Champagne or Charmat: Understanding Bubbly

Hey Everyone! 

Hope the holiday season is going spectacularly for you all. Mine is exceptionally busy, but exciting as well. This past week I took full advantage of the Kroger case sale and brought home some fantastic finds that I am excited to dig into, but I also want to save and savor. Only time will tell which will be the case. 

With Christmas and New Years fast approaching, it only seems correct to focus on bubbles and share what information I have on this overwhelming subject. 

First things first, despite all other categorization sparkling wine is made using two distinct methods. Champenoise (also referred to as méthode traditionnelle) and Charmat-Martinotti (also known as metodo Italiano). The primary difference between these methods is where the secondary fermentation that causes the bubbles occurs. For the Champenoise method, the fermentation happens in the bottle, where as the charmat made wines are re-fermented in pressure sealed tanks. 

There are other differences of course, but they are derived from this initial separation. Champagnes are typically seen as higher-quality, often have a nutty or toasted quality to them, and tend to have a higher price tag do to the longer, more difficult aging process. Champagne is also the only method whose title has been relegate to a specific region, though you can find wines made in the champagne method from all over the world. On the palate, champagnes tend to be drier and less fruity with a fine bubble.  On the other hand, charmat style wines are less complicated to produce, generally age for shorter periods of time, and are more fruit forward and slightly sweeter. 

Like many other heavily controlled regional specialties, only sparkling wines made in the region of Champagne, France are allowed to label their wines as Champagne. Every where else must either create their own name or use the descriptor “méthode traditionnelle“. Also, there are only 7 approved varietals for Champagne production. These include Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay,  Petit Meslier, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, and Arbane. These are not the only grapes used in making sparkling wine, they are simply the approved varietals for French Champagne. In Italy they denote champagne style sparkling wines as Spumante, and use the charmat method to produce Moscato d’Asti using Muscat varietals, and Glera to produce Prosecco using the charmat method. Spain produces Cava using both traditional Champagne varietals of Native Spanish ones, and South Africa uses Chenin Blanc to produce a sparkling wine called Cap Classique. 

There are  a few classifications of sweetness with Sparkling wines. Extra Brut which is the driest and contains fewer than 6 grams of residual sugar per liter. Brut which is the most popular style has between 6 and 12 grams of RS. Extra dry contains between 12 and 17 grams. Sec, which is beginning to get into the dessert style sparkling had between 17 and 32 grams of residual sugar, while Demi-sec has between 32 and 50 grams, and Doux, the sweetest, has around 50 grams of residual sugar. 

If you’re particular about the flavors you prefer in your wines, pay close attention to where your bubbly is coming from. If the varietals are not listed on the label, this will give you a hint about what to expect. True Champagnes can range in flavors from fruity and sweet with notes of apple and pair, to dry and nutty with flavors of hazelnut and toast. Their fruit notes are defined by their varietals. Also, due to the method in which they’re made, true champagnes tend to have a yeasty or bread like quality to them. Cava tends to have bright acidity, expressive minerality and fresh fruit flavors while staying reasonably dry and expressing the toasted qualities of champagne. Prosecco tends to be more fruity with notes of green apples and pears and hits of sweetness. Sparkling Moscato tends to have flavors of honey suckle, orange blossom, and oranges and are usually very sweet. If you’re uncertain, feel free to ask the wine steward at your store for more information about a specific label, and if you’re shopping on-line, google is your friend. 

Like all other styles of wine, Sparkling wines come in red, white, and rose, and like all other wines this is intricately tied to their flavor and structure and is determined in the same ways as still wine (after all they all start the same way) Feel free to experiment and try sparkling wines of all color, I’m sure some will surprise you. 

Now Pay Attention!

There is only one important tip I have for anyone trying to open a bottle of bubbly any time of the year. Control your cork. Opening a bottle of wine, sparkling or not should always be as close to silent as possible. I’ll be honest, the sound of a bottle being “popped” excites me as much as the next person. It means we are about to enjoy some delicious and fun sparkling wine, but that isn’t how it should be done, and youre liable to poke someone’s eye out. 

“When you open a bottle of bubbly, it should sound like a rich woman’s fart.”

Pairing

As always, pair what you drink with what you like, and pay attention to the flavors of the wine as much as the origin and the style if you are looking to pair it with specific foods. However, my number one pairing recommendation for sparkling wines is fat. The bubbles just pair so nicely with fatty flavors like sausage, or fried chicken it’s unbelievable. After that I like to consider the sweetness of my sparkling. If it is dry go for more mild flavors, if your wine is sweet aim for something spicy. I love the Baja Tanga, a sparkling malbec rose, with Spicy Pork Tacos, and a good Prosecco is amazing with truffle french fries! Don’t forget the numerous cocktails out there that use champagne or sparkling wine as a bubbly base. I love a good mimosa or french 75.

I hope these tips help you pick out your perfect sparkling for Christmas day or New Year’s eve. As always, questions and recommendations are welcome. What’s your favorite style of sparkling wine or pairing?

Happy Sipping!

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