The festive season is upon us and the dilemma for what to cook and what to serve for the big feast to your family (or maybe to yourself this year due to the pandemic) is always a top issue. And what will the drink menu be?
Wine is always a part of our festivities and sparkling wine is the perfect match for celebrations and to pair with any dish you might have in mind. They can be paired with both meat and fish, and, of course, any vegetable dishes. They are really the most versatile wines and they are a great palate cleanser from one dish to the next thanks to the bubbles.
But how do you choose one? Do you have to look specifically for champagne?
No! There are so many different sparkling wines produced with the traditional method, different price range, different grapes, but first…
What is the traditional method? Or méthode traditionnelle, metodo classico…
This method used to be known internationally also as méthode champenoise, for the unmistakeable and most famous sparkling wine. The name champagne comes from the region of Champagne in France, so that is the only place where sparkling wine can use this word. But be aware that many terroirs and countries produce wine with the same method nowadays. Some use the same grapes as in Champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunière and Chardonnay – but many use their own traditional and autochthonous grapes.
The production of sparkling wine outside of the region of Champagne is known nowadays as the traditional method.
Sparkling wines require two fermentations: the first, to transform the sugars into alcohol and, the second, to transform the yeasts into bubbles.
White and red grapes can be used in the production of sparkling wines. The pressing phase of the grapes is very gentle, no colour should be extracted from the skins. In the case of rosé, red wine is mixed with wine wine in many cases, even though the producer might use a short maceration time with red grape skins to get a light pink tinge to the wine.
The first fermentation is necessary to turn the grape juice into wine, which is sometimes aged in oak barrels to give more depth. In the “house blends” without a vintage year, wines of various years are mixed together to make the signature taste of that producer. Vintage sparkling wines are usually made from the best years and will always have the vintage indicated on the bottle.
The second fermentation is done in a bottle, where the blended wine is mixed with some sugar and yeast to create the bubbles in the beverage. This phase can last up to a year or two, three or even 10 years, maybe more! That depends on the wine denomination rules for minimum aging in the bottle and as for the extra quantity of months or years, it depends on the winemaker. The more time the wine spends in the contact with the yeasts, the more complex the flavours will be, like baked bread, butter. And of course, the higher the price.
Champagne has ruled that only three grapes can be used – Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier – and a minimum of 15 months of bottle ageing with years is necessary to call the wine champagne.
Great examples of the traditional wine methods
Cava is the answer to Champagne in Spain! They include autochthonous varieties such as Macabeo, (Viura), Xarel-lo and Parellada. This is the most common blend among cavas, but you can also find other varieties such as Chardonnay, Garnacha, Pinot Noir and Monastrell. Cava is not only made in Catalonia, but can also be found in Aragon, Extremadura, Rioja, Navarra and Valencia, among others.
Important fact! Do not underestimate cava for its price, since it is much more affordable than champagne, the quality is very similar and it can surprise you in a very good way. Just look for smaller producers, rather than the biggest and most industrial ones.
A minimum of nine months are necessary for the wine to be in contact with the yeast in the bottle to be called cava, making the younger cavas much more fresh and easy-drinking. There are many producers offering excellent bottles with years of second fermentation.
Not because we are close to Milan we will necessarily find something modern. On the contrary, the classical can always surprise us and this sparkling wine called Franciacorta of the metodo classico that we find in the province of Brescia, is produced with the varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot blanc and Pinot noir in a clayey soil. This type of soil absorbs and retains water and nutrients very well. With a generally slower maturation, they usually produce elegant wines, with not very high alcohol content and with a more intense color and body.
The minimum time in the bottle with yeasts here is 18 months, making the wines more complex.
This is a favourite one from the northern Italy of the Trento region. There are quite a few wide-known producers of the Trento DOC, but you can find many smaller producers as well. The typical grapes here are quite close to what is used in Champagne, that is Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier, plus Pinot blanc. In fact, one of the most known producers, Ferrari (no, not the car producers in this case) brought over the first vines of Chardonnay and probably started producing the sparkling wine, making the flavour profile quite similar to what you might be used to when drinking champagne.
A minimum of 15 months are required for the wine to age in the bottle with yeasts, just like in Champagne.
You are not wrong in asking yourself: “If it is made in France, it is a traditional method and it is made with the Chardonnay variety, why can’t I call it champagne?” Easy … it is not made in the Champagne region, simple as that.
They can be produced all over France actually, you will find Crémant de Jura, de Alsace, de Bordeaux, de Bourgogne and many more!
These are sparkling wines that originally received the name Crémant due to their lower carbon dioxide pressure (2-3 atmospheres), offering less sensation of bubbles, but a greater creaminess (hence the name). But today sparkling wines with the Crémant Designation of Origin have the same pressure as champagne (5-6 atmospheres).
Its characteristics have made it a sparkling wine almost as appreciated as champagne because of the same production method, but sold at a cheaper price. Among other characteristics, it offers more variety in nuances, as it doesn’t have so much limitation in rules on the use of grape varieties. Many producers use native varieties to their region, so for sparkling wine lovers Crémant has much diversity to offer.