Sparkling Wine Guide

The Battle of the Bubblies



(Que Bruce Buffer’s voice:)

It’s Time! For the main event!

New Years Eve 2009!

Are you prepared to bring it?

Prepared for the Champ(agne)?

Well if you’re not, prepare yourself with everything you need to know about sparkling wine with this handy buyer’s guide. Where to begin? At the beginning -- or in this case, at the top, with Crème de Tete. Follow along as I break down the styles of sparkling wine, how to tell if it’s sweet or not, if it’s farmer fizz (and what farmer fizz is), and how to chill your bottle quickly.

Chilling Champagne Quickly

Caught out with a warm bottle? Here's what you do to get it chilled quickly: Grab a bucket and plant your bottle in the center, add a layer of ice around the base of the bottle and cover the ice with a few tablespoons of salt; keep repeating, alternating layers of ice and salt until the bucket is full. Now fill the bucket with cold water. The salt will drop the temperature of the water well below freezing, providing you with the rapid cooling you need. Give the bottle a few gentle spins every few minutes to help even out the cooling effects. Your bubbly should be ready to pop in 15 minutes.

Decoding Champagne and other sparkling wines

Find Champagne
So we’re starting at the top, I guess that means the finest Champagne, also know as Crème de Tete (AKA cuvée de prestige). These are wines that define a house’s style and go by proprietary names; like Cristal, Dom Perignon, and Cuvee Winston Churchill (one of my faves). Click here for more about Champagne.

Find Sparkling Wines
With so many sparkling wines available it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of confusion about the what, where, and who. If you're browsing the aisle and come upon a bottle that’s not familiar, learn more qbout it with our mini-guide to sparkling wine.

So we’re starting at the top, which means the finest Champagnes, also know as Crème de Tete, or cuvée de prestige. These are wines that define a house’s style and go by proprietary names like Cristal, Dom Perignon, and Cuvee Winston Churchill (one of my faves). These represent the pinnacle of the Champagne blender’s art and are wines that frequently benefit from -- and many times demand -- cellaring to release their potential. Right off the shelf the current release of these wines can be somewhat disappointing.

More common is a house’s non-vintage style. This is, not surprisingly, a blend of several vintages that allows a blender to combine the freshness of younger sparkling wines with the complexity contributed by older, more mature sparkling wines. The goal in making a non-vintage wine is to offer a consistent style from vintage to vintage. I am a big fan of non-vintage Champagne, but prefer to age it for several years so that it softens up and gains more depth and complexity. 3 to 5 years in the cellar is perfect for my palate.

In certain vintages the Champagne is so good, and has such a distinctive character, that it may be bottled as a vintage wine. In general these wines are a step up in quality from the basic non-vintage bottling, though there can be exceptions. As with the Crème de Tete, a vintage sparkling wine may require several years in the bottle to offer the drinkability of a non-vintage. You also have to be familiar with the style of the vintage. Great vintages come in different styles, from opulent and ripe to chiseled and structured. It’s easy to love one vintage and hate another so ask a trusted retailer if you have any questions.

The following three terms refer to what grapes were used in the production of the wine.  Any of these can be produced in any of the styles mentioned above.

Blanc de Blancs refers to wines made from white grapes, Chardonnay, in particular, when it comes to Champagne. These tend to be crisp and elegant with vibrant orchard-fruit tones.

Blanc de Noirs refers to white sparkling wines made from red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Champagne. The juice of virtually every red grape is actually clear so a quick pressing off the skins results in white wines such as these. The flavor of the wines retains hints of red fruits and tend to be somewhat richer than their Blanc de Blanc cousins.

Rose sparkling wines are pink to quite red wines, much like the still versions. There are two ways to producing a rose. The first involves leaving the juice in contact with the skins of the red grapes for a period of time. It is also possible to produce a rose by blending red wine and white wine. Roses can be among the richest of sparkling wines and have fruit flavors that lean decidedly in the berry direction.

The terminology used to indicate the sweetness or dryness of a sparkling wine can be confusing, but at least they are consistent across most countries.

Sparkling wines labeled Brut Natural, Brut Nature, or Brut Zero have less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar and are considered dry.

Sparking wines labeled Extra-Brut have up to 6 grams per liter of residual sugar and still taste dry but are richer and fruiter than Brut Zeros. These are perfect wines for brunch.

Sparkling wines labeled Brut have up to 15 grams per liter of residual sugar and can begin to be noticeably sweet though producers generally keep Brut fairly dry.

Sparkling wines labeled Extra Sec, Extra Seco, or Extra Dry have 12-20 grams of sugar per liter. These wines are in fact a bit sweeter as they tend to the upper end of their range

Sparkling wines labeled as Sec or Seco have between 17 and 35 grams of sugar per liter and are noticeably sweet.

Sparkling wines labeled Demi-Sec or Semi-Seco have between 33 and 50 grams per liter and are fairly sweet though the bottom end of the range still produces wines that can seem dry to the most sugar tolerant.

Wines labeled Doux or Dolce have at least 50 grams of sugar per liter and are exactly what they claim to be: Sweet.

Once upon a time pretty much all Champagne sold in the US was produced by big houses that bought grapes and wine from others to make their blends. They are known as Negociants. Not too long ago, the farmers growing these grapes got an idea. They thought it might be in their best interest to make some wine themselves, see if they could sell it and make a little more money. A movement was born: Farmer Fizz, also known as Grower or Grower-Producer Champagne.

The beauty of Grower Champagne is that the wines come from a single plot or plots of land. Year in and year out, the wines are produced by the same folks, using the same techniques so the character of the wine comes from the terroir and the climate as opposed to the blender's art. Whether you prefer one style over another is not something I’m going to take issue with, but if you want to compare styles you’ll need to the following code.

On each label of Champagne you’ll find a small alphanumeric code. The first two digits of this code will tell you what sort of an operation is responsible for your fizz.

NM = Négociant manipulant – Someone who buys grapes to make their wine.

CM = Coopérative de manipulation- A co-op that producers wines from member’s grapes and sells it under on label.

RM - = Récoltant manipulant.  – The grower producer who makes wine from their own grapes.

SR=- Société de récoltants. – A group of growers who make wine together but sell them under more than one brand

RC = Récoltant coopérateur- A Co-op member selling Co-op produced champagne under his or her own label

MA = Marque auxiliaire or Marque d'acheteur – A brand name, or private label, not related to the producer

ND = Négociant distributeur – A company that sells Champagne that it does not make under it’s own brand.

  With so many sparkling wines available it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of confusion about what, where, and who. If you're browsing the aisle and come apon a sparkling wine that’s not familiar, it’s probably one of these.

Italy – Produces its own Prosecco, which tends to be light, fruity, and a touch sweet, as well as Methodo Classico. Methodo Classico is a style that uses traditional Champagne methods and grapes. Another Italian sparkler is Moscato d’Asti, a slightly sweet, fruity and floral bubbly that is decidedly different from both Prosecco and Methodo Classico.

Spain – Cava is the sparkling wine of Spain. These can be great values, and while they use the Meethod Champenoise the grape varieties tend to be different. Traditionally made from the indigenous Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo varieties, Cava tends to be dry and fairly fruity.

Germany – Sekt is the traditional German sparkler. Generaly produced by using the bulk, or Charmat, method. These tend to rather simple sparklers, though the best, based on Riesling and Pinot Blanc are delicious.

Austria – Another source of Sekt, though in Austria the quality tends to be higher and the main grapes are Gruner Veltliner and Welschriesling.  These are lovely, somewhat fruity wines produced in either a trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (off-dry) style.

USA – Domestic sparkling wine production has exploded over the past two decades. Almost all of these wines are produced using the Method Champenoise, mostly with traditional grape varieties. Nomenclature for sweetness on US bottles is the same as that found on Europen bottlings.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know so get out there and but some bubbly. Oh and enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.


Happy New Year!

Mentioned in this article


Comments

  • Snooth User: gigi36
    162138 10

    I happen to like Thornton Winery's (Temecula Valley) Cuvee Rouge. It has a very smooth taste and is not too sweet.

    Dec 31, 2009 at 1:14 PM


  • Snooth User: WinePleasures
    Hand of Snooth
    210936 702

    We are ready to celebrate with Cava which is made exactly the same way as Champagne at a fraction of the cost and in our opinion best for New Year's celebration - you can easily drink a whole bottle per person if you so wish and you'll not have a hangover from added sweetened wine as we'll be celebrating with Brut Nature and not with heavy French Bruts.

    Happy New Year!

    Dec 31, 2009 at 1:19 PM


  • Snooth User: bzubee
    240848 3

    I have a report on a compnay that provides really poor service in the wine business.
    Warning ! Wine.com does not deliver the products they promise or when they promise.

    I placed an order with Wine.com on November 25th 2009 for 3 bottles for a christmas present for my sister and her husband delivery was set up for Decmber 23rd, 2009 Package never showed contacted them via e-mail asked what was going on no reply I called after the holiday and after being on hold for half an hour finally got a human being he apoligized and stated the company had a major problem and he had no way to tell when if ever my order would be shipped and if I wanted he could cancel my order. No offer of substitution or extra discount nothing to compensate for the lack of service from Wine.com. I let them know I wanted my e-mail removed from their mailing listing and I would never order anything from Wine.com and I woulds also let everyone know not to order anything from Wine.com

    John Zuber

    Dec 31, 2009 at 2:19 PM


  • Snooth User: thomi
    279153 3

    You forgot Franciacorta in Italy. It's a bubbly akin to many of the great Champagnes around (most of them beat the whole Moet-Chandon stuff hands down - except maybe Dom Pérignon). That's because they are produced in the same way and use mostly Chardonnay in their wines. It's easy to miss this wine though. It's only produced around Brescia (northern Italy) and as for the price, well, let's just say they are moving up to the Champagnes. But it's definitely worth a try.

    Dec 31, 2009 at 4:33 PM


  • Snooth User: wyno9
    307323 14

    You forgot Andre Extra Dry.

    Dec 31, 2009 at 4:39 PM


  • How could you speak of Italian sparkling wine without even mentioning Lambrusco!!!??? This is the most amazing and best selling sparkling red in Northern Italy. Unfortunately, It has gotten a bad rap here in the states but there are some remarkable and dry Lambrusco's that just never stop pleasing. Its a little known varietal and I'm hoping it stays that way because right now you can buy it for around $13-$15 a bottle. If you've never tried it, you should. Its the grape used in making Balsamico.

    Dec 31, 2009 at 9:09 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 6,322

    Lots of great, good (and lesser) sparkling wines from the New World. Check out the first two categories here:
    http://www.snooth.com/talk/topic/go...

    And nice one about the Andre, wyno9. Used to drink their Cold Duck when I was a teen... ;-)

    Dec 31, 2009 at 9:39 PM


  • Snooth User: Piccolo161
    199543 37

    Gregory,

    Thanks for another excellent article. The content is great and I love the layout and appearance too.

    Just a couple of things that I hope will add to the discussion:

    As you said, there a growing ( sorry for the pun ) interest in ‘Grower champagnes’ these days. I think this is terrific because there are some fabulous champagnes to be found amongst these smaller producers if you know where to look and if you’re prepared to venture away from the big brands.

    The quality of these smaller producers can be so good that I think it’s a shame to call them Farmer’s Fizz - it doesn’t do them justice.

    As far as the code on the label is concerned, whilst it’s usually the case that RM identifies the smaller producers and NM means a big champagne house, there are some very small producers who are also négociants ( i.e. they buy grapes on the open market as well as growing some of their own ) and therefore they have NM, not RM on the label. These guys too sometimes make some outstanding champagnes and certainly shouldn’t be ruled out or overlooked just because they are not RM.
    For more on this take a look at
    http://www.debateabubble.com/2009/0...


    Last but not least, I understand your comments about cellaring your champagne for a few years before you drink it, but it’s worth adding, I think, that this is only a good idea IF you have a good cellar that gives the conditions that any wine needs to age properly.

    If you don’t have a good cellar and keep your champagne in the garage, in the kitchen or under the stairs, then my advice is drink it sooner rather than later. After all, champagne has already been aged in France before being sold so it can still be enjoyed right after you buy it.

    Have a great 2010

    Jan 01, 2010 at 8:19 AM


  • Snooth User: Piccolo161
    199543 37

    Hello Gregory and all other champagne-lovers

    I've decided to move back to live in Champagne - going in a few weeks.

    If, by being on-the-spot, I can help anyone with news, views, information, tips, or just gossip from Champagne, please let me know and do come and visit me.

    Jiles

    Jan 03, 2010 at 11:22 AM


  • Snooth User: meyzi
    276512 1

    I love Krug grand cru, Cristal Roederer and Comte de Champagne ( I think its Tattinger)

    Jan 03, 2010 at 3:04 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 6,322

    Some discussion of aging champagne here:
    http://www.snooth.com/talk/topic/ho...

    Jan 05, 2010 at 9:35 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 184,017

    Piccolo,

    Thanks for the additional information. It's much appreciated.

    Maybe we can call on you to be our resident, pun intended, expert?

    Jan 08, 2010 at 12:24 PM


  • nice

    Aug 20, 2013 at 4:30 AM


  • Snooth User: EmmaJansen
    1339600 34

    excellent one

    Sep 07, 2013 at 1:00 AM


  • outstanding

    Sep 08, 2013 at 4:17 PM


  • Snooth User: cglaw2013
    1341096 33

    excellent

    Sep 11, 2013 at 4:12 AM


  • Snooth User: Avri
    1444069 22

    dont forget Varichon & Clerck from the Savoie.
    It isnt champagne but it is the next best thing

    Dec 30, 2013 at 11:16 AM


  • Snooth User: graubear
    1302791 43

    I got one bottle as present from a European friend - newer heard before about that wine. It is Montenegrin Val - natural sparkling wine, made by classical method of later fermentation in the bottle, aged at the yeast for at least one year. Well balanced, of harmonious taste and discreetly rounded smell, originating from the white grapes of the autochthonous grape varieties. Its portability and freshness will satisfy all of your senses. Montenegrin Val is produced in two categories: as extra dry and semi dry sparkling

    Jan 03, 2014 at 5:04 AM


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