Tiny bubbles in wine are as romantic as it gets, which makes sparkling wine the best way I know to celebrate Valentine’s Day with your special someone. The amazing thing is that bubbly bottles come in so many styles and prices that there is a great bottle waiting on the shelf for just about everyone. And the best part is that they are all great food wines to pair with salty or sweet foods (but with something sweet, be sure to get a demi-sec and not a brut wine).
This past New Year’s Eve friends introduced us to a divine treat. They passed trays of potato chips garnished with a spoon of creme fraiche topped by caviar. The saltiness of the potato chip and the caviar combined with the smooth and creamy middle layer was a perfect foil for brut or demi-sec sparkling wine.
Sparkling wines are made from many grape varieties in every wine-producing region in the world. The only one which has the right to call itself Champagne comes from the Champagne region northeast of Paris and is made from pinot noir or chardonnay grapes or from a blend of those two. If it is 100 percent pinot noir it is called blanc de noir and if it is 100-percent chardonnay it is blanc de blanc. These wines are the noblest form of sparklers and the most expensive, but they have numerous cousins from all over the world.
In the German-speaking world, it is called sekt and in Spain it is cava, while Italy uses the term spumante. The best sparklers get their bubbles from a second fermentation in bottle called methode traditionelle. The grapes are first fermented in the usual fashion to make still wines and those are blended to make the “base.” To create the carbon dioxide, sugar and yeast are added to bottles of base wine that are securely capped.
Modern sparkling-wine techniques have found ways to replace the old labor-intensive step of slowly twisting and turning the bottles until they are eventually standing on their heads with the dead lees trapped just under the cap. The bottle neck is passed through a freezing solution and when the cap is removed the gas pops the lees out of the bottle as a solid pellet of ice. Bottles are then topped up with a mix of wine and sugar syrup called the “dosage.” The amount of sugar in the dosage determines the sweetness of the wine.
The European Union has classified the terms and the amount of sugar in sparkling wines and requires that the terms be clearly stated on all labels:
Brut nature: Less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar (no sugar added after primary fermentation)
Extra brut: 0 to 6 grams per liter
Brut: Less than 15 grams per liter
Extra dry: 12 to 20 grams per liter
Sec or dry: 17 to 33 grams per liter
Demi Sec: 33 to 50 grams per liter
A less labor intensive process is called the charmat or closed-tank method. With charmat, the second fermentation takes place in a pressure tank. This is the method used for Prosecco and a number of less-expensive bubbly wines.