Tonight most of us will be toasting with a glass of bubbly. So it is fitting to take a moment to consider how this celebratory drink got its sparkle.
There are many methods to get fizz in the glass, but this story is how it is done with Champagne. It begins as any other wine: Grapes are picked, pressed and fermented. Then the magic begins. The first step is blending. Almost an art form, the winemaker will taste and select from separately fermented vats from individual vineyards to create the ideal recipe.
The carefully blended wine will then go into bottles, along with a small amount of yeast and sugar. This crucial step distinguishes bubbly from all other styles of wine. This is the second fermentation. As the yeast feed on the sugar, tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide are created and remain trapped inside.
But this is still an early part of the journey for fabulous Champagne.
The wine will then be left on its “lees” (dead yeast) for a few weeks or in some quality Champagnes even months. This gives the wine time to absorb the yeasty, rich aromas we love. Next is the final magic trick: taking away the tiny yeast without getting rid of the bubbles. The bottles are placed horizontally, top of the bottle down, in hinged wooden racks kept in dark cool cellars. For about two months, each individual bottle (sometimes up to 40,000 bottles a day) will be turned by hand. Obviously these are the most prestigious of Champagnes.
The ending process is not as romantic as the slow turning of the bottles, but it is just as critical : The necks of the bottles are put into a freezing solution where the dead yeast formed into a sediment. This ice plug is shot out of the bottle, a process called “disgorgement,” and then each bottle is topped with a “dosage,” a mixture — usually a small amount of sugar. And finally, the famous Champagne is closed with the wire and cork.
As you ponder the price of amazing bubbly, don’t forget how much love and attention went into this bottle along with the handcrafted spirit behind this artisan craft.
- NV Piper-Heidsieck Brut, France (about $45 retail)
- NV Pierre Peters Blanc de Blanc, France (about $53 retail)
- 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque, France (about ($199 retail)
When it comes to opening a bottle of champagne, you’re probably more worried about your toast falling flat than one of your guests.
Think again. Ricocheting and rocketing champagne corks are responsible for a surprising number of emergency room visits each year, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. And there’s no quicker way to dampen a party mood than by giving your best friend a black eye or worse, permanent eye damage.
There is an art to opening a bottle of sparkling wine smoothly and safely. The primary focus is cork control, because at 72 pounds per square inch, there is double the pressure in a bottle of sparkling wine than in a car tire. So for starters, never point the bottle at anyone or anything and don’t shake the bottle.
Warm champagne in a bottle that has been shaken is as dangerous as a loaded gun. If the bottle has been moved around a lot (and time is limited) place the bottle in the freezer for about 30 minutes to stabilize the pressure. Champagne or sparkling wine needs to be slightly cold when opened; for a short period it reduces the pressure and makes it marginally safer to open.
To open, hold down the cork with the palm of your hand and untwist the wire located on the neck of the bottle and remove it along with the foil covering the cork. Whenever possible hold your thumb over the top of the cork in case it pops unexpectedly. Tip the bottle away from your face at a 45-degree angle. Grasp the cork between your thumb and index finger, with your other hand gripping the base of the bottle; then gently twist the bottle, not the cork. When you twist the bottle you have more control.
At this point as the cork is released it should make a “hissing sigh” rather than a “pop.” The only thing left is to celebrate!
- NV Torresella Prosecco, Italy (about $18 retail)
- NV Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Blanc de Blanc, California (about $21 retail)
- NV Clos de Nouys Vouvray Sec, France (about $25 retail)
- 2007 Domaine Carneros Brut, California (about $35 retail)
- NV Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, France (about $70 retail)
New Year’s Eve is the ideal occasion to savor Champagne. Whether it’s because of the intriguing, elegant bubble or the urge to raise a glass at the stroke of midnight, it is unquestionably the drink of celebrations. It has a long history and an extensive list of contributors along the way, Dom Pierre Perignon undeniably the most famous. But a few other discoveries had to come before Perignon could supposedly declare, “Brothers, brothers, come quickly, I am drinking stars.”
Two of the most important developments occurred around the same time – stronger glass for the bottle and an airtight cork for the closure.
Before the 17th century, wine was stored in casks and individuals took their own fragile bottles to local wine merchants to be filled. An oil-soaked rag acted as the cork.
Glass was made using wood-fired furnaces, and out of fear that there would not be enough oak for shipbuilding, King James I (at the urging of Sir Robert Mansell, an admiral of English Royal Navy) ordered glass-makers to stop using wood for heating the furnaces. The wood was replaced by coal, which allowed the furnaces to burn hotter, creating stronger glass for wine bottles. The stronger bottles contained the fizzy wine and didn’t explode as weaker glass did.
Around the same time,cork was discovered and replaced the oil-soaked rag. The English were the first to seal wine bottles using cork imported from Portugal and Spain. Most cork comes from the bark of the Quercus suber or cork oak, a species of oak native to southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa.
Once there was strong enough glass to withstand the pressure of the bubbly and a cork to contain the bubble, voila, the industry was on its way to what we think of as modern-day Champagne.
So whether you are chanting the midnight countdown on New Year’s Eve or quietly celebrating with intimate friends, bubbly is perfect for toasting the beginning of a new year.
- NV Gruet Brut Sparkling Wine, New Mexico (about $19 retail)
- NV Rosa di Bianco Sparkling Wine, Spain (about $14 retail)
- NV Roederer Anderson Valley Brut Sparkling Wine, California (about $19 retail)
- NV Iron Horse Brut Classic Sparkling Wine, California (about $39 retail)
- NV J Brut Rose Sparkling Wine, California (about $37 retail)
- NV Moet Chandon Imperial Champagne, France (about $50 retail)
- NV Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne, France (about $62 retail)