and sugar mixture (tirage), to facilitate a secondary fermentation. The wines are then left to age on the spent yeasts for a period of time as set by the appellation (in Champagne, this is a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage wines, while Cavas are generally aged for 9 months).
The sediment left behind must then be carefully shifted from the base of the bottle to the neck in a process known as riddling. The bottles are gently tilted and turned throughout a period of several weeks, forcing the sediment down into the mouth of the bottle. The necks are then immersed into a cold, briny solution, thereby freezing the sediment. The caps are removed and the frozen sediment is thrust out of the bottle and discarded (disgorgement). The remaining wine is topped off with a blend of wine and sugar/must (liqueur d’expedition), which impacts the resulting dryness or sweetness of the finished sparkling wine. The final step is the insertion of the cork, which is much denser that those used for still wines given that sparkling wines can be under up to 6 atmospheres of pressure (be careful where you point that thing).
A similar process is used in the transfer method whereby the steps above remain the same with the exception that the sediment is removed in bulk and the wine is then filtered and bottled. Such wines will note that they have been fermented in the bottle, whereas the wines in the previous method are labeled as having been fermented in this bottle. An additional method involves the use of a tank in which the entire secondary fermentation, ageing and disgorgement takes place. While this is of course a much less expensive process than the other two, it is frequently used to produce wines that have a distinct freshness to them such as Astis from the Piedmont region in Italy.
The Champagne region in France has done a good job in marketing itself as a luxury product and this joined with increasing demand, limited supply and expensive processes has pushed up the price on these wines. Vintage sparklers (those produced entirely from grapes grown in a particularly great year) and prestige marquees (i.e. Crystal, Dom Perignon) command even higher prices. However, many sparkling wines from other regions in France (such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley) as well as well-made American, Italian (Asti and Prosecco), Germany (Sekt) and Spain (Cava) can offer the consumer a wonderful experience without the hefty price tag.