(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!