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Le Sigh

December 26, 2010

I don’t care how they do it in the movies, or in the locker room after winning the big game, when you open up a bottle of sparkling wine, whether it is actual champagne or some méthode champenoise wine produced elsewhere, there should be no popping of corks.  Period.

If you want to festively open your bottle of wine, there is one method I endorse, but it requires a bit of special equipment, as you will see.

The best way is delicate and requires a bit of finesse, but is endorsed by sommeliers all around the world. As long as I’m in a showing versus telling mood, here is a sommelier to demonstrate how it’s done.

The less festive technique produces not a pop, but a sigh.  After all, the special thing about champagne is the bubbles.  Those bubbles are really nothing more than carbon dioxide in the wine.  That celebratory pop is the sound of the carbon dioxide leaving your bottle, which if you stop to think about it, isn’t anything to celebrate.

Luckily the new year is less than a week away, and that is something good to celebrate.  But that also means there is precious little time to run out to the wine store and pick up some bottles.  Good Champagne from France is great, but every year I like to try and take a little bit of stuffing out of its cachet.  In my mind, what makes this sparkling wine special is not its geography, but its bubbles, which are the result of the crazy way in which it is made.

I covered a lot of this in last year’s post on the matter.  But I’m glad to have the chance to take another shot at it and hopefully make it better.

There are a lot of festive sparkling wines on the market.  I love a good prosecco just like the next guy.  But prosecco doesn’t have the same kind of bubble structure as Champagne, and that has to do with the elaborate méthode champenoise.

To strip this method down and rob it of any residual snobbery, I offer my following assessment of it.

Grapes are picked, primarily some combination of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, juiced and turned into a sweet still wine.  This wine is put into bottles and additional yeast is added to the bottles directly.  This is when the magic happens.

And by magic, I mean science.  Yeast are living organisms.  We tend to forget this, given how many we kill and eat for our pleasure.  But living they are nonetheless.  And they are awesome.  Yeast eat sugar, and they excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide.

In that Champagne bottle of sweet still wine, they are in heaven.  They enjoy an orgiastic sugar feast while living in their own excrement (which is trapped in the bottle) until they run out of food and die.

The bubbles are the pleasant byproduct of this process.

Nasty dead yeast and an unpleasantly dry wine devoid of any residual sugar at all are less pleasant byproducts.  Luckily the French developed an ingenious (if painstaking and labor intensive) way of removing the dead yeast from the bottle, while at the same time adding some sugar water to the bone-dry sparkling wine to make it palatable.

Oh yes, there is sugar water added to your Champagne.  Even to the remarkably dry Brut Champagne?  Yes, even to the remarkably dry Brut Champagne.  It’s called a dosage, and if you say it in French it sounds much less like cheating.

This identical process is also used in some of the world’s best sparkling wines produced beyond the villages of Epernay and Reims.  But only wines produced within the Champagne region of France can officially be called Champagne.

The rest are simply méthode champenoise.  And some of them are magnificent.

One of my favorite sparkling wines is a méthode champenoise from Roederer Estates.  It’s the Northern Californian arm of the French Champagne giant Roederer.  Even if you haven’t heard of the producer, their tête de cuvée (top of the line) is almost a household name.  This is the house that makes Cristal.

That aside, their Roederer Estate Brut NV is dynamite.  And it’s a favorite go-to bottle for me on any festive occasion.  Generally the price hovers around $20 a bottle, although they regularly seem to have it at BJ’s in Albany for a few dollars less.

But whatever bubbles you choose to bring in the New Year, please remember to make sure those yeast didn’t die in vain.  Open the bottle with a whisper and not an explosion.  Or go for the gusto and just get yourself that sword.

One Comment leave one →
  1. llcwine permalink
    December 26, 2010 1:47 pm

    Have you tried Gruet from New Mexico? I love it, so yeasty and toasty…and the rose looks really sexy in a flute…for sure!!!!

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