Swirl and Sip

When it comes to sparkling wine, the word ‘Champagne’ is all but ubiquitous. To many, the word Champagne is synonymous with ‘sparkling wine.’ It’s what Coke is to cola; Kleenex to tissue; and Saran Wrap to cling film. However, this is neither accurate nor fair to either the fine wines of the Champagne region or the other beautiful effervescent wines of the world. Despite its globally accepted pretext as a special occasion indulgence, there is a wealth of great, reasonably priced options out there to choose from when you’re looking for a bottle of the bubbly just because it’s a Tuesday. However, a word to the wise:  the old adage that sparkling wine goes to your head has some truth to it. Studies have shown that the body absorbs alcohol from carbonated beverages up to 40% faster than from non-carbonated spirits.

The great thing about Champagne is:

As is the case with most European wine names, Champagne is a place. The name is protected internationally meaning that only wine from the Champagne region can carry the label. Located about as far north in France as you can grow grapes with any distinction, the limestone-crusted province is where the world’s most renowned and pricey bubbly wines originate. Only there, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes are grown and blended to produce the regal libations that inspired Napoleon to state, “In victory you deserve Champagne; in defeat you need it.”

Champagne is the benchmark for all sparkling wine, and the painstaking way it is made has set the standard for how the world’s top quality bubblies are produced. To begin with, a base wine is made from grapes picked relatively young and acidic. A blend is made and then the wine is put into a bottle (the same bottle you buy off the shelf) along with what in France is called Liqueur de Triage, a blend of sugar and fresh yeast. The bottles are given a temporary cap and then allowed to undergo a secondary fermentation. Alcohol is one by-product of fermentation but so is carbon dioxide gas, and since the bottles are sealed, the gas has but one option and that is to dissolve into the wine. And this is where we get the fizz. After a requisite amount of time, the bottles are reopened, the spent yeast is removed, and the wine is topped up and possibly given a final dose of sugar (or grape juice) depending on the winemaker’s designs for the dryness level of the finished product. Finally, the bottle is given the signature mushroom-shaped cork that can sometimes act as a projectile when opened, and then is caged in wire and foil.

This in-bottle method is called the Champagne Method (aka Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditional) and simply put, produces the best bubbles. A wine made this way will have small, frothy bubbles that do not dissipate too quickly and that will lend the wine a creamy feel in the mouth due to the vigor of the mousse.  However, it’s not only makers of sparkling wine from Champagne that utilize this painstaking method. There are a number of wines made the same way in various places around the globe.

Within France’s borders, Crémant is a sparkling wine made in the Traditional Method, but not actually from Champagne. Nearly every wine region in France produces Crémant and the most commonly found examples are Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne—from Alsace, the Loire, and Burgundy, respectively. Each region uses grapes indigenous to the area, so a variety of profiles can be found. In wine circles, Crémant is considered one of the industry’s hidden gems and it can be a wine geek’s secret weapon.

Cava is sparkling wine made in Spain, usually from the Penedes region in the northeast corner of the Iberian nation. Made from the obscure local grapes Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel-lo, all Cavas must be made in the Champagne Method to be called Cava. Sparkling wine has been produced in Spain for well over 150 years and Cava offers perhaps the best value of any sparkling wine on the market. Dollar for dollar, Cava can be expected to outperform almost any other kind of bubbly available.

Prosecco is Italy’s proverbial hat in the ring. Made in the northeast provinces of Veneto and Fruili-Venezia from a grape called Glera, Prosecco is almost always made with a technique called the Charmat Method. Herein, the secondary fermentation occurs en masse in a large pressurized stainless steel tank. After the fermentation is finished, the wine is bottled and sent to market. As a result, Prosecco’s tend to have larger, gassier bubbles. And while some lovely Proseccos are available, there is a wide range of quality from the top offerings of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene to Paris Hilton’s tacky canned Prosecco (branded RICH, it’s best avoided). For the record, if you’re looking to mix up a traditional Bellini cocktail, Prosecco is essential.

Finally, there are a number of producers in New World wine regions (anywhere outside of Europe) that make stellar sparkling wines: in particular, the regions of Carneros and Sonoma in California, Yarra Valley and Tasmania in Australia, and Niagara in Canada. While New World winemakers are free to experiment with any grape they want (the luxury of making wine outside of Euroepan wine laws), almost all sparkling wines from these and other areas are made with the grapes of Champagne—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Again, styles and quality vary, but any self-respecting winemaker who uses the Champagne Method will indicate so on the label.

So, whether you’re popping a bottle to toast the holidays, planning a nice gift for someone at home or the office, or just adding some sparkle to your mid-week dinner, there’s no shortage of choices available at your local wine shop. With selections ranging from the most exclusive and uber-pricey Grand Cru Champagnes to the inexpensive but delicious Cavas of Spain, the world of Champagnes is your oyster.

Conte Loredan Gasparini Prosecco (Non-Vintage)

This wine is a lean, mean, quenching machine. Beautifully structured with mineral notes mingling with white peach, honey dew melon and lemon rind. The wine’s vibrancy lingers throughout the finish, which is surprisingly long for a Prosecco. Gasparini wines are grown on land that has seen wine production since the 1300’s.

(Conte Loredan Gasparini products are available by consignment through Abcon International Wine Merchants – www.abconwine.com)

 

Parés Baltà Brut (Non-Vintage):

Family owned and one of the most modern Bodegas in Penedès, Spain, all of the Parés Baltà products are certified organic. They make a dizzying array of top-flight wines, not least of which are their excellent Cavas. The Brut is crisp, dry and abounds with orchard offerings like gala apple and yellow pear, and a hint of tropical fruit along with some floral notes.

(Parés Baltà wines are available by consignment through Trialto Wine Group – www.trialto.com)

 

Chateau de Montgueret Crémant de Loire Brut (Non-Vintage): 

Like virtually all Crémant from this part of France, the dominant grape here is the Loire’s champion white grape, Chenin Blanc. Along with its vibrant effervescence, you can expect zingy lime peel, green apple and a hint of toastiness. The finish has a certain flinty je ne sais quoi as well. This wine pairs brilliantly with shellfish, especially oysters or mussels.

(Chateau de Montgueret is available at the LCBO and by consignment through Authentic Wine & Spirits – www.awsm.ca)

 

Louis Roederer Brut Premier (Non-Vintage):

Ever heard of Cristal? Thought so. Well, when Roederer and Co. aren’t making what many people consider to be the world’s finest Champagne, they busy themselves with other astounding wines like their Brut Premier. A mix of grapes from over 40 vineyards make up the blend here, and the final result is a rich and elegant masterpiece. Pear, lemon curd, spice, buttered toast all meld together with a gorgeous mousse of bubbles, leaving the palate both refreshed and anxious for more. It’s luxury at its finest.

(Louis Roederer Champagnes are available at the LCBO and by consignment through Authentic Wine & Spirits – www.awsm.ca)

 

Roederer Estate Brut Rosé (Non-Vintage):  

Across the pond, the good folks of Roederer have been making some of California’s best and highest value sparkling wine out of Alexander Valley, Sonoma. It’s a tasty number full of finesse. Crisp and fruit-driven, you’ll find notes of citrus, red apple, strawberry, and flowers all interwoven with a solid backbone of minerality and acidity.

(Louis Roederer Sparkling wines are available at the LCBO and by consignment through Authentic Wine & Spirits –