’tis the season. The season for bubbles.
And I am merry about it, indeed.
Moët and Chandon Impérial, NV, Brut
Somewhere on the order of $40, depending where you shop
It’s that time of year again: winter means endless holiday gatherings that bring joy, tense conversation, way too much food, and effervescent wine to the table.
My favorite, I think, is that last bit.
Moët is probably the only French word to enjoy easy, everyday use in my family’s household. And if there’s only gonna be one, it’s a fine one for it to be.
All celebratory gatherings in that house — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, birthdays, and particularly happy Tuesday nights — are celebrated with the pop of a bottle of M&C’s classic Impérial Brut.
As you may know if you’ve ever popped a bottle of bubbles you bought at CVS, not all sparkling wine is created equally. And I’m not just talking price tag, although a bottle of cheap Champagne has been apt to set my head pounding if I so much as look at it the wrong way.
No. I’m referring to the commonly-held misconception that all sparkling wine is Champagne. Not so, my friends!
Champagne was a place in France before it was a bubbly delight, in keeping with the old world style of labeling wines by their region of production rather than their varietal — a method that confuses us new world-ers with our branded, vintner-worshipping ways. (See my full explanation in this review of a red Bordeaux).
Sparkling wine is simply a wine that’s been fermented twice in order to create trapped carbon dioxide bubbles, which give the wines their shimmery, bright mouthfeel. Those bubbles also pull the wines’ unique bouquets up through the glass to your eager nose — which is why they’re served in flutes, to allow the bubbles to travel the furthest distance through the wine. (Ever seen those traditional champagne saucers? Pretty, but they quickly fizzle the wine.)
Champagne is, perhaps, the best-known version of sparkling wine, but most every wine-producing region has their own iteration. Varietals and methods of secondary fermentation (creating the bubbles) differ, as do the resultant wines — but I’ve seen many a “Champagne cocktail” on a bar menu whose base was actually Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco, because to many, bubbles are bubbles are bubbles are Champagne.
Authentic French Champagne is traditionally made of a blend of any or all of the following varietals: pinot noir (yep, a black grape!), chardonnay, and pinot munier. Each Champagne house blends its still wines each year to produce a consistent flavor profile. Thus, the vast majority of Champagne is released without a specific vintage. It’s set apart from other bubbles by its autolytic character — that is, the yeasty, yogurty profile it gains from aging on its lees (the dead yeast cells that fall out of solution after fermentation). These bread-like flavors are not found in many other types of sparkling wine, like Prosecco, which utilize a different (quicker) aging and double-fermentation method and tend to be fruitier and fresher.
Sur lie aging is not just for Champagne and many still wines from all over the world take advantage of the mellowing effect of this kind of aging — many chardonnays undergo sur lie, for instance.
The process of secondary fermentation — particuarly Champagne’s méthode traditionnelle — is fascinating, but a little technically complex for me to get into here. The most interesting thing to know is that Champagne is slowly “riddled” during its secondary fermentation, meaning that each bottle is painstakingly hand-turned until the dead yeast cells rest in the bottle’s neck, which is frozen in order to faciltate disgorging before the wine is sold in its original bottle. Well, they were painstakingly hand-turned — this job, like so many in the 21st century, is slowly being taken on by machines, even in the case of some premium wines.
Many other types of bubbles are not treated to this process, and are instead more quickly (and cheaply) created in large, pressurized tanks before being re-bottled and sold.
This particular bottle is not the most prestigious or longest-aged Champagne, and, owing perhaps to its well-known American presence, it emulates a Californian sparkling wine with its rather fruity profile.
It displays only a hint of that autolytic biscuit flavor I’d mentioned before, with a nose instead of apple and meyer lemon and a mouthful of green pear, gooseberry and peach. It’s got a crisp, refreshing acid that has proved itself worthy of pairing with absolutely any meal, though most of my experience is in pairing it with turkey and stuffing (in short: yep, it goes).
It’s got a medium finish, but it honestly doesn’t matter that much because I’m already taking another sip. Putting away a whole bottle alone is easy — with friends and family around, it’s essential.
Cheers, and Happy New Year!