Why is there so much difference in the cost of true Champagne and generic sparkling wine? It all comes down to the labor involved.
True champagne is labor intensive. I have been repeating this throughout the history of “Uncorked” to the point of redundancy.
Consider the following: True champagne is most often made from a blend of three grapes chardonnay, a white grape and two red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier. “But Champagne is usually clear,” you might be thinking.
When making a clear wine from two red grapes, the harvest and pressing are handled differently. Red grapes have to be pressed very gently in membrane presses, assuring no color is extracted from the grape skins unless the winemaker is creating rosé champagne.
All champagnes are blends. Juice is fermented in individual lots in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for 10 to 14 days. Some older houses still ferment in neutral oak barrels. The winemaker may work with 50 or more different lots before the final blend is achieved.
Once all the base wines are fermented, the winemaker starts the assemblage, gathering lots of pinot, pinot meunier and chardonnay together. Not only are lots from the current vintage blended, but lots from previous vintages are blended as well. These multi-vintage blends go into the most prevalent type of Champagne, non-vintage.
Once the blend is achieved, it is mixed with a small amount of yeast and a blend of sugar and wine. This is called the tirage cuvee blend.
The cuvee is bottled, given a temporary cap and placed on its side in the cellar for at least 18 mouths to undergo a secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles. During this time, each bottle is daily turned a gentle quarter turn either by machine or hand. With each turn, the bottle is placed in a more downward angle, gently causing dead yeast debris to collect in the neck of the bottle.
When all debris settles, the neck is frozen, the temporary cap removed and pent up carbon dioxide causes the frozen debris to explode from the bottle, leaving a clear wine.
Before bottles receive their permanent caps, they receive a dosage of concentrated wine and sugar. The amount of sugar received determines the style of champagne. Champagne styles, from least sweet to sweetest, are: extra brut, brut, extra dry and the less prevalent sec, demi sec and doux.
After going through this process, the bottles receive permanent caps and are aged another three to six months.
Sparkling wine labels from regions other than Champagne often carry wording like “Methode Champenoise” or “Methode Traditionelle,” meaning they were made using the labor-intensive methods elaborated above.
The words “American Champagne” or “California Champagne” on the label do not necessarily mean the wines were made by exacting champagne methods. Most are made from an array of grapes, pressed in giant crushers, and get their bubbles from carbon dioxide pumped into giant vats. That’s why they are inexpensive.
For a fun and festive holiday gathering, stage a blind tasting with an array of sparkling wines and light hors d’oeuvres. Cover all bottles.
If budget allows, include a famous prestige cuvee like Dom Perignon, a true Champagne, for $154 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. Add to the lineup Mumm Napa Cuvee M Methode Champenoise for $21 at Winn Dixie; Charles de Fere Blanc de Blancs Méthode Traditionnelle, in the $12 range at both Tyson’s and the Wine Cellar on Quintard; and a generic grocery store sparkler like Barefoot Bubbly.
Favorites should be selected early in the evening before taste buds become weary. When wines are unveiled, results are sometimes surprising. Often less prestigious wines win.
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.