By Craig Camp
Monday, January 5, 2003
WHEN THE supposedly blind monk Dom Perignon first tasted the sparkling wine he had created he is said to have exclaimed, “I am drinking stars!” Perhaps a more appropriate statement would have been, “I am drinking dollar signs!”
It was almost 300 years ago when Dom Perignon (as legend has it anyway) conceived the idea of blending different vintages and varietals and capturing the gas formed during fermentation in a sealed bottle to create the sparkling wines in the Champagne region of France. This legend is probably as accurate as the other popular legend that always surfaces around the end of the year: Santa Claus.
The true Champagne method (methode champenoise) for making truly complex sparkling wines is time-consuming and expensive. There are other methods that make lovely sparkling wines for light-hearted consumption and entertainment, but these methods just don’t make wines that steal your attention away from the celebration at hand for more than a few seconds.
All the methods used for making sparkling wine work on one simple concept. When the yeasts eat the grape sugar they put out two waste products: alcohol and carbon dioxide (always remember that Dom Perignon is mostly made from yeast waste combined with the flavors of the dead yeast cells breaking down in the bottle). For regular table wine the gas is allowed to escape, but for sparkling wines the gas is trapped in the wine. You cannot add gas to a wine and call it sparkling wine. Wines made in this fashion must be referred to as carbonated wine on the label.
The main method used to make lighter, fresher sparkling wines for immediate consumption or for mass-produced cheap sparkling wines is the Charmat method. In this process the wine is put into a large stainless steel container and yeast and sugar (if needed) are added. The container is sealed and the yeasts go to work making the bubbles. The process can be carefully controlled by refrigeration and has the capability to produce delicate and elegant wines when the right base wines are used. When the second fermentation is finished the wine is transferred under pressure to bottles and is ready to drink from day one. The best examples of this style seem to be uniquely Italian.
Prosecco is both a grape and the name of a sparkling wine from the Veneto region of Italy. It is produced in both dry (brut) and just off-dry (extra dry) styles. Although it may be produced from both the Charmat and methode champenoise, the vast majority of these wines are produced by the Charmat method and I think with very good results. This type of fermentation emphasizes the light, fresh fruity flavors of the Prosecco grape and is perfect for producing this easy-drinking wine -- which is hard to beat as a choice for parties and an everyday aperitif. In the Piedmont region the fresh and lushly sweet moscato grape is transformed into the mouth-watering Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante wines. It is hard to imagine more refreshing after dinner quaffing than these two low-alcohol, sweet, sparkling wines. Moscato d’Asti has lower gas pressure than Asti Spumante and has a wonderful creamy texture that is unique. The Charmat method is the perfect way to produce these lovely wines. However, most of the wines produced by this method and the closely related “transfer process” are simple industrial wines that are better suited to giving shampoos to sports champions or improved with orange juice and other mixers.
Then there is the royalty of sparkling wine processes: methode champenoise. This is the method perfected by Dom Perignon and friends and is the only process allowed for sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region.
Champagne is first and foremost a place. It is a French winemaking region that makes both still and sparkling wines. The only true Champagne sparkling wines are from this region and this region only. There can be no doubt about the greatness of the sparkling wines of Champagne and there are two elements to their success: First the terroir: the vineyards, varietals and weather; and second, the work-intensive method required to make great sparkling wines.
Wines destined to become French Champagne can only be produced from three grape varietals, two reds: pinot noir, pinot meunier and one white: chardonnay. Almost all of the finest sparkling wines of the world also tend to use pinot noir and chardonnay as their base. The juice of these grapes is immediately separated from their skins so that none of the red color is given to the wine -- except for rose Champagne, which is a story for another day. The soils of Champagne are chalky and full of minerals and the climate is on the cool side for making fine table wines. In a very real sense, Champagne was discovered because the poor soils and cold climate of the region made thin, low color, high acid wines in most years. In other words, the perfect raw materials for making sparkling wine. This also created the necessity for inventing a non-vintage wine as blending wines from weak vintages with those of better years gave the weather-challenged winegrowers in Champagne the chance to offer wines of consistent quality and style every year. To this day, each Champagne producer is defined by their non-vintage cuvee, which represents their house style and the height of the blender’s art.
Once the base wine is fermented the winemaker blends the wines of the various grapes to achieve the style of their winery, or as it is known in the Champagne business: house. Each of these grapes offers different characteristics to the winemaker: pinot noir, depth and complexity; pinot meunier, softness and fruitiness; chardonnay, freshness and a unique ability to absorb the ‘toasty’ or ‘yeasty’ characteristics so highly regarded by Champagne lovers. Blends range to include any mixture possible of these three varietals including 100% unblended versions. Blanc de blancs refers to pure chardonnay wines while Blanc de noirs refers to 100% pinot noir wines. Wines that have high percentages of pinot meunier tend to be the simplest and cheapest Champagnes -- White Star anyone?
Once the blend is completed the wine is put into bottles with a bit of sugar and yeast, the bottle is sealed with a crown cap and the fermentation that makes the bubbles commences. This is the heart of the methode champenois process as the second fermentation and aging must take place in the bottle in which the wine is sold. Only the very large bottles are not produced in this way. Once the yeast have eaten up all the sugar they die and the newly sparkling wine is hazy with the dead cells. It is here that the unique flavors of Champagne are created as the wines are then left for years to age on the yeast cells -- which give the wines that special toasty flavor and bread dough aromas. During this aging the bottles are placed in special racks that allow the bottles to be gently shaken a quarter-turn at a time until they arrive to the upside-down position with all the sediment sitting on the bottle cap and leaving the wine clear. This process is called “remuage” and used to be done by hand, but these days is more than likely done by machine. When the proper aging point has been reached it is time to get those old yeast cells out of the bottle. This is accomplished by dipping the still inverted bottle into a super-cold brine solution that freezes the sediment in a plug of ice, which is then shot out of the bottle and then the bottle is topped up with a bit of old wine and a sweet syrup that adjusts the wine to the required sweetness level. This last process is called “degorgement”. Then it is off to the labeling machine and the market as the Champagne producers consider the wine ready to drink upon release. Some consumers like to age Champagnes longer, but with few exceptions I am not among them.
French Champagne is a work intensive winemaking method that requires producers to maintain massive inventories of aging wine and the grapes they buy from growers in the Champagne zone are among the most expensive in the world. Good Champagne can never be cheap.
The Champagne region long rested on its laurels secure in the knowledge that only they could make great sparkling wines, but today there is a long list of fine sparkling wines made by the Champagne method that show the unique character of their own regions and this small, cool region northeast of Paris no longer holds the monopoly on great sparkling wines. While there is only one true Champagne, the choices of fine sparkling wines available to the consumer are broader and better than ever.
Everyone loves bubbles and this combined with the rising costs and limited production zone in Champagne has inspired winemakers all over the world to make sparkling wines that can approach Champagne in complexity. The situation in the Champagne region has also forced the French Champagne companies to establish wineries throughout the world to increase their own productions. Most of the early attempts to make serious sparkling wines in the Champagne tradition fell short – including those of the French themselves. However today there has been a major transformation in the philosophy of sparkling wine makers outside of Champagne. Instead of making wines following the exact Champagne recipe they are making sparkling wines that reflect their own micro-climates and in the process have created a broad range of excellent sparkling wines that, while they don’t taste exactly like Champagne, are interesting to drink on their own merits and for their own style and character.
Top regions that produce outstanding Champagne method sparkling wines include: USA, Sonoma, Mendocino, Oregon and Washington; Italy, Franciacorta and Trentino; Spanish Cava; Australia and New Zealand.
It is safe to say the humble and pious monk who first tasted “stars” would be shocked and disturbed that the famous prestige Champagne bearing his name has come to symbolize conspicuous and thoughtless consumption by those who have more money than taste.
Dom Perignon is the prestige cuvee of Moet and Chandon; the giant sparkling wine conglomerate owned by LVMH the even bigger conglomerate selling luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Christian Dior and Hennessy Cognac among many other expensive toys and baubles. Moet and Chandon loves to project Dom Perignon as a hard-to-get elite product produced only in limited quantities, but a quick look at the market would seem to tell us otherwise. Dom Perignon is not only available at every good hotel, upscale restaurant and wine shop in the world, but at most casinos, fancy discos, strip clubs, gentleman’s clubs (shall we call them) and in a huge number of locked glass cabinets behind the counter in countless seedy liquor stores, convenience shops and drug stores throughout the world. It seems while Moet and Chandon wants to project an elegant image, they are more than happy to have a significant amount of Dom Perignon sold in less than elegant surroundings and the more of them the better -- so much for limited production only in great vintages.
The growth of top quality sparking wines made by the Champagne method in all the great wine growing regions of the world is something for which Dom Perignon (the monk) can indeed be proud. Today there are more stars than ever to drink.
Some personal favorites (not including Rose):
-California: Iron Horse Blanc de blancs
Argyle Brut, Oregon
Gruet Brut, New Mexico
Bollinger Brut N/V
Salon Clos de Mensuil
Metodo Classico: Bellavista Franciacorta Gran Cuvee Brut
Prosecco: Col Vetoraz, Valdobbiadene Extra Dry
Moscato: Marcarini Moscato d'Asti
Mont-Marçal Cava Brut Reserva (best value)
Huguet Brut Nature Gran Reserva (top quality)
Some Sparkling wine terminology:
Vintage: a wine of a single year instead of blend. Usually only produced in distinctive vintages.
Nature: Absolutely dry – no sweetening wine added. Often too dry for most.
Brut: Extremely dry. The most classic of styles.
Extra Dry: Just off-dry.
Sec (dry): Lightly sweet.
Demi-sec (half-dry): Sweet.
Doux: Very sweet for desserts.
Bottle sizes in 750 ml. equivalents:
Magnum – 2 bottles
Jeroboam – 4 bottles
Rehoboam – 6 bottles
Methuselah – 8 bottles
Nebuchadnezzar – 20 bottles