Champagne and Sparkling Wine are known as the standard for festive beverages. Previously, it was believed no champagne style that was produced in America approached the best of the French Champagnes. Most champagne is produced by a difficult method that forces the wine into a secondary fermentation process in the bottle. This is prompted by freezing the top of the bottle, removing the cork, removing the Sediment, adding a dosage of sugar solution and recorking the bottle. Since this is a hand process, the cost of the champagne is more.
The best California champagnes are made by the process called ‘champenoise’. The key to this method is to permit a second fermentation to occur after the wine has been bottled. This captures the carbon dioxide gas that is a normal by-product of fermentation and gives Champagne its special character. Sparkling Wines are also made by the bulk, or closed container process where the bubbles are captured inside large fermenting tanks, where the wine is bottled.
In recent years, the quality of California Champagne has risen dramatically. Some supporters contend that no winery in this country has achieved the quality heights of the best Champagne of France, but definitely a number of California versions come close. They are made from a number of grape varieties, including the Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and the Pinot Noir.
There are several ranges of champagne flavor combinations:
- Extra, Ultra Brut (bone-dry, sugarless Champagne)
- Brut (very dry, classic Champagne)
- Rose’ Champagne (rose’ such as Pinot Noir)
- DemiSec (medium sweet Champagne)
- Doux (very sweet Champagne)
Champagne should be stored just like any other wine. Keep the temperature around 55F, in a dark and damp location. Champagne is also best when stored on its side to keep the cork from drying out. Champagne should be served at about 45F degrees. A few hours in the refrigerator should bring the temperature down, but never store champagne for more than a few days in the refrigerator.
The popping of the cork as it is removed is part of the magic of Champagne. If the Champagne is expensive, it is better that the foaming bubbles be released quietly through the wine in the glass.
Here are a few ground rules to help you open the bottle with confidence. Make sure that the Champagne glasses are nearby. Cut off the foil around the cork; untwist and remove the wire muzzle. Place the chilled bottle on a flat surface. Hold the bottle in one hand, grasp the cork firmly in the other, with the thumb placed over the cork and the other fingers round the neck of the bottle. Taking your time, ease the cork out of the bottle, teasing it backwards, forwards and upwards with your thumbs; or you can hold the bottle in one hand and turn and twist the cork with the other. As soon as the cork starts to give, tilt it away from your face. At this point the palm of the hand should be used simultaneously to act as a brake to prevent the cork from shooting out of the bottle at a high velocity. When properly executed the cork should emerge with a quiet sigh. Alternatively, specially designed Champagne tweezers can be used to extract the cork.
Before serving Champagne pour a small amount into a glass, then smell it and taste it to ensure that there is no “corked” (musty or tainted) aromas or flavors. When pouring Champagne, the principle is to pour a tiny amount into each glass. Then starting with the first glass, go back and top up each one. This is because the initial froth will have subsided by then, making it easier to fill the glasses, but ensure that they are no more than two-thirds full when served, for this allows the aromas of the Champagne to linger in the top of the glass and therefore be more fully appreciated. The ideal glass for fine sparkling wine and is the classic “tulip” with its rounded base and inwardly tapering top. It has the dual advantage of holding a good amount of Champagne when just half full and of concentrating the Champagne’s aromas in the upper half of the glass.
Contrary to popular belief, the sparkle in Champagne need not disappear shortly after the Sparkling Wine has been opened. If the bottle is stopped with a Champagne Stopper or simple lever, return it to the refrigerator and the Champagne should keep its fizz for up to a week.
The Champagne market is very cyclical. Normally 50% of all Champagne is sold from January through the end of November. Then, 25% is sold up until Christmas Day. A full quarter of all Champagne sold is sold during that final week between Christmas and New Year’s!
Champagne has trickled down the social scale and is no longer considered just a luxury. Some of the best champagne can be quite expensive, but it is not necessary to spend a lot of money to buy champagne of reasonably good quality. More Champagne is being drunk today, by more people, than at any previous time in history. Champagne is truly the (sparkling) wine of celebration.