Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sparkling wine one of four holiday favorites

En Vino Veritas
Fermented spirits encourage
lifting of emotional spirit

By Noble Collins
Gazette Columnist
The most festive period of the year is upon us: Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas and New Year’s Day packed together within a few short weeks. Also, reluctant to give up the holiday atmosphere, we more and more stretch it out to include the conclusion of football season, right up to the Super Bowl. Then, another week or so and we have Valentine’s Day. The more intrepid among us make it through without a scratch, but most likely not without a stretch (in our waist size).

Around the world, in the richest and poorest places, folks battle the increasing cold and lengthening darkness with bright lights and their best food and drink. It is during this period when we are most often introduced to new tastes, flavors and especially libations.

The emphasis is on gaiety and celebration.

Four wines, in particular, come into their own during this period – Sparkling wine, Port, Sherry, and Brandy. These are, of course, year-round favorites for many reasons, but more of them are consumed during holiday season than at any other time of year.

Sparkling wine leads the list by a wide margin. Bubbles are the reason. They convey visual fun as much as they are physically pleasing. They encourage a lifting of emotional spirit along with the fermented spirits. The bubbles are trapped CO2 gas which take the express route to our brain, delivering their cargo of ethyl alcohol with a Fred Astaire stylishness.

It most likely originated in France, and the means for storing it within a bottle definitely did. That credit goes to a monk by the name of Dom Perignon. Although some facts are disputed, great contributions were made by this man toward making Champagne the widely heralded wine it has become.

Sparkling wine is made around the world. Only within the Champagne district of France, however, with its chalky soil and cool climate, can it legally be called Champagne. This was always the case, but somewhat ignored until recently when international agreements with the ECU (European Common Union) became recognized and binding. Spain calls their sparkling wine Cava. In Australia, the particular varietal is featured, such as Sparkling Shiraz or Sparkling Grenache. In much of the rest of the world, it is still called Champagne, but that will change rapidly.

The wine from Champagne is strictly controlled. The rules restrict the types of grapes which can be used to three: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The various batches of juice go through a normal fermentation as usual and are separated into many different “lots.” The winemaker then chooses from among the various lots for the final blend, looking for an individual style and taste. When the blend is finalized, a small amount of “tirage” is added, consisting of yeast, sugar and wine. This is bottled and tightly capped.

As yeasts consume the sugar, a second fermentation occurs creating slightly more alcohol and a resulting carbon dioxide gas trapped within the wine. The bottles are racked at a slight angle and are slowly turned downward until the spent yeast cells and any other sediment is eventually captured in the bottle’s neck. This usually takes at least one year. Once the bottles have finished this “riddling” process, the plug of sediment is removed by flash freezing the neck and disgorging the plug. The small volume of liquid which is lost is replaced by topping off the wine with a “dosage” consisting of reserve wine and sugar. This ultimately determines the level of sweetness in the final product. The various levels of sweetness (or dryness) are classified as Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Doux, etc. Curiously, Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut.

Carbon dioxide gas remains trapped within the wine under enormous pressure, requiring a thick bottle, a wire-bound very tight cork, and usually a heavy foil “cape” to contain it. Great care must always be exercised when opening a bottle. Once the pressure is released, millions of tiny bubbles form as the gas attempts to escape. An old adage states that, “The tinier the bubbles, the better the wine.”

Serving Champagne cold is absolutely necessary in order to slow the bubbling activity. Good Champagne should never be degraded by “exploding” it from the bottle - either from warmth or by shaking it. This is dangerous and it spoils good wine.

The highest rated sparkling wines all use this traditional method or something quite similar in creating their product. It is known as methode champenoise or methode traditionale (fermented in the bottle) and will be indicated as such on the label. A cheaper and widely used method is called the bulk or Charmat process in which CO2 gas is injected into large (usually stainless steel) vats of bulk wine and quickly bottled. They are, perhaps, festive and fun, but they hold no comparison to the elegant champenoise wines. Labels must indicate the process used, and are, thus, one of the first means of selecting the desired product.

The single greatest exception to this rule is found in Italy, where the world’s largest quantity of sparkling wine is produced. The wines are known as Spumante (foaming) and the best come from an area in the Piedmont known as Asti, named for the town and region of Asti. These wines are made by a modified version of the Cremant (bulk) process, but are more controlled by holding the original crush in near freezing conditions which prevents immediate fermentation. As needed, batches are then revived and fermented in a controlled manner which does not allow all the sugar to be converted into alcohol. A wide variety of grapes is allowed in the mix, and those with a degree of sweetness and floral qualities make the best wines.

Many of these wines found their way into the U.S. after WWII. Unfortunately the most popular were the cheap “sweeties” which gave them a lower class designation and still cloud the reputation of some very fine and unique wines. Foaming wine from Asti (Asti Spumante) can be as thrilling and elegant an experience as any sparkling wine, depending upon the care taken to produce it. The bubbles don’t last as long as good Champagne, though.

This brief overview of sparkling wine is certainly not meant to be comprehensive. Many excellent books have been written on the subject and should be mined for a more detailed
investigation. As always, I believe wine “should be enjoyed by the enjoyer,” but it is rarely a one dimensional experience, and the mind can play a definitive role in the enjoyment.

Next - The fortified wines - Brandy, Port and Sherry.


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