All That Sparkles (December 30, 2003)
There is a good reason that champagne is called the drink of celebration. All
those tiny bubbles pass immediately through the lower stomach wall and get into
the bloodstream, carrying alcohol to the brain. That puts you quickly into party
Champagne is a sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are champagne. In
fact, only those bubbling wines produced within the Champagne region east of
Paris can use the term legally. Sparklers produced in other regions of France
such as Alsace and Burgundy must call their wines crémant (creaming)
or vin mousseux (sparkling wine), even when made by the champagne method.
As a result, the Spanish call their sparkling wines made by the champagne method
cava, the Germans call theirs Sekt, and the Italians prosecco.
A wine sparkles when the carbonic gas produced during fermentation is trapped
in the bottle. You start with a still wine and add some yeast and sugar to the
bottle and close it (the French use a crown cap). The yeast attacks the sugar,
turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, but it also leaves a sticky mess
of dead yeast cells.
It was the 27-year-old widow of the champagne house Clicquot who invented the
way to clean up the wine in 1806. The woman, who put the veuve into Veuve
Clicquot, cut holes in her kitchen table and created a frame for the bottles.
They could then be agitated by hand to dislodge the sediment and let it settle
on the base of the cork. The next step was to freeze the necks of the bottles
in a bath of freezing brine so that the debris is trapped in a plug of soft
ice. When the crown cap is removed, the pressure in the bottle drives out the
ice-plug and the wine is rendered clean. It's at this point that the champagne
house creates the style by topping up the bottles with a mix of wine and varying
concentrations of sugar.
The pressure inside a bottle of champagne is 6 atmospheres, or 90 pounds
per square inch, roughly the pressure in a bus tire. So when the wire muzzle
is removed, the cork, if left to its own devices, will fly out at a speed of
65 km per hour. (So point the bottle away from your favoured guests and
remember your elementary physics gas expands when heated. A warm bottle
of champagne will be more active i.e., eruptive than a chilled
The best way to chill a sparkling wine is in an ice bucket filled with ice
cubes and water so that the whole bottle is immersed in icy water. Half an hour
will bring the wine down to the requisite serving temperature.
And if you want to avoid the "pop" and a gusher of wine, hold the
cork steady and twist the bottle slowly away from it. The cork should not move
but should come away from the bottle with the sound of a lover's sigh.
Glasses. Do not under any circumstances use those saucer-shaped glasses
that double as ice cream holders. They are the worst possible receptacles for
champagne. They provide a lake-like surface for the wine which causes it to
go flat quickly and warms it up too fast; they give your nose a bath with every
sip and you "backwash" because of the large circumference that allows
too much wine into your mouth. Apart from that they're perfect. The best glasses
for all sparkling wines are elongated flutes that look like cows' udders. They
maintain the wine at proper temperature and you can see the upwards passage
of the bubbles.
That saucer-shaped glass, incidentally, was created for Queen Victoria, who
suffered flatulence from drinking champagne and needed something to kill the
bubbles. Also invented for that purpose by the British was the swizzle stick
that opens up like a Lilliputian umbrella without the fabric. By working it
between the thumb and forefinger you can rid a champagne of its bubbles before
you can say, "What are you doing to my wine?"
The glasses for champagne have to be spotlessly clean. Dish soap residue will
cause fat bubbles to stick lazily to the side of the glass, and people will
whisper in corners about your housekeeping habits. And whatever you do, don't
emulate the practice of some pretentious restaurants by putting your glasses
in the freezer after wetting them. This will cause a Jack Frost effect, but
the moment a sparkling wine is poured into the glass it will go flat, to say
nothing of the diluting effect.
Champagne is costly because it is the most labour intensive of wines. The secondary
fermentation in the bottle (known as the champagne method) requires many different
processes. There is a cheaper method called the Charmat process, in which the
secondary fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks rather than the bottle
and the wine is drawn off under pressure for bottling. Then there's the really
cheap bicycle-pump method, whereby a still wine is injected with carbon dioxide
gas at the point of bottling, à la baby Duck.
The champagne method creates the smallest bubbles and the longest-lasting ones.
In fact, the mark of a good champagne is tiny, persistent bubbles.
Looking at the LCBO's general list, here's my pick for the best values in champagne
and sparkling wines:
Champagne: Piper Heidsieck ($43), Pol Roger Brut ($45.95)
Ontario: Hillebrand Trius ($21.95), Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catharine Brut
(at the winery only, $27.95)
Australia: Seaview Brut ($10.95)
Italy: Valdobbiadene Prosecco ($13.10), Bottega Vino del Poeti Prosecco
Spain: Segura Viudas Aria Estate Cava ($14.95), Codorniu Brut Clasico
California: Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut ($26.85)