Some traditions are forever linked to particular types of drinks. Baseball goes best with a cold domestic beer. The Kentucky Derby requires a mint julep. And New Year’s Eve? A slender, shimmering glass of Champagne. What better way to start a new year than with a toast among friends and a sip of bubbly? From weddings to holidays to World Series wins, sparkling wine plays an essential role in times of celebration.
With Christmas around the corner and the New Year just weeks away, we asked Chris Hazel, the wine director at the award-winning Macaroni Joe’s, to educate us on Champagne. Every year since 2009, the restaurant has been awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its expansive wine list. In 2016, Macaroni Joe’s received the coveted Best of Award of Excellence, a recognition given to fewer than 1,100 establishments worldwide.
The History of Champagne According to legend, sparkling wine was discovered by Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk living in Hautivillers, France. While making white wine in the 17th century, he bottled a batch before fermentation ended. In the resulting secondary fermentation, yeast in the wine began converting the liquid’s sugars into carbon dioxide. When the monk tasted the carbonated wine, he exclaimed, “Come quickly, I am tasting stars!” and a new industry was born.
Though an influential winemaking monk named Dom Pérignon did exist – as does a prestige Champagne by that name produced by Moët & Chandon – the quote and story about the discovery of the beverage probably isn’t true. It owes more to marketing and mythmaking than actual history. Regardless, winemakers in the Champagne region of northwest France began experimenting with secondary fermentation methods in the 1500s and 1600s. When glass technology improved enough to handle the carbonated pressure of Champagne, the drink gained enormous popularity among society’s elite.
Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine That history matters. Then and now, “Champagne” is a territorial term rather than a type of drink. Unless a sparkling wine is produced in the Champagne region of France, east of Paris, it does not qualify as the drink known as Champagne. “That’s the most common misconception about sparkling wines,” Hazel says. “Not all sparkling wines are Champagne. Champagnes are specific to the Champagne region of France. We should look at it as a region and not a winemaking style.”
Though grapes are not typically identified on a Champagne label, true Champagne can only be made from three varieties of grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. Most Champagne is a blend of these three varieties. However, a blanc de blancs (“white from whites”) Champagne will be made only from white grapes. The designation blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”) indicates it has been made from the two darker grapes rather than the light-skinned chardonnay. These Champagnes may look the same, but blanc de blancs tend to have a lighter, drier taste.
Carbonated wines produced outside the Champagne region are known more generically as sparkling wines. These can include sparkling (spumante) or semi-sparkling (frizzante) prosecco from Italy, a sparkling wine called cava from northern Spain, and a variety of sparkling wines produced in California, upstate New York, and other winegrowing regions of the United States. “There’s definitely a good mixture of different sparkling wines available,” Hazel says. Wines made outside the Champagne region can use any variety of grape, in addition to the three mentioned above.
While all sparkling wines have bubbles, fermentation differences during production will impact the size of those bubbles. “Higher-quality sparkling wines are going to have smaller bubbles. Your cheaper sparkling wines, such as an extra-dry prosecco, are going to have large bubbles,” Hazel says.
Levels of Sweetness Whether Champagne or sparkling wine – and regardless of the variety of grape – a bottle will be designated according to its level of sweetness. “Anyone who produces these sparkling wines, and any Champagne houses in France, will make these different levels,” Hazel says.
Extra Brut: “This is the driest sparkling wine you can get,” says Hazel. During the fermentation process, the yeast consumes all the sugar in the batch of wine. In terms of taste, a dry sparkling wine will cause the mouth to pucker.
Brut: Sparkling wine with this designation is dry with a hint of sweetness. During production, the fermentation process is stopped before the sugar is entirely consumed, leaving behind a very small amount of sugar. Most true Champagne is designated Brut. “This is probably the most popular or most common sparkling wine that you see,” says Hazel.
Extra Dry: “This is obviously dry, but not as dry as Brut or Extra Brut,” Hazel says about this designation, which is common among Italian proseccos. “It has a little sweetness. It’s not sugary sweet, but it’s noticeably sweeter than Brut.”
Demi-sec: A dessert wine, demi-sec has a higher sugar content and a prominent taste of sweetness. The name comes from the French term for “half-dry.”
What to Drink Hazel says the levels of sweetness in a sparkling wine are entirely up to the taste of the buyer. Other than that, he suggests experimenting. “A great way to serve and try different sparkling wines is to buy little half-bottles, or splits,” he says. Splits are sold in 187-millileter bottles and, because they are usually non-vintage, are much less expensive than full bottles. “You’ll see them anywhere that sells sparkling wine. These are a great way to taste and go through and find what you like.”
While most people only think of pairing foods with regular wine, Hazel says not to dismiss those possibilities with a sparkling wine. “Sparkling wines are one of the most versatile wines for food pairing,” he says. “They typically go with a great array of items – everything from breakfast foods to desserts, light dishes to fried foods, spicy or rich sauces, [and] an assortment of cheeses. But it’s also a great aperitif to start off your evening.”
As for his recommendations, he says Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, in California, makes fantastic sparkling wines at each of the sugar levels listed above, from a 2008 Extra Brut Reserve Cuvée ($47) to a 2012 Demi-Sec Reserve Cuvée ($40). Cuvée means a particular blend or batch of wine.
Also on the lower side of the price scale, Hazel recommends the award-winning Brut Prestige ($22) made by Mumm Napa, which is a California vineyard established by the celebrated French winemaker G.H. Mumm.
For upper-end Champagnes, Hazel recommends anything from the winemaker Louis Roederer. “Their rose is excellent,” he says. Bottles of Champagne from Armand de Brignac, Billecart Salmon, Dom Perignon, and the Roederer-made Cristal are always delicious, says Hazel, but will come with three-digit price tags.
Final Instructions Once you’ve chosen a Champagne or sparkling wine, open it carefully. The carbonation inside the bottle makes it volatile. That’s why early winemakers in France used to call sparkling wine le vin du diable (“the wine of the devil”) – because the fermented beverage kept shattering bottles. “There’s a reason they put those cages on the bottles,” Hazel says.
Once you’ve removed the foil and the wire cage, keep your thumb over the cork. “Make sure you’re not pointing it at anybody,” says Hazel. “Slowly release that cork.” He advises never popping the cork so that the sparkling wine violently sprays or bubbles out of the bottle. It might be fun, but it’s wasteful. “That’s flavor you’re losing out of the sparkling wine,” he says. “Unless you just won the Super Bowl, you don’t want that happening.”
But if you’re a millionaire in an NFL locker room and just won the biggest title in sports? Go crazy. Just make sure you’re spraying a less-expensive prosecco. Save the real stuff for drinking.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.