Wine of the month
The wine: Korbel California Champagne Natural 2009
The grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
The source: Russian River, Sonoma County, Calif.
The verdict: Like your Champagne/sparkling wine bone dry? Doesn’t get much drier than Korbel’s crisp Natural. This is a style few sparkling wine makers produce. A few French Champagne producers offer a Natural or Naturelle, but not many. This wine is drier than Brut, which is the driest bubbly you normally will find. That makes it a superb sparkler to serve with just about any food, but especially seafood. Korbel uses the methode champenoise to bring this wine to the market. In that process, the second fermentation, which gives birth to those wondrous bubbles, takes place within the bottle. That’s a real plus. And even though it is truly dry, the Natural offers subdued green apple flavors. At this price, this is one of the great bubbly bargains.
The price: About $16.
Champagnes and other bubbly wines
Here are several bartender — and sommelier — recommended bubbles for cocktails (or to drink straight from the bottle).
Pol Roger Champagne Brut Reserve, about $38
Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut, about $29
Taittinger Champagne "La Francaise," about $35
Mumm Napa Brut "Prestige," about $18
Maison Ambroise Cremant de Bourgogne, about $18
Vilarnau Cava Brut, about $19
Cava Barcino Brut, about $15
Pere Ventura Brut Nature Cava, about $15
Juve y Camps Brut Nature Cava "Reserva de la Familia Gran Reserva," about $13
Tarantas Brut Cava, about $12
German Gilabert Brut Nature Cava "Reserva," about $15
Graham Beck Brut Rose Sparkling Wine Western Cape, about $15
Graham Beck Brut Sparkling Wine Western Cape, about $15
Luis Pato Espumante, about $15
Adami Bosco di Gica Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, about $17
Total time: 5 minutes
Note: From Alex Day of Proprietors for Demi Monde in New York. Day uses Chateau du Tariquet Classique Bas Armagnac.
1 ounce Armagnac
1/2 ounce Royal Combier
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Dry sparkling wine such as a brut Champagne, cava or espumante
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, stir together the Armagnac, Royal Combier and bitters. Strain into a chilled flute. Top with dry sparkling wine.
Los Angeles Times
"Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it."
— Napoleon Bonaparte
Good advice. Next time you go out to conquer Europe, make sure you take along a case or two of that wondrous elixir Champagne. You will need it.
Champagne, or sparkling wine (I’ll explain the difference in a moment), is one of the most misunderstood citizens of the wine world. It exists in a forest of myths. Let me try to hack away some of them.
Myth 1: Champagne is only for special occasions.
Reality: Not so. Let the Champagne make the occasion special ... like the sun came up this morning, the dog did not barf on the living room rug, the children did not decide to come home and live with you. All are occasions that need to be made special through the gentle pop of a cork.
Myth 2: Champagne really needs to be aged before it’s ready to drink.
Reality: Champagne has been aged for you by the producer. When it comes out of the cellars after many years in the dark, it’s good to go. Too much fine Champagne goes to waste because people buy it for "a special occasion" 10 years down the road.
Myth 3: Champagne is made only from white grapes.
Reality: Real Champagne can be made only from three types of grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. And the last two are red!
What’s the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine? Simply the address. According to present European law, and French law before the European Union, only the sparkling wine produced in the region of northeast France named Champagne, and made according to the stringent standards for Champagne, may bear that illustrious name.
All else is sparkling wine, even if it is made the same way, using the same grapes, two miles down the road from the border between the Champagne region and lesser mortals.
Winemakers in Europe and elsewhere observe that law. In this country, however, it is ignored by many producers. Tott’s, for example, the cheap, mildly yucky bubbly from Gallo, is labeled Champagne.
How is Champagne made? It ain’t easy — if you do it right.
"Champagne for my true friends, true pain for my sham friends."
Champagne is wine that is fermented twice. With genuine Champagne, the company’s tasters sample dozens of finished wines made from those three grapes. These wines come from various vineyards; frequently, they come from different vintages (years of harvest.)
They taste, evaluate, blend and eventually come up with a grouping of wines that taste just like what they want the Champagne to taste like. Then they whip up several thousand gallons of that blend.
That blend goes into bottles, along with a dose of yeast and sugar, and the bottle is closed not with a cork but with a crown cap, just like a bottle of beer. And here’s where Champagne’s magic begins to form.
The yeast starts to gobble up the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. When making still (nonbubbling) wine, the carbon dioxide escapes. Not with sparkling wine. The bubbles are captured.
These bottles are then placed in racks in semidark, temperature-controlled cellars, necks tilted down. Every day, the bottles are turned so the sludge produced from this second fermentation slides down the neck toward that cap.
When the wine is ready for the next step, it happens fast. Bottles are inverted, necks down in a frigid salt and ice-water brine. That freezes the sludge plug solid. The bottle is turned up, the cap is knocked off, the pressure inside spits the plug out, the small amount of wine lost in that spit is replaced with some of the original blend, the cork is plunked in, the wire cage attached, the foil wrapped around and, phew — it’s almost Champagne.
Then the aging process begins. With premium Champagnes, such as Krug, Moet et Chandon, Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, etc., these bottles will slumber for many years.
The better American producers — Chandon, Mumm, Gloria Ferrer, Schramsberg among them — follow those traditions. And while I heartily respect those producers and their wines, sorry, there just ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.
"Brut" on the label tells you the wine will be very dry — a good food wine. "Extra dry" is somewhat sweeter. There are all-white grape sparklers called blanc de blancs; lightly pink ones called blanc de noirs, and bright pink wines called rose.
One of the great things about Champagne/sparkling wines is that the dry examples (Brut) are perfect food wines. They nicely accompany just about anything: red meat, white meat, seafood, veal, veggie dishes, Asian cuisine, spicy grub, etc.
Always chill sparkling wines thoroughly — eight to 10 hours in the fridge or an hour in an ice-water bath, with half a cup of salt added. That really works better than the freezer, and it’s less dangerous, too.
Also, never agitate the bottle. Most Champagne bottles contain about 90 PSI of pressure, more than a big truck tire. If you wave that bottle around, you make those bubbles angry, and they could hurt you when released. Seriously!
Best glasses for Champagne are the tall, thin ones called flutes. They keep more of the bubbles in the glass than traditional wide-mouthed wine glasses.
Got all that? Good. There will be a quiz.
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.