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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 mode.

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 one.)

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 ($13.30)
Spain: Segura Viudas Aria Estate Cava ($14.95), Codorniu Brut Clasico ($10.75)
California: Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut ($26.85)




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