Bubbles Galore! Champagne & Sparkling Wines for Any Holiday Celebration

There is something about Champagne and sparkling wine that seems to automatically kick off a celebration. With the holiday season in full swing and New Year's parties around the corner I thought I would share some thoughts on the the key sparkling wine regions of the world, and the many different styles to choose from
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Champagne

While sparkling wine is made in almost every winemaking country, the most iconic and revered sparkling wine has to be Champagne. Coming solely from the Champagne region of France, Champagne is considered the ultimate drink of celebrations. Back in the royal courts of Europe in the 18th and 19th century Champagne was always the wine of choice for any celebration.

While no longer reserved for aristocrats and royalty Champagne remains the wine of celebration for many people. All Champagne is made using the 'Méthode Champenoise' (known as Traditional Method in other regions), whereby the second fermentation, which generates the bubbles, happens in each individual bottle.

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Champagne Styles Non vintage (NV) is by far the largest Champagne category. Most of these wines are a blend of the classic Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and they are a blend of more than one vintage.

Other important Champagne styles to look for include Rosé, which has become incredibly popular; Blanc de Blancs (literally 'white from whites'), is made from Chardonnay, and very age-worthy; Blanc de Noirs ('white from black' varieties) which is made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, or from a blend of both; Vintage Champagne, which is from a single vintage and only produced in the best years; and of course the most celebrated and most expensive style of all, Prestige Cuvée (think Cristal, Dom Perignon, Perrier Joüet Fleur, La Grande dame etc).

Another relatively new term you might hear bandied about is "Grower Champagne". Grower Champagnes, are Champagnes made by smaller growers, who previously sold their grapes either to one of the négociant houses or to the local cooperative, rather than bottle under their own name. They are becoming very popular in the United States and can often represent excellent value for money. More about these and all Champagne next year in a dedicated post.

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Cava and Prosecco

After Champagne, Cava and Prosecco are probably the next largest sparkling wine categories.

Cava wines come from Spain, and only Spain. They are made using the traditional method. While the denomination (Cava DO) extends across a number of Spanish regions, the Penèdes region in Catalonia is the heartland and accounts for over 95% of all Cava production.

Prosecco, which comes from the Veneto region in Italy, is made using the Charmat or Tank method, whereby the second fermentation occurs in bulk, in a closed pressurized tank, and is bottled subsequently. There are two different designations for Prosecco. The top designation is DOCG Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, from the original heartland of the area and then DOC Prosecco, which applies to wines made from a wider production area.

Asti and Moscato d'Asti

Asti and Moscato d'Asti are two other popular tank method sparkling wines from Piedmont, Italy. Moscato d'Asti is less effervescent than Asti. It is only slightly sparkling (frizzante), while Asti is fully sparking (Spumante). Both are sweet sparkling wines, Moscato d'Asti being the sweeter and also lower in alcohol (circa 5% compared to Asti at circa 9%).

Both are best appreciated when at their freshest, soon after bottling. So, my advice is to buy from a reputable store which has good turnaround, and importantly don't cellar!!

Franciacorta, Trentino, Australia and California

Italy is also home to a number of excellent traditional method sparkling wines. These mainly come from Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardy and Trentino in the Veneto. Styles are similar to those in Champagne. However, Pinot Blanc is used more often alongside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in these wines. The cooler regions of California and Australia as well as New Zealand are also important producers of excellent sparkling wines. In general these are made using the traditional method, and from the classic Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and occasionally Pinot Meunier.

Sekt

When it comes to Sekt, things can be a bit confusing. Most Sekt comes from Germany, though we are increasingly seeing Austrian Sekt on the US market. The top German Sekts bear the name of one of the nice official German wine regions, such as Rheingau, Pfalz, Mosel etc. Next is Deutscher Sekt, which is made from grapes sourced anywhere in Germany, and not specific to one region. Beyond that there are wines simply labeled 'Sekt', which can be made from wines sourced from anywhere in Europe. Unfortunately this category often attracts a lot of low quality wine, but thankfully is not really exported to the U.S.

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The Crémant Style

Apart from Champagne, many French wine regions make sparkling wines. Seven different regions make traditional method sparkling wines called Crémant. The seven official Crémant AOCs are Crémant d'Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux and Crémant de Loire. Grape varieties tend to be the local varieties of the region, and the wines have a slightly lower effervescence than Champagne. Over the past year I've tasted some very fine Cremant de Jura and Cremant de Loire in the U.S., and again they can represent excellent value.

This is not an exhaustive essay on all the world's sparkling wines. I have not touched on Sparkling Shiraz, Lambrusco or countries like Georgia, Portugal and Argentina, which are all turing out some very fine sparkling wines.

Understanding Champagne and Sparkling Wine Sweetness Levels

Champagne and sparkling wines also differ with regard to sweetness level. The most usual sweetness for all Champagne and sparkling wine is 'Brut'. Brut style wines can contain anything from 6 to 15g/l of residual sugar, usually added as 'dosage' before corking. This might seem excessively high for what you regard as a 'dry' style. But you have to remember that Champagne and many sparkling wines have very high acidity, and the bubbles accentuate this acidity. The practice of 'dosage' evolved to balance the tartness of the original Champagne wines. Today there is a trend to lower dosage levels. Where Brut wines typically had 11-12g/l residual sugar, more and more Champagne producers are now working to 7-9g/l residual sugar. 'Sec'. which literally translates as 'dry' is actually a sweet category. The official sweetness categories are:

  • Extra Brut - 0-6g residual sugar / litre
  • Brut - 6-15g residual sugar / litre
  • Extra Sec - 12-20g residual sugar / litre (remember Moet & Chandon White Star!!)
  • Sec - 17-35g residual sugar / litre
  • Demi-Sec - 35-50g residual sugar / litre
  • Doux - 50+g residual sugar / litre

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Mary's Recommendations

So, after all that, what I am going to recommend this week? I have looked back over what I have recently tasted (it is after all the holiday season) and what I have tasted during the year.

• For more detailed information on Cava, specifically the wines of Segura Viudas, you may like to read my post on Cava earlier this year.

Under $20
Prosecco or Cava are great buys under the $20 mark. Remember that 'Extra Dry' is sweeter than Brut.

NV Santa Margherita Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore Brut DOCG, $15 - Lively, smooth, creamy mousse, attractive floral and pear aromas. A great party wine.

NV Torresella Prosecco Extra Dry DOC, $12 - Soft and smooth with a creamy mousse. Fresh and lively. Off-dry. Another great party or apéritif wine.

NV Caposaldo Prosecco DOC Brut, $15 - Fruity and floral. Crisp, lively and refreshing. Round and smooth with a soft creamy mousse.

NV Peoma Cava Brut Rosé, Spain, $12 - A delicious medley of red berries, smooth, creamy mousse. Dry, ample lively flavor, nicely structured and vibrant finish.

NV Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rosé, $12 - Aged 12 months on the lees. Aromas of red berries, notes of rataffia. Smooth, creamy persistent mousse. Dry with ample flavor.

NV Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad, Cava, $19 - Aged more than 30 months on the lees. This is a really great buy. Aromas of brioche and orchard fruit. Elegant, persistent, fine-bead mousse. Long finish.

2008 Raventós Brut Cava "L'Hereu", $16 - Vibrant, lively, refreshing, citrus and green apple aromas with notes of fresh bread. Tight structure and layers of delicious flavor. Long finish.

2007 Gramona Gran Cuvée Cava Brut, $17 - Fine beaded mousse. Lots of finesse. Citrus, orchard fruit, brioche, fresh toast. Strong minerality.

2009 Sumarroca Cava Brut Reserva, $15 - Lots of green apple on the nose, with notes of citrus and a fresh bread, biscuity hints. Fresh with persistent peppy bubbles. Nimble texture with more citrus on the palate. Nice finish.

NV Langlois Cremant de Loire, France Brut, $19 - Vibrant, refreshing with lively fine-bead mousse. Floral, baked apples, beswax, brioche with hints of wet wool. Round with ample flavor that persists. Good sructure and length.

• See also my post Beyond Cava and Prosecco - Sparkling Wines for Entertaining

$20 to $30
There are lots of good Californian sparkling wines in this price bracket such as Domaine Carneros, Schramsberg and Roederer Estate.

NV Giulio Ferrari Brut, Metodo Classico, Trentino, $22 - Precise, focused, crisp, persistent creamy mousse. Lots of minerality and good length. Elegant.

NV Berlucchi Cuvée 61 Brut, DOCG Franciacorta Methodo Classico, $25 - Mainly Chardonnay with 10% Pinot Nero. Fresh, soft, creamy mousse, nice depth of flavor and biscuity notes. Moderate length.

$30 to $50
Champagne is not inexpensive to produce and it is nigh on impossible to find a Champagne under $30. However, if Champagne is your preferred choice, there are lots to choose from in this price range. Some great finds for me this year include:

NV Duc de Romet Brut Prestige Blanc de Noirs, Champagne NV ($30) - One of the best Champagne values out there. It is mainly Pinot Meunier with about 25% Pinot Noir. Persistent mousse of tiny bubbles, refined and very delicious.

NV Agrapart Blanc de Blanc "7 Crus", Champagne $35-$39 - From a small house in the Côtes des Blancs. This is a NV blend of grapes from the 7 cru villages in the Cotes des Blancs. Very fine mousse, elegant and delicious

NV Tarlant 'Zero' Champagne, $50 - If you like your Champagne really dry and racy you will love this one. No dosage (sugar) added. Crisp, minerally, lively, intense, elegant with tiny persistent bubbles.

If you prefer to go for one of the more well-known Champagne Houses, my absolute favorites are Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Ayala Brut Majeur, Delamotte Brut, Deutz Brut Classic, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve and Gosset Brut Excellence. Classic and consistently good.

$50 to $100
NV Bollinger 'Spécial Cuvée' Champagne, $50 - Never disappoints. Fairly full-bodied, complex, layered and flavorful. Persistent mousse. Well structured. Combines power and elegance.

NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne, $67 - From one of the oldest Champagne Houses, this is a refined, focused and very minerally Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Strong mousse and lovely toasty notes.

$100+ - Sky's the limit
Okay, the world is in recession and most of us will not be indulging in very expensive Champagnes. But, perhaps you want to give a very special gift, or are celebrating some very important occasion that befits such a splurge. At this price level we are into vintage and Prestige Cuvee Champagnes, Champagnes that are made from the very best grapes, from top vintages, and are aged between five and eight years in bottle before being released, which means they are expensive to produce.

NV Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Champagne, $125 - A newly launched super-premium Champagne range from the famous Rothschild family. There is also a rosé and a classic blend of the three Champagne varieties. This was my favorite. Made entirely from Chardonnay it has nice citrus and orchard fruit aromas with toasty brioche. Creamy mousse. Not as taut as expected but supple, refreshing and has has some complexity.

1995 Henriot "Cuvée des Enchanteleurs" Champagne - $150 - probably one of the best value Prestige Cuvée Champagne on the market. Complex, showing lovely development, very focused, elegant with great length.

2004 Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne, $200 - Not cheap by any means, but despite all the popular culture associations, Cristal remains one of the truly great Champagnes of all time. Incredible finesse, intensity of flavor, tight structure and fine bead. Still very young. Will age for decades.

2002 Dom Perignon Champagne, $150 - The current release of this very famous Prestige Cuvée Champagne. Still very young and tight but a great wine to offer as a gift as it has decades of ageing potential.

1999 Deutz "Cuvée William Deutz" Champagne, $175 - The top wine from CHampagne Deutz (now owned by Louis Roederer). Showing some nice toasty notes, complex with great flavor intensity. Well-defined, very flavorful and long.

As 2011 comes to a close I hope that all our readers have occasion to celebrate over the holidays and that these recommendations might be of some use.

Until next week enjoy!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams)

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