Wine Notes: Looking for a bottle of bubbly to bring to a party?
Wine enthusiast Peter Xirogiannis explains the fizzy logic of champagne and bubbly
You've been invited to a party and the host has asked you to bring champagne.
Do they want you to bring any sparkling wine, or a true champagne? Confused? You are not alone.
And therein lies the heart of the biscuit; such has been the allure and significance of champagne that it became synonymous with all bubbly wine, in much the same way that no one bats an eyelash if you ask them for a Kleenex when you mean tissue or if you tell someone that you used Bing to google it.
What's in a name?
France has a system of certification that guarantees the place of origin for a variety of agricultural products — from wines and cheeses to chickens and lentils — and delineates rules, practices, production methods and yields.
The idea is to protect producers from imitators and to ensure a level of quality for consumers.
The French would like very much that only sparkling wine made in Champagne be labelled as such and, after asking nicely for many years, several other countries agreed to get on board.
To explain it simply:
a) Champagne is a region of France that makes sparkling wine.
b) Sparkling wine is style of wine that contains carbon dioxide bubbles.
c) Sparkling wine is made all over France and in other countries as well.
d) The French are pedants, with good reason.
All clear? Good!
How do they get the bubbles into the bottle of champagne?
Fermentation is the process of yeast feasting on the sugars in grape juice, converting it into ethanol alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. This gas bubbles up and escapes during the primary fermentation of most wines.
With champagne, however, a secondary fermentation is induced after bottling, trapping the gas in the wine under pressure until the inevitable "pop" and frothy celebration ensues.
Méthode to the madness
Champagne bottles are also aged on the lees (the deposits of dead yeast) for at least 15 months and upwards of 6 years in some cases, and then carefully rotated and tilted forward, painstakingly bringing the lees to settle into the neck of the bottle which is topped with a crown cap.
The tops are then frozen, forming a plug of dead yeast and wine. This yeast slushy is subsequently removed, and before corking the whole concoction may be topped up with a mixture of base wine and sugar, at the vintners discretion.
This is known as méthode traditionelle. It imparts to champagne its many peculiar and unique characteristics, and contributes in part to the relatively hefty price tag.
In delicious summary, champagne is the result of setting up a killer party for sugar loving yeast, trapping the inevitable burps, then ensuring their expired remains swish around in the bottle for a while.
So now that you are an expert in champagne, here are some examples of bubbly from other areas of France and beyond.
In Spain, they call it cava
- Parés Balta Cava Brut: $16.80 at the SAQ.
If it's bubbly and made in the champinoise way, it's a Cava.
Biodynamic and eco certified, it's my go-to recommendation for all of life's countless celebrations.
The Italians say spumante
- Bisol Crede 2017: $22.15 at the SAQ.
If its made from the Glera grape, it's likely to be a prosecco. This one is made in the Italian fashion (Méthode Charmat) where the secondary fermentation occurs in a pressurized tank.
Crémant de Bourgogne
- Partick Piuze Non dosé Méthode Traditionnelle: $24.80 at the SAQ
Made in the traditional method in an extra brut (dry) style with no sugar top up, this bubbly is made by Quebec-born Patrick Piuze.
It's bulles in Quebec
- Domaine Bergeville Le Blanc Brut: $27.85 at the SAQ
If you opt to stay in the freezing climes of Quebec and enjoy the intrepid Frontenac variety of grapes, there's this bubbly.
So, the next time you are at a party and the host offers you a glass of "champagne," you may be obliged under French and EU laws to confiscate the whole bottle for further inspection.